Being a South Islander, jaunting to Northland always feels like a glorified overseas holiday. The weather and foliage is fabulously sub-tropical, virtually South Pacific, and the sun-kissed beaches are achingly gorgeous. On my latest visit, I set my sights on some of those supremely scenic short drives from Whangarei. Striking out from Onerahi, the Whangarei Heads Rd offers such a dramatic scenic medley of saw-toothed mountains, beaches, walkways and craft galleries, strung along the peninsula’s pencil-thin road, wrapped around the indented northern shoreline of the harbour. (The largest enclosed harbour on NZ’s east coast.) Parua Bay is home to a venerable 110-year old tavern, which began life as a dairy company, before being converted into top-end hotel, seventy years ago. It’s a charming stop for refreshments and bites on the water’s edge.
Every princess-pretty bay, like Munro, McLeod, McGregors and McKenzie reveals new watery vistas framed by gnarled pohutukawa trees on the foreshore, backed by handsomely maintained holiday cottages and quirky homes, rising up the volcanic slopes from the road. McLeod Bay is a family favourite for its sheltered swimming, nestled beneath the mighty presence of Mt. Manaia. The quaint white wooden St James Church, gracing the foreshore since 1858, completes the picture. McGregors Bay is another family crowd-pleaser, with clear waters for snorkelling and fabulous rock pools to keep the kids enthralled. At the base of Mount Manaia, a plaque pays tribute to the district’s early European settlers, Scottish Highlanders, who as you might have guessed, gave their names to many of the area’s beaches.
Towering above the harbour entrance, majestic Mt. Manaia’s jagged peak, crowned with toothy pinnacles, dominates the skyline. It’s very reminiscent of those fang-like mountains that backdrop Rarotonga and Tahiti. Eager to scale Manaia, it’s a thousand steps up, on a vigorous but manageable one hour climb through lush native forest to reach the summit and those sizzling 360 degree views. The Hen & Chicken Islands and Bream Head, that great fixture of the Auckland weather forecast, loomed large. Short on time, I glanced by Bream Head Scenic Reserve’s spoil of walking tracks, en-route to the end of drive, which climaxes at Ocean Beach, a powerful Pacific sweep of big surf, bounded by hulking sand dunes. After the sweet tranquillity of those inner harbour coves, Ocean Beach seems all the more raw and wild. A memorial to commemorate the sinking of the only navy ship lost to enemy action in New Zealand waters during World War II can be seen at the lookout.
After marvelling over the Heads drive, I tracked back to Whangarei and headed north on the Twin Coast Discovery Highway for the Tutukaka Coast. Arguably the most famed of Whangarei’s short drives, the two hour-long glorious loop road roams past succulent orchards, historic drystone walls, undulating emerald farmland and formidable rock walls, before kissing the Pacific Ocean. The Tutukaka Coast’s necklace of seaside villages revel in their seclusion, proud little communities heaving with creative types, small convivial pubs and out-of-the-way restaurants showered in global accolades. Admiring the golden view of the pristine Ngunguru Sandspit was a highlight en-route to the Tutukaka Marina Village, which was heaving with excited hordes of tourists gearing up to set off to the Poor Knights Marine Reserve.
The Rikoriko Cave and a spot scuba-diving weren’t on my agenda, because I had a hot date with a big tree. But I did pop in for a quick pick-me-up at Schnappa Rock, an iconic Tutukaka haunt, with its thatch roof and Pacific decor. Heading north towards Matapouri, I made my way to the Tutukaka Forest Conservation Park, home to Tane Moana. Moana may not enjoy the rock-star billing of his big brother, Tane Mahuta, but Moana is a treasure, a survivor – the largest Kauri tree on Northland’s East Coast. Reaching nearly 30 metres in height with a stunning crown, and boasting a circumference of 11 metres, Tane Moana is believed to be about 170 years old. Moana will make you work for the pleasure of an audience. It’s a 4 hour return walk through tracts of native bush, thick with bird life. But a chance to commune with this East Coast giant made it a doddle.
Apparently, previous generations of locals would gather en-masse beneath his wide shade, for a Christmas Day picnic lunch. I topped off my Tutukaka Coast sortie by soaking up the astonishing views of some of her northern beaches. Just north of Matapouri Bay is the crescent-shaped show-stopper of Whale Bay. Thickly fringed in native forest, ablaze in the crimson flowers of pohutukawa, off-set by custard-coloured sand and translucent blue water, it is a celestial pocket of coastal splendour, accessed by a short walk through a grove of ancient Puriri trees.
After taking in the coastal charms north and east of Whangarei, I sauntered south for a quick rendezvous with Marsden Point, before surrendering to the seaside splendour of Bream Bay’s sprawling arc of white sandy beaches and laying over at pint-sized Waipu Cove. Steeped in Scottish heritage, the Waipu Museum lustily showcases the great migration of the town’s original 940 settlers via Nova Scotia, and Waipu still proudly hosts New Zealand’s biggest annual Highland Games. Grab a drink or a meal at The Cove Restaurant, overlooking the ivory sands and booming Pacific surf, as the sun sets on a great Northland day.
Just 100 metres from the beach, I stayed a night at the beautifully landscaped Waipu Cove Resort, verdantly ablaze in sub-tropical gardens through Booking.com. With nearly 6000 New Zealand accommodation options listed, Booking.com properties include a diverse array of options from hotels and apartments to holiday homes and campsites. Whether you’re on the website or via the app, Booking.com is super easy to navigate with incredible deals and complete flexibility, if you need to amend or cancel your bookings.