Northland is perfect road trip territory and can be explored in anything from a weekend trip to a few weeks of beach hopping. With its perfect combination of coastal scenery, historic significance and pleasant weather this area of New Zealand is well worth a visit!
Beach lovers can find a campground and hit the sand, history buffs can visit everything from NZ’s first building to ancient pa sites and the Waitangi treaty grounds and nature lovers will be more than satisfied with the bush walking and camping options available. The hardest part is choosing your Northland itinerary and trying to fit it all in!
More time is always better but you can do a condensed 2-3 day version for weekend holiday makers and add in some stops and relaxation days for those with more time. Regardless of your time frame, read on for all our top tips on visiting Northland.
How to get around Northland
To really get the most of your Northland trip you’re going to need a car. Buses are infrequent and only stop in the major towns. During the high season you could try hitchhiking which is generally safe and accepted in NZ.
If you are coming from overseas or other parts of NZ, Auckland is an easy start and end point. There are plenty of activities in Auckland to keep you busy for a few days on either end of your Northland itinerary. Also, there are airports in Whangarei, Kaitaia and Kerikeri if you are short on time.
Accommodation in Northland
There are BnBs and small hotels in most of the major centres. You’ll also find a range of both Department of Conservation and privately owned campgrounds. During peak season you’ll need to book in advance for some places such as the Bay of Islands as they book out in advance.
There are a few backpacker hostels which can be a good budget option in the main centres such as:
Whangarei -The Cell Block
Kerikeri - KeriCentral Backpackers
Kaitaia - Beachcomber Lodge and Backpacker
Best Time to Visit Northland
Northland is known for having some of the best weather in New Zealand with long hot summers and mild winters. Summers are perfect for enjoying the beaches and camping at night with typical highs of between 25-35°C. Spring and Autumn are also pleasant with the winter months (June-Aug) only hitting lows of around 10°C.
Northland can get very wet so make sure you pack a rain jacket even if temperatures are warm! Outside of the peak summer season tourist numbers are fairly low so it easy to get around, find accommodation and find secluded spots all to yourself.
Roads in Northland
State Highway 1 runs through Northland but don’t let the name fool you into thinking it’s a major motorway. The multi-lane, toll expressway which brings you out of Auckland quickly turns into a one-lane sealed road with all the twists and turns and 50km/h zones of any New Zealand road.
There’s not usually much traffic but prepare to take things slowly and if you’re feeling like an adventure there are scenic routes along some of the coastlines which will take you past some of the most beautiful scenery.
The Best Places to Visit in Northland
Waipu Cove is a popular destination for Aucklanders on weekends and holidays so visit mid week to avoid the crowds. Like much of Northland this area could be anything from a half an hour stop off to a week of rest and relaxation. The small town of Waipu has some nice cafes and some small shops. Further along the road Waipu Cove is a gorgeous beach perfect for swimming surrounded by options for walks with spectacular views.
Whangarei is the capital of Northland and is where the major airport is for this area. If you want to save some time you can fly into here from Auckland. There’s not a huge amount to see or do in the city itself but the Whangarei falls are worth visiting. You can take a short walk around several view points, down to the foot of the falls and further along the river through native bush. Whangarei is also a good place to stop for any shopping supplies before heading to more remote areas of Northland.
The Bay of Islands - Paihia and Russell
This has got to be one of the most stunning parts of the country. The name says it all really, it’s a large bay area dotted with islands and bays. This is what holidays are made of and we really recommend spending a night or two in this area on your Northland road trip. Paihia is the main base for this region and the town is nice for a wander, there’s a cute library and a few cafes but this area can become very busy during tourist season and there are lots of overpriced shops and eateries. Try heading along the coast a little for somewhere a bit quieter.
From Paihia you can also take a short ferry trip over to New Zealand’s first capital – Russell. This gorgeous little town can be wandered in half an hour if you're time conscious. Or why not check out some accommodation options and settle in for a few days of relaxing by the beach and frequenting the local cafes. Make sure to stop for croissants at Pompellier House and take the walk up to Flagstaff Hill to enjoy the spectacular views over the Bay of Islands.
This is an area of particular significance if you are a New Zealander but even as a visitor to the country a trip to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds will give you a deeper understanding of the history of New Zealand and the relationship between Maori and Pakeha (European NZers).
The grounds are set in the most stunning location and it’s worth the entrance fee just to pop in for a picnic on the lawn. But make sure you dedicate a couple of hours to see the informative museum, the historic Treaty House, the waka (Maori canoe) and the traditional marae (Maori meeting house) which may have a cultural show on during your visit. There is also a gift shop, carving studio and a café.
For some quick info about the Treaty of Waitangi and why it is so significant have a look at this website.
Kerikeri is another good base and this is where we stayed for a few days while we explored the surrounding area by car. From here it is just a 30 minute drive to Waitangi and the Bay of Islands and also an easy drive to some of the sights in the North and West.
Kerikeri itself offers some interesting attractions such as New Zealand’s oldest European building (Kemp House) and beside it the Stone Store which houses an interesting historic museum and an amazing shop with all kinds of colonial gifts and knick knacks. There is an ancient pa (Maori village) site and several waterfalls within walking distance of the town the most well-known being Rainbow Falls.
Ahipara and Ninety Mile Beach
Ahipara is a tiny town located on the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach. It’s a popular surf spot and you can also visit Shipwreck Bay to see the…you guessed it, shipwrecks at low tide. If you’re looking for a place to camp or stay overnight, Ahipara is a mor scenic option than its larger neighbour - Kaitaia.
From Ahipara you can head north to experience the beautiful Ninety Mile Beach, which is in fact only 55 miles long. It’s officially a highway and if you’re in a suitable vehicle (read: 4WD) you can drive all the way along it at low tide. The sand dunes at Te Paki are also a popular dune boarding spot.
This is the Northern most point of New Zealand and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never made it that far! (Although I recently got the Southern-most point - Stewart Island) Every time I get up this way I get distracted by all the other cool things to do in Northland and never quite find the time for the drive. It is an epic drive up and back so make sure you have some time or find a place to stay at the top for the night before heading back down. The views on a clear day are meant to be spectacular and the general ambience of the place is said to be very special, truly a New Zealand bucket list location.
If you’re looking for a place to stay at the top try the DoC Campsite Tapotupotu, that will be your furthest north option reachable with a car. There is a guest house at Waitiki Landing with limited cabin capacity and Tekao Lodge a little bit further south near the Te Kao township.
The Hokianga Harbour is a picturesque area of Northland with rolling sand dunes and fishing boats bobbing on the water. It’s a great place for swimming and relaxing and is a good stop before the great kauri forests. In the Waipoua forest you’ll find New Zealand’s oldest and largest trees including the famous Tane Mahuta. These immense trees are incredible to see up close and the whole forest is a great place for walks.
Top Hidden Gems of Northland
This is an adorable little town just north of Auckland is a great stop off on your Northland itinerary. The historic town has a local store, pub, church and one of the world’s cutest libraries. If the library is open the staff are only to willing to share information about the history of the town and library including printed timelines of major events.
A little further down the main road you’ll find the Puhoi Cheese Factory which is worth factoring in as a lunch time or snack break. With a great selection of cheese platters and cheese related items the menu is sure to satisfy any cheese lover. They also do really good ice cream and you can watch the cheese making process happening through the windows of the café.
Manihepua Peninsula Walk
One of Northland’s best kept secrets, this secluded little bay is home to a freedom camping site and a couple of holiday homes. From the beachfront you can follow the walking trail out along the peninsula for some amazing views of the surrounding bays and islands. The walk takes around 1.5 hours return.
Further along the east coast of Northland is the bustling little town of Mangonui. Famed for its fish and chips there are rumours they’re the best in the country! We made the fatal mistake of going to the wrong place (don’t go to the one next to the pub) and had some decidedly average fish and chips with a view of the road. But if you go a little further you’ll find the real deal with seating out over the water and fresh fish off the fishing boats. Even further along you can visit an ancient pa site with amazing views out over the bay.
Ruapekapeka Pa Site
If you’re interested in NZ history this is an interesting stop off. The ancient site was home to a pa where the Maori built a tunnel system to escape British invasion. The deep holes are still visible and there are detailed explanations of the battle that took place as you walk through the site.