In the past year, we have literally travelled the full length of New Zealand; From Cape Reinga right up north, to the Catlins Coast way down south. There are countless beautiful places in New Zealand and while it’s difficult to pick our favourite, Northland definitely ranks up there as a must visit destination!
Not only does it have a sunny, temperate climate all year round, it has some of the most gorgeous coastlines, fantastic wildlife and breathtaking scenery in all of New Zealand. We were honestly blown away by the beauty of Northland.
Covering the large area that stretches upwards from Auckland, it’s probably not that surprising that there is an abundance of incredible destinations to visit in Northland.
To help inspire your own Northland itinerary, here are my favourite must visit Northland destinations!
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Whangarei Heads – Mount Manaia
While the city of Whangarei itself might not exactly be the best of what Northland has to offer, the area around Whangarei is without a doubt well worth spending some time in!
Whangarei Heads wasn’t even on our radar at all until a chance encounter with some fellow travellers, who had just come from there and couldn’t stop raving about how beautiful it was.
Well, they weren’t wrong!
Whangarei Heads offers some of the best of Northland’s natural attractions.
This stunning peninsula completely blew us away with its beautiful beaches, jagged volcanic peaks and lush native bush.
Insider Tip: Whangarei Heads is one of five official kiwi sanctuaries in New Zealand and as a result, dogs are not allowed on any of the walking tracks.
Our top recommendation for a must-visit destination in this part of Northland is a climb up Mount Manaia. It’s a fairly steep hike to the summit, but the view at the top is incredible! At 420m above sea level, you’ll be able to see all the way across Whangarei Harbour.
The walk only takes about an hour each way (4km return), so it’s quite manageable despite the incline.
There are countless other walks to do in the area, though unfortunately we didn’t stay long enough to do them all! Bream Head is definitely on the list for next time though.
Bonus Tip: If you travel around New Zealand in a self-contained campervan, there is a fantastic freedom camping not far from Mount Manaia called Reotahi that, to this day, is my favourite *free* overnight spot in New Zealand!
Just south of Whangarei, Waipu Caves is still a bit of a hidden gem in Northland but definitely a must visit destination!
This spot will take a bit of adventuring on your part. The caves are dark and quite low and narrow in places. If you have any concerns about feeling claustrophobic, you might want to sit this one out. But, if you’re up for it, a galaxy-like display of sparkling glow-worms and impressive limestone stalactites and stalagmites await!
You will need a good torch and appropriate footwear. We wore our water shoes which were perfect because you’ll be at least knee-deep in water at times, to get to the best glowworm caverns.
The total cave complex is about four square kilometres in size, and is home to millions of glow-worms. In order to see them at their best, make sure you stay absolutely quiet and turn off your torches!
There are quite a few places in New Zealand where you can see glow-worms. None are perhaps better known than the famous Waitomo Caves in the Waikato region. But, Waipu Caves are a great alternative! And, because they’re non-commercial and absolutely free, they’re arguably even better.
Important: Waipu Caves are unregulated and unguided, so you enter at your own risk. Stay safe, and always go with someone else.
Most people visiting Northland tend to drive straight up State Highway 1 to the Bay Of Islands. But a detour east towards the Tutukaka Coast will take you to one of the best places in Northland.
We only “discovered” Tutukaka a few years ago when one of my best friends got married here. At the time, we only spent a couple days in the area. So, this time around, we wanted to make sure we added Tutukaka to our Northland itinerary again, and explore it in more detail.
With its relaxed vibe and some truly stunning beaches, in my opinion Tutukaka embodies the very best of Northland.
Tutukaka has a world renowned diving site at Poor Knights Islands, or, if relaxing on the beach is more your vibe, Whale Bay is an idyllic white, sandy, bush fringed beach. Sandy Bay, on the other hand, is a popular spot for surfing.
Our personal preference of late has been towards walks and hiking, and there are a few good options for this in Tutukaka as well, although they are generally on the shorter side.
The short walk up to the William Parata Lookout Point gives a fantastic view of the Tutukaka Coast. For a slightly longer trek, the Tutuakaka Head walk to the lighthouse is great, but make sure you check the tides. The island that houses the lighthouse is cut off at high tide, so choose an hour either side of low tide for this walk.
The Bay Of Islands
The Bay of Islands is possibly the most famous Northland destination, and as such it is a bit more touristy. With calm, warm water year-round, the Bay of Islands is renowned for its marine wildlife, and offers fantastic snorkelling, kayaking and swimming.
Many visitors will nip up here from Auckland and never make it any further north. But, while The Bay of Islands is undoubtedly a stunning spot, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it isn’t the best of what Northland has to offer.
Still, if you love beaches and water-sports, you’ll definitely want to make some time for the Bay of Islands in your Northland itinerary.
The pretty seaside town of Paihia is an excellent base for your Bay of Islands adventures, but do make sure you venture further afield.
A ferry ride across to the historic Russell is a perfect day trip. This was actually the first capital of New Zealand, and still features some of New Zealand’s oldest buildings, including the Duke of Marlborough – New Zealand’s first licensed hotel! Stroll through the shops and art galleries, or (if you’re feeling energetic) walk up to Flagstaff Hill, an important historic site. From there, you’ll get spectacular 360 degree views of the Bay of Islands.
To truly experience the Bay of Islands though, you’ll need to get out on a boat. With 144 islands in the area, it’s not called the Bay of Islands for nothing!
Also, the Bay of Islands is arguably one of the best places in New Zealand to get up close and personal with dolphins, which I personally think is another great reason to get out on the water!
Whangaroa Harbour – St. Paul’s Rock
About 50km north of Paihia in the Bay of Islands is one of Northland’s true hidden gems. Not many people seem to make it up here, but it’s one of the best spots in Northland.
Whangaroa Harbour is surrounded by jagged rock formations; Remnants of volcanic eruptions some 20 million years ago.
The short but steep climb up St Paul’s rock provides sensational views of the Whangaroa Harbour with its many small inlets and islands. It’s only about 20 or so minutes to the top, but the last part involves pulling yourself up the rock face using the chains provided!
Bonus Tip: Not far from Whangaroa Harbour (30km further along the coast) is the sleepy little fishing village of Mangonui. This is where you’ll allegedly find New Zealand’s best fish and chips! And, you really can’t come to New Zealand and not have fish and chips. But! While I can’t draw a direct comparison, we were told by our wonderful hosts in Whangarei that the true best fish and chips (where the locals go!) is not the Mangonui Fish Shop at all! Instead, we went to Fresh and Tasty Mangonui and were very impressed!
We stayed two nights at the Tapotupotu Bay DOC campground ($15 per person/night), and I have to say, it was my absolute favourite camping spot in the whole of New Zealand! This little slice of paradise is simply spectacular!! My only regret is that we only stayed two nights.
Kiwis love camping and even if camping isn’t normally your thing, this is the place to do it! There are literally no other accommodation options this far north.
Insider Tip: As with some other remote parts of New Zealand, there are limited facilities and services this far north. Make sure you fill up on petrol and stock up on groceries in Kaitaia as that is the last big town on your way up.
From Tapotupotu Bay, we did an incredible day hike to Cape Reinga along the coast. The dramatic coastline with its turquoise blue waters on what was a spectacularly sunny day made this an absolutely unforgettable hike for us!
It’s a 5 km hike one way with breathtaking coastal views. We allowed ourselves all day for this hike, stopping off at Sandy Bay on the way back for a refreshing dip!
But, Tapotupotu Bay itself is just gorgeous, with its white sandy beach and peaceful lagoon perfect for swimming, kayaking or paddleboarding. It’s a wonderful place to relax for a few days, truly away from it all.
Tapotupotu Bay is definitely a strong contender for the top spot of The Best of Northland award!
Do you like hiking as much as we do? Check out my post on The Best Day Hikes In The South Island!
While it’s not *quite* the northern-most point of New Zealand, Cape Reinga is definitely the end of the road. State Highway 1 ends at the Cape Reinga car park. From here it’s a short walk down to the iconic Cape Reinga lighthouse, and the signpost showing the distance from the Cape to locations all over the world.
From the lighthouse, you can actually see the point where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea meet. This spectacular swirl of currents is an incredibly unique sight!
The Māori name for Cape Reinga is Te Rerenga Wairua, literally meaning “Leaping Off Place of Spirits.” They believe that the spirits of the dead leap from an 800-year-old Pohutukawa tree here, on to their spiritual homeland, Hawaiki.
Along the short walk to the Cape Reinga lighthouse, there is a turn-off to a 2km track down to the sweeping Te Werahi beach. Even if you don’t go all the way down to the beach, it’s well worth a look for the spectacular panoramic views.
We added this 2km track on to our hike from Tapotupotu Bay to Cape Reinga and had an incredible day!
If you do venture down to Te Werahi beach, please be aware of the tides. It’ll come in a lot faster than you’ll anticipate.! I also don’t recommend swimming here as the waves are massive and the current strong. Save your swim for Tapotupotu Bay!
Northland is full of hidden treasures just waiting to be explored.
It is certainly home to some of my all-time favourite places in the whole of New Zealand. While it’s hard to pick, these 7 spots are some of the best Northland destinations to add to your road trip itinerary.
So, what are you waiting for?
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