Whangarei is the largest city in Northland, but with a population of around 60,000, it's a relaxed place. The subtropical climate means there's a wealth of beautiful outdoor attractions both within the city and just outside: think white-sand beaches, lush forests, mountains, water sports... Whangarei also has a large Maori population, around 25 percent (in contrast to the national average of approximately 15 percent), so there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about New Zealand's indigenous people.
Located about 2.5 hours' drive north of Auckland, and about an hour's drive south of the famous Bay of Islands, Whangarei is often overlooked by travelers. But, with so many of its own attractions, it's worth spending at least a day or two here. Here are some of the best things to do in Whangarei.
Tip: The 'wh' in Whangarei is pronounced like an 'f' in English, following the local Maori pronunciation.
Admire the Views From Mt. Parihaka
Mt. Parihaka is a 790-foot high volcanic mountain that rises north-east of the central city. It's a great place to walk up to for views of Whangarei and the harbor, and to get your bearings after you arrive. It's also an old Maori pa (fortified village) site and was home to around 2,000 people in pre-colonial and early colonial times, so it is an important place to Northland Maori.
There are many walking trails on Parihaka and through the Parihaka Scenic Reserve. You can walk to the summit and elsewhere, as some trails link up to other parks and reserves in Whangarei.
Shop and Dine at the Town Basin
The Town Basin is Whangarei's international marina. A stroll along the waterfront, looking at the flags on the yachts that gather here, shows you just how far some visitors have come. As well as the marina, though, the Town Basin has an excellent collection of boutiques and art galleries selling locally produced arts and crafts, and some of Whangarei's finest restaurants. For quick ice cream or another sweet treat, you can't beat the New Zealand Fudge Farm Cafe. For a full meal, find an outdoor spot at The Quay and watch the yachts come in. (If you happen to make it to Waipu Cove, a popular beach 45 minutes' drive south of Whangarei, check out The Cove cafe, run by the same owners).
Check Out the Whangarei Falls
Located in the Whangarei Scenic Reserve on the Hatea River, north of the central city, the Whangarei Falls are an impressive 85-foot curtain falls. Park at the top and take a short walk to the lookout point over the falls, but for the best views, you'll need to walk down through the bush to the bottom. In the warmer weather, you may be able to swim in the large pool at the bottom, but heed warning signs about water quality, as it's not always advisable to swim here.
See Kiwis at the Kiwi House
New Zealand's iconic kiwi bird is tough to see in the wild, as they're not only endangered but nocturnal. Luckily, there are many wildlife centers around New Zealand where you can get a glimpse of the odd-but-cute-looking flightless birds. In Whangarei, head to Kiwi North: Whangarei Museum, Kiwi House and Heritage Park (locally known as the Kiwi House). The purpose-built nocturnal enclosure replicates the kiwi's natural environment, so visitors can see them foraging for food. Keeper talks and feedings are held a few times a day.
Note: 'Kiwi' in New Zealand always refers to the bird, or is used as a nickname for New Zealanders. The small green fruit is always called kiwifruit. If you say you're eating a kiwi, you'll get some funny looks.
Stroll Along the Hatea River Walk
Whangarei's Hatea River starts in the northern parts of the city and flows into the Whangarei Harbour. Visitors can walk from the Town Basin to the Whangarei Falls (or vice versa) via the beautiful native forest in the AH Reed Memorial Park. This walk takes about 2.5 hours one way, or you can do shorter sections.
Climb Mt. Manaia
Whether you've driven or flown into Whangarei from the south, you're likely to have noticed Mt. Manaia at the entrance to Whangarei Harbour. Its jagged pinnacles are characteristic of volcanic outcrops throughout Northland, and it's believed to be part of what's left of a massive volcano that erupted about 20 million years ago. At 1,377 feet high, the views from the summit are impressive. The trail leads through a forest of native New Zealand trees and is steep in parts. This is a more challenging hike than that to the top of Mt. Parihaka but is worthwhile for more active travelers.
Cruise on Whangarei Harbour
If you're not satisfied just sitting at the Town Basin looking at the boats coming in, you can enjoy your own Whangarei Harbour cruise on the M. V. Waipapa. Sit back and relax as you watch the sights and sounds of different parts of the harbor go past, including the Town Basin, Bascule Bridge, the Kissing Point boat sheds, and the seaside suburb of Onerahi. Cruises last about 90 minutes, and operate on weekends in the summer season.
Meet Local Artists at the Quarry Arts Centre
The Quarry Arts Centre is a community arts space that nurtures local artists, especially those working in ceramics. Visitors can meet the artists, browse exhibitions, and walk around the grounds, where there are lots of outdoor artworks. There's also an on-site cafe and shop. As the name suggests, it's located on the site of an abandoned quarry in the hills of Whangarei.
Be Surprised by Hundertwasser's Architecture
Austrian-born artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser spent the last few decades of his life in Northland, just outside the town of Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands. In the early 1990s, he was invited to design a building for Whangarei, which was ultimately rejected, partly because his quirky environmentalist style wasn't to the taste of the councilors of the day. Fast forward 30 years (and 20 years after Hundertwasser's death), and his building for Whangarei is finally being created. In late 2020, the Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery will be opened at the Town Basin, following Hundertwasser's original plans. If you can't wait until then, at the moment, there are small prototype buildings at the Town Basin, or you can make a comfort stop at the Hundertwasser public toilets in Kawakawa.
Spend a Day on Ocean Beach
Northland undoubtedly has some of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand, with clear blue waters, white sands, and warm weather. Whangarei itself is located on a harbor, so beaches are limited in the central areas, but around 23 miles east of the city is the fantastic Ocean Beach. At the end of the Whangarei Heads, the drive out there is very scenic, too. Take a picnic and plan on spending most of the day there, especially in summer.