What springs to mind when you think of Northland? A long drive along miles of sandy beach? Did you know there just as many kilometres to drive between Auckland and Cape Reinga as there is to get to Wellington, so you can be sure that Northland holds far more possibilities than you can imagine. There are undoubtedly endless sweeping bays lapping with azure water, but there are also amazing waterfalls, ancient forests, glow-worm caves and a desert to explore too. And if you travel outside of summer, you’ll definitely get to enjoy the best of both worlds - quieter roads and the endless warm weather the Far North is famous for.
Located at the very tip of the remote Karikari Penninsula, Matai Bay is a place that those in the know seem very reluctant to share, though a quick Google search of ‘best beaches in New Zealand’ finds Matai Bay regularly in the Top Ten, that's how I found it in the first place when researching where to go in Northland. Never before had we seen such a perfectly shaped bay and water so brilliantly blue and clear, and even in late April, the water was so deliciously inviting, that taking a dip at both sunset and sunrise was just too hard to resist.
It seems hardly possible that a place this peaceful could be found right in the heart of Northland’s biggest city. The short 20 minute loop track takes you down into a giant amphitheatre with the Falls taking centre stage from various vantage points. With a little more time on your hands you can also explore further into AH Reed Memorial park, taking the canopy walkway amongst 500 year old giant kauri trees.
This little rocky outcrop is only a short sharp 30 minute hike up through farmland from sea level with a fun scramble at the top climbing a steep section of rocks with chains to hold onto, but the 360 degree views over the Whangaroa Harbour are nothing short of breathtaking. Watching thunder clouds and rainbows closing in from all directions made for a quick turn around to get back to sea level before the heavens opened.
Most of us are blissfully unaware that New Zealand has its own desert, sure it’s not quite the Sahara but the sand dunes at Te Paki do stretch as far as the eye can see. This is quite possibly the most exhilarating and exhausting entertainment you’ll find in an afternoon, a combination of the adrenaline rush of zooming at breakneck speed down the dunes with a wearying calf-cramping climb back up the steep sand just to experience the thrill all over again.
Swimming in the warm sea up north is one thing, but jumping off a rock at Charlie's Rock waterfall will definitely make you feel like one of the locals. It's just a short hop up the road from the popular Rainbow Falls at Kerikeri, but further off the beaten track, which of course means less people around! It's a tranquil setting, and reminded me of an Australian landscape scene.
You've all heard of Waitomo Caves I'm sure - it is after all one of NZ's most popular tourist attractions with its amazing cave formations and incredible glow worms. But you may not have heard of the free glow-worm caves that you can visit in Waipu, just half an hour south of Whangarei. It's definitely worth taking a torch and waterproof shoes to explore to the end of the first cavern before the water starts getting deeper and the caving gets a bit more challenging. Stop and stand awhile and let your eyes adjust and gaze up into another world.
With an abundance of fresh fish to be found in many coastal NZ locations, it’s hard to make a name as one of NZ’s best fish-n-chip shops, but Mangonui has done just that and with good reason, their battered fish is just divine, crispy and not too oily and the chips the perfect mix of fluffy on the inside, crunchy on the outside. Eating fish n chips by the sea always adds to the flavour too!
With travel outside our local regions becoming a possibility again hopefully very soon after NZ's lockdown restrictions are lifted, make sure you add these hidden gems to your next road trip for some less touristy, off-the-beaten-track and hugely enjoyable Northland experiences.
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