Discover New Zealand’s Magical Northland and Bay of Islands

People walking along a pathway through green vegetation near the coast of Cape Reinga, seen from above
The path to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga, a highlight of New Zealand's beautiful Northland and Bay of Islands region.

By Roger Allnutt

New Zealand is a small country with an amazing variety of scenery and attractions. Top among them are majestic mountains and fjords in the South Island, hot springs and volcanoes in the North Island, and fine cities such as the capital Wellington and Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. One of the most popular regions for international visitors is Northland at the top of the North Island with the lovely Bay of Islands as a focal point.

Northland is a land of diverse and beautiful scenery as well as being of great historical relevance for both the Maoris and European settlers. The ancestors of the Maoris have been in the area for more than 600 years and, in the early 1800s, the first European settlers made contact with them through the sealing and whaling settlements. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed at Waitangi in the Bay of Islands in 1840, making New Zealand a British colony and the Maori and Europeans subject to one nation.

A self-drive tour of Northland from Auckland can best be accomplished in a clockwise loop starting at Brynderwyn about 100 km (62 miles) north of the city, the so-called the Twin Coast Discovery Highway.

Visit Matakohe and the Kauri Museum

At Matakohe is the superb Kauri Museum with a fascinating collection of timber, equipment, photographs and other mementos of the heyday of the logging of kauri trees in the 1800s and early 1900s. The museum captures the tough lifestyle endured by the loggers, especially those digging for the gum from the trees. Many of the gum diggers came from the Dalmatian coast, now Croatia.

Tane Mahuta ‘Lord of the Forest’ a huge tree in the Waipuoa Forest of Northland, New Zealand
Tane Mahuta, the “Lord of the Forest” in Waipuoa Forest

Tour the Ancient Kauri Forest

North of Dargaville the largest remaining stands of kauri forest (which once covered much of this part of New Zealand) are protected from logging.  Particularly impressive are the sheer trunks topped by an umbrella-like canopy of the 52 m (172 ft) high Tane Mahuta “Lord of the Forest” and the massive Te Mahuta Ngahere “Father of the Forest” which has a trunk more than 5 m (16 ft) in diameter. Join a tour with Footprints Waipoua, a Maori eco-tourism operation, to learn more about the significance and beauty of these forest giants.

A tour bus in front of a huge sand dune where tourists climb up and others toboggan down
Sand tobogganing near Te Paki Stream, Ninety Mile Beach

See Ninety Mile Beach

North from Kaitaia the finger-shaped peninsula leads up to Cape Reinga. Although you can drive there, hire cars and campervans are forbidden to drive along the Ninety Mile Beach (actually closer to 60 miles) that runs down the western side of the peninsula. To enjoy this great experience, it is recommended to join one of the tours that operate ranging from buses to 4WD adventures. I travelled with Harrison’s Cape Runner Tours and it was a great experience.

The lighthouse at Cape Reinga is a famous landmark and an important place for Maoris. It is from this point that the spirits of the deceased are said to depart from this world to the Three Kings Islands on the horizon – the constant wind is like a lament to those departing spirits. 

Most tours include a ride along the flat expanse of the Ninety Mile Beach; reaching the beach along the Te Paki stream is an adventure in itself as the ground is like quicksand and you hope you don’t stall. A few rusting hulks there and along the beach provide stark testimony to the danger. Riding a toboggan down one of the steep sand dunes is a popular inclusion in the tours.

The historic Stone Store and Kemp House on the coast of Kerikeri, New Zealand
The Stone Store and Kemp House in Kerikeri

Enjoy Rural and Historic Kerikeri

At an inlet at the northern end of the Bay of Islands is the thriving agricultural area around the town of Kerikeri. It’s known especially for burgeoning orchards of kiwi fruit and citrus fruit including exotic varieties such as tamarillo and persimmon. In 1819 a mission station was established there and the country’s oldest wooden building, Kemp House, and the oldest stone building, Stone Store, complete with original fittings are a fascinating reminder of this period of New Zealand’s history.

On a peninsula out from Kerikeri is the exclusive Kauri Cliffs Lodge. It overlooks the lush fairways of the Kauri Cliffs Golf Course, which is rated in the top 50 golf courses in the world.  

Admire the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is one of the most popular destinations in New Zealand, and during the summer holidays it’s crowded with visitors enjoying the vast range of aquatic pastimes. About 140 islands dot the bay, most of them uninhabited.

The two main towns of the Bay of Islands are Paihia and Russell. Near Paihia is Waitangi where the treaty between the Maoris and the representatives of Queen Victoria’s government was signed on 6 February 1840. The Treaty House has been carefully renovated and includes much fascinating material. Close by is the Maori Meeting House built in 1940 to mark the centenary of the treaty. Intricate carvings both inside and out represent Maori tribes.

Russell, the site of the first settlement by Europeans in New Zealand, contains a number of buildings worth visiting. They include the Captain Cook Memorial Museum with its scale model of Captain James Cook’s Endeavour and other maritime artifacts. Among the historic buildings are Christ Church built in 1835 and the oldest church in New Zealand, and the Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront that has the oldest licence in the country.

There are many tours exploring the Bay of Islands including dolphin discovery trips. These tours offer a chance to swim with the charming creatures, subject to the “agreement” of the dolphins when you catch up with them. Perhaps the most interesting cruise is Fuller’s “Cream Trip” which started back in 1920 when the boat visited some of the islands and remote settlements around the bay, dropping off supplies and collecting the dairy products. A stop is made at protected Otehei Bay on Orupukapuka Island where famous westerns author Zane Grey went big game fishing.

Mosaic and brightly painted posts decorate a toilet building in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand
The entrance to the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa

Just south of Paihia the small township of Kawakawa contains a most unusual sight. In the 1970s the renowned Austrian architect Frederick Hundertwasser made his second home in the rugged countryside outside the town. When the council decided a new toilet block was needed he became involved in the design and the finished result – redolent of his odd shapes and colourful ceramics – has become a must-see for Hundertwasser devotees. 

The official website for tourism in Northland is

Want to read more of Roger Allnutt’s travel guides? Check out “A First Timer’s Guide to Melbourne, Australia”

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