I honestly believe Northland has the highest number of hidden gem locations in the whole of NZ. That might sound like a big call, but when you consider that the Northland region covers all the area up to Cape Reinga (a 6 hour drive from Auckland), then it makes sense there's an abundance of amazing and untapped locations to be discovered in the region.
By far the best way to explore such a vast area is by motorhome so we took a road trip over 9 days in the Wilderness NZ Alpine 4 motorhome which gave us the freedom to stay in some of the most beautiful and remote parts of Northland (you can watch my video reviewing all the great features of the motorhome here).
Our journey took us from Auckland up the east coast stopping in at incredible pristine beaches all the way to the very northern tip of NZ and back down the West Coast with its rugged windswept appeal. Here's a map of our adventure:
Even with 9 days on the road, we still feel like we barely scratched the surface of all there is to see, and it was hard deciding where to stay each night as one beautiful bay rolled right into the next. But to help make your life easier deciding where to go, here are our Top Ten Must-Visit Locations:
1. Sunrise in Matapouri Bay
Waking up in Matapouri Bay on Easter Sunday morning was the stuff dreams are made of. The golden light that filled the bay after sunrise was just so magical and as we sat there sipping our daily coffee and indulging the kids in a traditional Easter Egg hunt we weren't sure we would ever want to leave.
My youngest boy was a little worried the Easter bunny wouldn't be able to find him while on the road but surprise surprise when Sunday morning dawned there were Easter eggs to found in virtually all the nooks and crannies of the motorhome.
It's not just Matapouri Bay that's worth the visit along the Tutukaka coastline there's so many amazing bays - Whale Bay which looked amazing from above with the drone, and Sandy Bay where the boys got a swim in amongst all the surfers catching their Sunday morning waves.
2. Whangarei Falls
I'd seen so many photos with awesome compositions from Whangarei Falls so it was high on our list of spots to visit, and it didn't disappoint. There's so many vantage points to take photos from here that I was spoilt for choice and the hour I spent here went by in the blink of an eye. The setting of the waterfall has to be one of the loveliest I've seen in NZ (and I've seen a few!), and the fact it's set right in the middle of the city and is so accessible is quite extraordinary.
No road trip would be complete without me seeking out as many waterfalls as I can along the way, so during the holiday we also visited Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri (another lovely setting), Piroa Falls (on a back country road near Waipu), and Charlie's Rock Waterfall in Kerikeri (known as a great waterhole for swimming with the locals). I was a little worried the lack of rainfall would mean the waterfalls were a bit piddly, but they each had just enough water to look good on camera.
3. The view from St Paul's Rock
This was one of the most fun hikes we did on our trip as it's only a short, sharp 30 minute climb up from the carpark. You start walking through bush which quickly turns to farmland and before you know it, you're at the base of the Rock.
I must admit I was unsure how we would get up looking at the sheer face of the rock, but you actually walk around the back and the access is much easier. It can be a little slippery and muddy so would be best not to attempt it after heavy rain, and the very last push to the top includes pulling yourself up with chains which was a bit of a novelty - coming down again was a bit harder though!
The views from the top were sensational - 360 degree views of the Whangaroa Harbour - and with a few thundershowers passing through, we spotted a rainbow and some amazing cloud formations from the top as well.
4. Camping at Matauri Bay
The campsite at Matauri Bay is nestled right under a headland which provides incredible views over the bay if you're prepared to hike the 10 steep minutes to the top. At the top is where the Rainbow Warrior memorial is - the ship itself has been sunk offshore and provides great diving opportunities I'm told.
While I enjoyed the clouds lighting up at sunset and rushing overhead, my boys loved jumping in the lush grass that was like a soft pillow - we got some great slow-mo videos of them flinging themselves into the grass as if it were a giant trampoline.
The next morning I dragged myself back up the steep hill for sunrise, enjoying the composition a lone pohutukawa tree made hanging on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea.
5. The water at Matai Bay
When I'd been doing research on the 'best beaches to visit in Northland', Matai Bay was a name that kept coming up. It's a little out of the way on the tip of the Karikari Penninsula, but it really was worth the detour.
It's probably one of the nicest settings I've seen for a DOC campsite as it is so close to the beach, and the boys declared this their favourite swimming spot of the whole trip, so much so that they were swimming after sunset and not long after sunrise. The clarity of the water here has to be seen to be believed and the curve of the bay is just perfect. I enjoyed getting the drone up to get a better perspective over the whole area to really show off its talents.
On our way to Matai Bay, we also stopped in at the famous Mangonui Fish n Chip shop - it's touted as being the best fish n chippy in the country so we figured we would have to try it out and see if all the hype was true. After eating two pieces of different fish and tasting the perfect chips with just the right amount of crunch we can definitely confirm that its reputation is well earned.
6. Boarding the Te Paki sand dunes
Visiting the giant sand dunes at Te Paki has to have been our favourite activity of the trip - we didn't really undertake any other paid activities, preferring to hike and explore the great outdoors, but this is definitely one spot worth paying the $15 per person fee to hire sand boards to zoom down the dunes.
We arrived mid afternoon on a fairly windy day and battled our way up the steep sand hills to find a good spot to ride. We only had an hour or so here in the end as we wanted to be at Cape Reinga for sunset so it was all about maximising the most rides in the time we had.
The boys became more and more fearless with each ride and by the last turn of the day were hooning along at breakneck speed - so fun to watch! It was also a fascinating landscape to admire - it's so like a desert and like nothing else I have experienced in New Zealand, I would love to go exploring here further into the dunes at different times of the day and in different lights.
7. The light at Cape Reinga
We were fortunate enough to be able to spend both sunset and sunrise here and in very different conditions which made for some epic mood and light. I was surprised just how barren the whole area was, and very different to all the other locations we visited on the trip. We arrived late afternoon just as the entire place was bathed in golden light and it made for lovely shots.
The sunset itself petered away to nothing so I was glad we'd made it in time for golden hour. We spent the night at the Tapututonga campsite just down the road and it was wild and windy and wet all night long so I didn't have high hopes for sunrise.
Nevertheless we made the trek up to the carpark in the near dark and sat and waited for the skies to lighten. As if on cue, the rain stopped just as a bit of colour appeared on the horizon, so we hightailed it down the hill to the lighthouse. There were showers all around us out to sea, but miraculously none fell on us for the whole hour we spent here capturing the incredible mood of the place.
This place has huge significance in Maori heritage and is also the place where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet - it feels very otherworldly and spiritual to stand at the very top of our great country watching the waves crashing together as if in an epic battle.
8. Giant kauri trees in Waipoua Forest
Driving back down the West Coast of Northland, you encounter a large stretch of ancient kauri forest known as Waipoua Forest. We took the scenic route there, crossing over the Hokianga Harbour via the Rawene car ferry which in itself was an experience as they really manage to cram a lot of cars and campervans in a small space - eek!
After a quick icecream stop in Opononi (the spot where the famous dolphin lived in the 1950's), we headed up into the forest. We'd visited NZ's largest tree Tane Mahuta (the God of the forest) before, but it's no less impressive second time round. This time we also did a second walk just down the road to the impressive Four Sisters - a grove of kauri trees all growing close together. The forest is so impressive, seeing the huge kauri rising far above the canopy is so awe inspiring, even driving through the forest there is incredible and I wish I could have pulled over round almost every corner.
One thing I must mention is the impressive job that DOC have been doing to prevent the spread of the disease killing our kauri trees. We visited the forest about five years ago, and now there are multiple shoe washing stations as you walk in and out - in fact we encountered these at least three or four times on our journey around Northland and it's great to see how seriously they're taking the risk to these amazing treasures of our country.
9. Climbing up Mt Manaia
This walk looks pretty steep from down below and I won't lie there are a fair few steps on the way up but the track is wide and well formed and pretty easy to navigate and our kids managed just fine, taking about an hour to get to the top.
The view up top is pretty outstanding looking all the way across the Whangarei Harbour and we could even spy our motorhome way down below in the carpark. If you're going to make the trip up, I highly recommend being there for sunset, you won't regret it!
10: The rugged beauty of West Auckland Beaches
OK so technically our last location falls under Auckland rather than Northland but who's quibbling? We made a quick trip to Muriwai to see the gannets but unfortunately they'd mostly flown the coop - but we did enjoy watching the wild waves crashing over the rocks down below.
I'd also wanted to visit Piha for a long time and we chose to park up here for our last night. The view over Piha Beach from the lookout is well worth the short hike, and to see the sun disappearing on the distant horizon as surfers still clung to their boards in the huge surf was exhilarating.
The next day we took a wee side trip to Karekare Beach. No one warned us that the drive to Karekare would be quite so hairy in a motorhome - as soon as you turn onto the road there's a sign warning you of only 3.0 metres clearance (we were 2.8m) so our hearts were in our mouths for the entire windy 6km down to the beach. Thankfully we cleared the large overhanging tree on the road (while holding our breaths!) but the narrow road in itself was fairly scary - not much room to pass if you meet anything coming the other way. Nevertheless it's a beautiful and rugged spot with a huge expanse of beach and a great spot to get the drone up for some aerial shots to show off the rugged beauty of the area.
If you're considering making the trip north of Auckland, you'll need plenty of time on your hands because a week up north really only scratched the surface of the possibilities Northland has to offer. It's a region of innumerable beauty with its endless beaches and warm climate. Travelling in a Wilderness NZ motorhome in autumn was the perfect time to go on a road trip as the water was still warm enough to swim, yet not too hot to go hiking and we had many of the best views all to ourselves.
The motorhome was an absolute dream - it was so spacious with its incredible storage facilities throughout that everything had its place and there was still room for more if we'd needed it.
Having the single beds at the back gave us a space to chill out when we weren't driving as well as a proper bedroom to close ourselves away in at night. The onboard Wifi kept us connected on the road even when our own cellphone reception was patchy, and the inverter charger kept all our important bits and pieces charged even when we went for days without being plugged into power.
It's safe to say none of us were ready to return the motorhome as it really did feel like it had become a home after nine days on the road - I guess we'll just have to plan another road trip real soon!