Often overlooked by overseas tourists but a firm favourite with Aucklanders on holiday, Northland is home to some of our most beautiful beaches, the cradle of European history in New Zealand and a playground for marine wildlife.
As you leave the Big Smoke, high-rises and flat pastures give way to the green rolling hills and stunning coastlines of the Winterless North.
No matter what direction you turn, you're never far from the coast or a photo-worthy spot.
The land is bounded to the west by the Tasman Sea, and to the east by the Pacific. Both waters meet at the tip of the island – Cape Reinga – where Māori spirits depart from to their homeland of Hawaiki.
Further south, the mighty Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the last Kauri forest and warden of the west coast, sits enthroned in the midst of the Waipoua Forest.
Te Tai Tokerau's east coast is the birthplace of the European-Māori union, best seen at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which offer an insight into New Zealand's past, present and future.
Where two oceans collide
When avocado orchards become abundant and the roads bumpier, you know you have reached the Far North. Stop at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, a swamp kauri workshop, before reaching 90 Mile Beach where you can officially keep on driving, as it's a public highway. Take precautions though - you really need a 4WD and don't try this at high tide. While you're there, marvel at the endless horizon and dig for some tuatuas. Further up, the Te Paki Stream is winding along the bottom of the Giant Sand Dunes. Sandboarding down the steep slopes is a must and if you haven't brought your own boogie board, a stall offers some for hire. At the end of SH 1, you'll start the walkway to the Cape Reinga Lighthouse. Standing atop of the cliffs with Tasman and Pacific meeting far below is like gazing at the edge of the world.
Leisure meets luxury on the 1200-hectare Carrington Estate on the picturesque Karikari Peninsular. An impressive 18-hole oceanside championship golf course offers plenty of challenges for golfers of all abilities. The course's claim to fame is that it features one of the longest – a 622-yard monster – and shortest holes in the country. The Carrington Winery offers wine tastings of their Chardonnay, Pinotage and Syrah, and dining with estate-grown food. Further south at Matauri Bay, you can follow the footsteps of Barack Obama on the Kauri Cliffs golf course. The former US president famously took on former PM John Key on the par 72 championship course.
Flat whites, craft beers and art galleries
Kerikeri is Northland's most charming town, its roads lined with eateries, cafés, art galleries and hotchpotch shops ready to be explored. It's a great place to linger, dawdle, enjoy a drink or two and snatch some pretty souvenirs. To experience a piece of local history, visit New Zealand's oldest buildings, the Stone Store and the humble Mission Station. Just minutes around the corner, you can view the 27-metre Rainbow Falls from above, either side or down below. Visit Plough and Feather for craft beers, Māha Restaurant for Japanese-influenced fusion food, Village or Fishbone Café for a cuppa and Makana Chocolate Factory for a sweet treat.
Beautiful Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands are part of New Zealand's living history. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds hold a collection of stories and taonga that can teach you more than any textbook. The new Te Rau Aroha commemorates the service of Māori in the NZ Armed Forces. Down the road, sweet little Paihia is a hub for tour operators which take you around the bay in every way imaginable. Spectacular Cape Brett and the Hole in the Rock are popular destinations, but the true excitement lies in spotting a pod of dolphins, paddling past some jolly penguins or catching a fat snapper. A passenger ferry departs hourly to Russell, the first European settlement, with the award-winning Duke of Marlborough hotel.
Pedalling from coast to coast
To get those rusty knees moving, hop on your bike and complete the Twin Coast Cycle Trail from the crystal blue Bay of Islands to the remote Hokianga. The trail follows the old Northland rail corridor across retired rail bridges and through tunnels, leading you through wetlands, into native forest and over rolling farmland. The trail is 87km long and suitable for most riders as it is generally flat with only gentle climbs. Stop for a toilet break in Kawakawa to admire Hundertwassser's crazy architecture or relax sore muscles in the Ngawha Springs. Bike hire and shuttle transfer available along the route.
The wild west coast
The sound of the wind and waves are constant companions on the wild west coast around Hokianga. The harbour was named by Kupe over 800 years ago after he returned from Hawaiiki. Massive sand dunes on the northern side of the harbour promise fun for young and old. Omapere is a perfect place for a walk on the beach and in Opononi you can stop for a coffee with views over the sand dunes. Pay a visit to the statue of Opo, the bottlenose dolphin who gained fame in the mid-'50s. Or visit the historic Clendon House in Rawene and catch a ferry to Kohukohu. A nearby nature walk through subtropical rainforest takes you to the Wairere Boulders, majestic eroded basalt rocks.
Matapōuri Bay is one of New Zealand's most famous beaches – and rightly so. It's sheltered and doesn't let much swell past its entrance; hence the beach is family-friendly, framed with golden sand and pohutukawa trees. For a good body surfing experience, go one bay across to Woolleys, which is a tad rougher and more exposed to the Pacific. Whale Bay, right in between and a short bush walk away from the car park, is a small, idyllic beach. An hour's boat ride off the Tutukaka Coast, the Poor Knights and its surrounding marine reserve offer some of the best snorkelling and diving spots in the world.
The Lord of the Forest
Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, is the largest known living kauri tree, dwelling in the depths of the Waipoua Forest. A short walk through thick bush leads you under the cooling shade of Tāne Mahuta's canopy. At more than 1000 years old, it dwarfs any onlookers. Take a few moments to pause and embrace the kauri's presence for a while. You must stay on the track at all times and clean your shoes before entering the forest to protect the trees from kauri dieback. A nearby 20-minute walk leads you to Te Matua Ngahere, the second-largest kauri tree. Other tracks are temporarily closed.
Daytrip from Auckland
The Northland region is closer than you think – an hour and a half from Auckland nestles Mangawhai with its beautiful stretch of coast. The Mangawhai Activity Zone offers plenty to do with an elaborate skatepark, playground, flying fox, sports fields, and bike tracks. Locals sell an array of foods from artisan cheese and olive oils, to craft and sweets at the Saturday's village market and the nearby Mangawhai Tavern organises regular events. Bennetts chocolatier is a perfect stop for any sweet tooth while the Kaiwaka Cheese Shop satisfies savoury carvings. A 40-minute drive west, you'll stumble across charming Matakohe and the renowned Kauri Museum with the largest collection of kauri gum in the world, kauri furniture and a huge 22-metre long kauri slab.
A bird's safe haven
Injured takahe, orphaned ruru, drunken kereru and abandoned kiwi eggs – they are all driven across the region to be delivered into the skilful hands of Robert and Robyn Webb at the Whangārei Bird Recovery Centre. The couple have been doing a fantastic job for years, looking after hurt birds and open their doors to visitors. If Robert has a moment to spare, he will get Sparky for you, a one-legged kiwi who is one of the few permanent residents of the centre. Around the corner, Kiwi North – a museum and heritage park – show you how Whangārei's first settlers used to live. Grab some lunch at the Town Basin with views over the Hātea River from the pristine waterfront.
The Local Lowdown
Exceptional music talent and part-time actor Troy Kingi calls beautiful Kerikeri his home. Kingi juggles a busy life between his family in the Bay of Island, starring onscreen aside Taika Waititi and completing his remarkable mission to release 10 albums in 10 years – a project that started back in 2016. Northland, Kingi says, is his safe haven where he returns to calm and balance and enjoys time with his kids and wife.
Whenever I return north from down the line, I come over the lip of the Brynderwyns, take a deep breath and exhale. It's like I'm leaving the baggage of the city at that point and stepping through the front door which is funny because it's still a good hour and a half to Kerikeri. But that's where the north starts for me, that's home.
Being on the road a lot, Kerikeri has become my sanctuary – the great leveller. It gives me balance, gets my pH levels back to neutral.
I've been here for the last two decades. My wife is born and bred in Kerikeri, my kids have their cousins close by, and our wider family are heavily rooted here. The place has changed a lot – in the early days you would walk down the street and know everybody, now you know no one.
In saying that, it has a real positive vibe about town – everyone seems happy. It's a safe place to raise a family. Close proximity to a lot of amazing beaches and waterfalls – there are about four waterfalls within a kilometre of my house. I'm a scuba diver, so the Bay of Islands is a perfect spot for me.
But with ever-growing children – one a teenager, two on the brink and two under six – it can be tough to find stuff for them to do outside of having their face glued to a screen of some sort. Luckily for me, they all love kapa haka, and have weekend sports.
There is a lot of history here, too, with Kororipo down at the basin overlooking the Stone Store and Kemp House and all that that represents.
My wife and I have just got some land on the outside of town, and plan to build at the end of this year. I have a feeling I'll be here forever.
Listen to NewstalkZB from 1pm today to be in to win two flights to Kerikeri flying Air New Zealand. Ts&Cs apply.
Read the whole series at nzherald.co.nz/GoNZ