The majority of visitors to New Zealand give the area north of Auckland a pass. After arriving in the country in Auckland they will tend to head south to Rotorua and then on to the South Island. Yet this is a great pity because Northland, the northernmost part of New Zealand, is one of the country's most beautiful and historic regions.
It also has one of the best climates in the country and can be pleasantly warm even in the winter. The best-known destination in Northland is the Bay of Islands. However, on the trip there from Auckland, there are many points of interest along the way, as well as other driving tours.
Auckland and North
As you travel along the northern motorway, the first settlement north of Auckland is the beachside resort town of Orewa. This requires a slight detour off the motorway but it is well worth it. It boasts one of the best beaches in the Auckland region and has some excellent cafes (highly recommended is the Walnut Cottage at the northern end of the beach).
If not stopping at Orewa, be aware that the stretch of motorway from the Orewa exit north is a toll road. The alternative is the coastal route, passing through Waiwera and Wenderholm. Although slightly longer it is a very pretty drive.
Warkworth and Approaches
The motorway ends just to the south of Puhoi. This is a tiny settlement with a fascinating Bohemian history; there are a small church and museum and a number of small cafes.
If you want to try some delicious New Zealand honey, the Honey Center just to the south of Warkworth is well worth a stop. A wide range of honey is available for tasting and purchase, including those made from such native flowers as rata, rimu, manuka, and pohutukawa. There is also a gift shop with honey-related products and a cafe.
Warkworth itself is a small service town with a number of cafes and shops. It is the gateway to the Matakana area, which has become a popular weekend retreat for Aucklanders. In addition to the many beautiful beaches, this has become quite a spot for vineyards. There are a number of excellent award-winning wineries, including such names as Ransom, Heron's Flight, and Providence.
Wellsford, Kaiwaka, and Mangawhai
The main road passes straight through the center of Wellsford, in itself a rather unremarkable little town. Slightly further on is Kaiwaka, which has a little more charm (including a funky cafe called Cafe Utopia and a sign which says "Last cheese for miles"). Just past Kaiwaka is a turnoff to the right to Mangawhai. Although quite a detour, this is a lovely coastal spot, with a magnificent ocean beach.
Waipu, Uretiti Beach, and Ruakaka
The road then climbs along a pass through the Brunderwyn Hills. At the top, there is a stunning view out to the east coast, with the Hen and Chicken Islands and the Whangarei Heads in the distance. Waipu is another small town with a European heritage, this time having been settled by immigrants from Scotland.
If you're wanting to take a break for an ocean swim, one of the best spots (and one of the easiest to get to) is at Uretiti Beach, just 8 kilometers (5 miles) north of Waipu. The beach part of a long sweep of sandy coastline called Bream Bay which stretches from Lang's Beach in the south to the entrance to Whangarei Harbor.
The beach is very close to the main road here and there is a camping ground as well as miles of beach to enjoy (be aware you may encounter nude swimmers as parts of this beach are popular with naturists; however, it is such a long stretch of beach it is never crowded). Another access point to the same stretch of beach is a bit further on at Ruakaka, where there are also shops and facilities. You can also camp.
Whangarei is Northland's largest city and the commercial and business hub for all the Northland region. It has many points of interest to explore if you have time. If you don't, take a break down by the harbor basin. Enjoy a coffee at one of the several cafes or browse through the shops and art galleries, the latter of which feature some excellent examples from regional artists.
Whangarei to Kawakawa
Although with lovely scenery, this stretch of the journey doesn't have much in the way of interesting places to stop at. The only exception is Kawakawa with the most unlikely of tourist attractions - public toilets; these were designed by renowned Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and are an artistic marvel.
Kawakawa to the Bay of Islands
From Kawakawa, the main highway veers inland although the road to the Bay of Islands continues north. The road is winding here in parts but there are some lovely stands of native bush along the way. And when you see the first glimpse of the sea at the top of the hill at Opua, you know you've arrived in the magical Bay of Islands.
Northland roads are not the best in New Zealand. Due to the hilly terrain, even the main highway can be narrow, winding and in a relatively poor condition in places. It's perfectly drivable of course, but another option is to take a coach tour from Auckland to the Bay of Islands. This has the added advantages of being more relaxing and with an informative commentary