Only a few hours away from Auckland by car, Northland is the huge region that sits at the far northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. A healthy blend of natural beauty, pretty seaside towns and fascinating history means that there is plenty of things to do in Northland.
Why head up to Northland?
Largely rural, Northland’s beautiful green pastures and fields are framed by a bounty of spectacular beaches and historic picturesque small towns.
The Northland region is also home to some of the North Island’s most sensational natural wonders. Besides the beautiful Bay of Islands there’s also the astonishing Te Paki Sand Dunes and the mesmerising Ninety Mile Beach.
Alongside its natural beauty, Northland is also rich in history. The region played a pivotal role in the creation of New Zealand.
It was here in 1840 that European settlers convinced the indigenous Maori to formally create the new nation of New Zealand.
The best things to see and do in Northland
If you’re considering heading up to the far north of the North Island, here’s the low-down of the very best things to do in Northland.
Sail around the Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is one of many highlights in Northland. The bay’s name derives from the 144 islands sprinkled in the beautiful blue waters just off the east coast of Northland near Waitangi.
Jetting out on a boat ride around the gorgeous islands is easily one of the best things to do in Northland. Cruises sail from the towns of Pahia and Russell around the Bay of Islands everyday.
The Bay of Islands is a great place to spot sea life. Playful bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen leaping out of the water, and whales are also regularly spotted in the waters here.
Many boat tours stop for a spot of lunch and a chance to explore the stunning views around Otehi Bay on Urupukapuka Island.
Like most of the coast around the Northland region, the Bay of Island is a great place for a spot of fishing as well as a variety of water activities; sailing, surfing, and diving are all popular in the Bay of Islands.
Serious divers should also look into exploring the exquisite sea life beneath the waters around the Poor Knights Islands, around 20 kilometres off the coast of Tutukaka.
Journey to Cape Reinga
One of the very best things to do in Northland is to drive to the end of State Highway 1 to Cape Reinga at the top of New Zealand’s North Island.
Cape Reinga is a wild yet magnificent headland dominated by glorious stretches of sun soaked sands and beautiful sweeping green hills.
Surrounded by thousands of miles of open water, the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet just beneath Cape Reinga’s picturesque lighthouse.
The lighthouse and headland at Cape Reinga
Cape Reinga is a sacred place for the Maori, who believe that the spirits of the deceased pass through the small 800 year old pohutukawa tree that hangs from a rock on the headland before they depart to the afterlife.
There are several waking trails that form part of the Te Paki Coastal Track around Cape Reinga. Stretches of the trail vary in length and difficulty.
One of the easiest and most spectacular is the two kilometre Te Werahi Beach Track that leads to the huge beach just beneath Cape Reinga.
Marvel at Ninety Mile Beach
Ninety Mile Beach must be one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline anywhere in the world. Though the name is misleading – the beach is actually 55 miles long – Ninety Mile Beach is exceptional.
Ninety Mile Beach
Stretching all the way from Ahipara Bay at its southern end, Ninety Mile Beach runs completely uninterrupted along Northland’s west coast until it reaches Cape Reinga.
The pristine flat sands and the gin clear sea stretches beneath the huge open skies for as far as the eye can see.
Ninety Mile Beach is so flat and straight that four wheel drive cars and larger vehicles are allowed to drive on it.
The beach often acts as an alternative to the State Highway whenever the main road floods. Tour companies even drive coaches along the entire length of the beach as part of tours of the Northland region.
Visit Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes
Te Paki’s giant sand dunes in Northland, New Zealand
At the northern of Ninety Mile Beach is Te Paki sand dunes, one of the most breathtaking sights in the the whole of the Northland region.
The sand dunes are a mini mountain range of perplexing pale sand surrounded by green hills and rural countryside. Standing on the top of the dunes feels exactly like a desert.
The approach to the sand dunes from the State Highway, along a stoney track is particularly surreal. Out of nowhere a towering slope of sand suddenly appears, surrounded by verdant green farmland.
Te Paki’s giant sand dunes
Sandboarding down Te Paki’s dunes is one of the most popular things to do in Northland. Boards can be hired during the day from a number of different stalls at the dunes.
One the most unique and spectacular areas of this section of northern New Zealand, Te Paki is a must see for any visitor to Northland.
Learn about New Zealand’s history at Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a place of huge national and historical importance.
It was here that New Zealand’s Declaration of Independence was signed in 1935 in the grounds of the home of the first British Resident. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was also signed here.
The Treaty House at Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The somewhat contentious Treaty of Waitangi was drafted by the British and signed by over 500 Maori leaders.
The treaty declared New Zealand a colony of the British Empire, effectively established the country of New Zealand, and theoretically providing equal rights and status to the Maori.
In 1932 the house and grounds where the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi were signed was gifted to the nation, becoming a hugely important national landmark.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds contains the original Treaty House and the Museum of Waitangi.
The Maori War Canoe at Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
The Museum of Waitangi explores the early interactions between the Maori and the British settlers, the circumstances surrounding the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the often fractious relationship that followed.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds also holds huge historical significance for the Maori.
Next to the Treaty House is a traditional Maori carved meeting house; having the two buildings stand side by side signifies the shared history and values of New Zealand’s two cultures.
Nearby facing Hobson beach is a beautiful traditional Maori War Canoe. Built to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the 35 metre-long ceremonial canoe is the largest of its kind in the world.
Explore Northland’s incredible beaches
Though Ninety Mile Beach dominates the west coast, the entirety of the Northland regions is framed by spectacular secluded bays and heavenly beaches. You could easily spend several days in Northland exploring all of the region’s beaches.
There’s plenty of variety to be found in Northland’s beaches too, from calm bays ideal for a gentle dip in the sea, to secluded havens hidden at the end of narrow track lanes.
One of the most magnificent beaches in the Northland region is Rarawa beach. Rarawa’s huge expanse of spectacular dazzling white sands have to be seen to be believed.
The beautiful white sands of Rarawa beach
For a swim in the sea, head to one of Northland’s many gorgeous bays, such as Taupo Bay or Matauri Bay, both near the tiny town of Whangeroa, or the sensational Matapouri Bay, recently voted New Zealand’s best beach, a little further south.
Coopers Beach near the pretty town of Mangonui is a great place for a spot of fishing, whilst the waves at Ruakaka beach make it the perfect place to surf.
For a slice of heavenly seclusion head a little further north to Tokerau Beach, a sweeping stretch of sand looking out on to Doubtless Bay.
Tuck in to heavenly fish and chips at Mangonui
The waters around the Northland region are home to some of the freshest seafood you could wish to sink your teeth into.
There’s no better place in Northland to chow down on the region’s most delicious seafood than at Mangonui Fish Shop.
Literally perched over the waters of Mangonui harbour, the fish at Mangonui Fish Shop comes directly from the local fishing boats docked at the wharf that’s just a stone’s throw away.
All of the fish served at Mangonui is line caught and the menu varies daily depending on what comes in on the fishing boats when they return from the ocean.
The soft and succulent fish is accompanied by a choice of skinny, fat, or beer battered chips.
The outside seating deck overlooks Mangonui’s beautiful harbour and peers out on to the ocean in the distance. If you love fish and chips, you will love Mangonui Fish Shop.
Visit Butler’s Point Whaling Museum
A short drive from the picturesque town of Mangonui is the fascinating Butler’s Point Whaling Museum. Butler’s Point is one of Northland’s hidden gems.
The museum is set within the gorgeous grounds of the former home of William Butler, an early European settler and whaler.
The former home and gravestone of William Butler at Butler Point Whaling Museum
Whaling was once a lucrative industry and played a huge role in the early development of New Zealand. Whaling ships sailed from as far as the east coast of the United States to hunt for whales in the South Pacific.
Having become a commander of a whaling ship by the age of 24, William Butler settled here in the 1840s.
The original house built by Butler now forms part of the museum that recounts the often gruesome history of commercial whaling in the 19th century.
The grounds and gardens of the William Butler at Butler Point Whaling Museum
Entrance to Butler’s Point is by appointment only, and the excellent guided tour and small museum paints a vivid and captivating picture of the grim reality of commercial whaling.
Next to the museum is Butler’s beautiful home. The gorgeous interiors have been lovingly preserved and restored to their original 19th century state.
In an idyllic spot overlooking Mangonui harbour, you’re free to stay and explore the tropical gardens and grounds after visiting the museum and Butler’s home.
Be dwarfed beneath the giant trees at Waipoua Kauri Forest
On the western edge of the Northlands region is Waipoua Kauri Forest, home to the largest remaining section of native forest in New Zealand.
Known as the Kauri Coast, the Waipoua Forest is a spectacularly beautiful expanse of lush ancient trees.
A delicate ecosystem of fauna and wildlife, the standout attractions are the Waipoua Forest’s gigantic and historic kauri trees.
Several walking paths in the forest lead directly to the giant kauri trees. There are also guided tours of the forest given by a Maori guide.
Tane Mahuta, New Zealand’s oldest tree; a path through Waipoua Kauri Forest; Te Matua Ngahere, the Father of the Forest
Just a short walk from the main road that snakes through the forest is Tane Mahuta, or ‘Lord of the Forest’, New Zealand’s oldest kauri tree.
Tane Mahuta is believed to be nudging 2000 years old and still growing, despite already being 45 metres tall and almost five metres in diameter.
About a kilometre south of Tane Mahuta you’ll find the Kauri Walks. The Kauri Walks are made up of three different trails that lead to other giant kauri trees nestled deep within the forest. One of these is Te Matua Ngahere, or ‘Father of the Forest’.
Te Matua Ngahere is believed to be older at around 2,800 years old. Despite being struck by lightning in 2007, the Father of the Forest is still going strong.
Where to stay in Northland
Whilst Whangarei is the state capital and largest city in Northland, it is also several hours away by car from many of Northland’s main sites.
Much closer to the main sights at the northern end of the North Island, the small towns of Kerikeri, Pahia, Russell and Opua around the Bay of Islands are all better options when looking for accommodation in Northland.
How to get to Northland
The nearest airport to the Northland region is Auckland International airport.
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Distances and journey times from Auckland to Northland obviously depend on which part of the region you’re travelling to.
It’s around a two hour drive from Auckland to Whangarei, the state capital of the Northland region, or a three hour drive to Kerikeri.