Cape Reinga: The Complete Guide

Cape Reinga Lighthouse. Photo: Juergen Wallstabe/Getty Images

Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand’s North Island, and a spiritually important place to local Maori people, who call it Te Rerenga Wairua. They believe that spirits from recently deceased people depart the land of New Zealand through an 800-year-old pohutukawa tree at the cape, and on to their spiritual homeland, Hawaiki. Visitors come to see the lighthouse and dramatic views over two oceans, both the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. There are also great hiking trails around the cape, to hidden coves of white sand. Here are some important things to know about visiting Cape Reinga.

Getting There and Where to Stay

Cape Reinga is located right at the top of Northland, the peninsula that extends north of Auckland. In fact, it's a peninsula off a peninsula, as the Aupori Peninsula is a skinny tombola that juts out of the main Northland peninsula.

The nearest sizable town to Cape Reinga is Kaitaia, about 1.5 hours' drive away. There are small settlements along State Highway 1 between Kaitaia and Cape Reinga (Pukenui, Houhora, and Te Kao) and some low-key places to stay there, such as campsites.

Kaitaia isn't much of a destination in its own right so many travelers bypass it and visit Cape Reinga on a day trip from the Bay of Islands, about three hours' drive away. But, doing that means you'll spend a lot of the day sitting in a bus. Staying overnight in Kaitaia and then driving up to the cape (or getting a tour) early the next day is a better way of maximizing your time in this area. There are a handful of decent motels and eateries in Kaitaia, are it's rarely busy, even during peak season. If you're camping, there's also a basic Department of Conservation-run campsite at Spirits Bay, just east of the cape. There are 40 places, and it's first-come, first-served.

Taking a guided tour to Cape Reinga that travels up Ninety Mile Beach is a great experience, but if you're self driving (which many travelers to New Zealand like to do because of the flexibility), you'll probably prefer to drive along State Highway 1. Most rental car companies won't let you take your car on Ninety Mile Beach anyway, even though it (and many other beaches in New Zealand) are classified as highways, with the same rules as roads. The drive along the highway is spectacular as well, especially the last 12 or so miles, as the coastline and enormous sand dunes come into view, the vegetation becomes increasingly windswept, and there are some wetland areas.

What to See and Do

The simplest thing to do at Cape Reinga is to park at the parking lot and take the easy 10-minute walk downhill to the 70-year-old lighthouse at the end of the cape. There are signs noting the distance to other places in New Zealand and the world, as well as information plaques along the way telling you about the local flora and fauna. The path is well paved and fenced, but there are steep cliffs, so keep an eye on kids. The views from outside the lighthouse are spectacular, with the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. The colors of the two oceans are slightly different, and you can actually see the point where they meet. On a clear, sunny day the weather should pose no problems, but if it's at all windy, do bring a jacket as it can get very blustery here.

If you're feeling more energetic and are prepared with good shoes and plenty of drinking water, you can hike along the trails of the Te Paki Coastal Track. Some tracks may be blocked during high tide. The shortest and easiest trail is to Te Werahi Beach, about a 45-minute walk. For more of a challenge, the Twilight Camp is a 4.5-hour walk, and Te Paki Stream is a nine-hour walk. Ninety Mile Beach is also the starting point for the Te Araroa thru-hike, which spans the length of both islands.

Many travelers take a guided tour up to Cape Reinga from the Bay of Islands or Kaitaia. These tend to drive along Ninety Mile Beach, the huge sweep of sand and dunes on the west coast that leads up to Cape Reinga, and spend some time at the sand dunes for sand boarding. They also often stop at ancient kauri forests, for which Northland is famous.

It's not a great idea to swim at the beaches around Cape Reinga, as the currents here can be very strong. If you want to enjoy some beach time, there are many beaches and bays in the far north that you can stop at en route to or from Cape Reinga with safer conditions. On the Aupori Peninsula itself, the area around Pukenui and Houhora has good beaches. Otherwise, the Karikari Peninsula and area around Cable Bay and Doubtless Bay have many great spots.

When to Visit

The Far North is a subtropical region of New Zealand, so the temperature is never especially cold. But, winters here tend to be cool and wet, so not ideal conditions for visiting a windswept coastal area at the tip of a peninsula! However, visiting Cape Reinga during a clear sunny day in winter will be great. Summer (December-February) is peak tourism season in New Zealand, especially late December and January, when New Zealand schools are out. You're unlikely to encounter any problems by visiting at a busy time, but parking at the parking lot gets tight throughout the day in peak season. Arrive early to get a spot, and to walk to the lighthouse before it gets too hot.

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