Event planning is risky business at the minute and we all want to make the most of the two consecutive long weekends – Auckland and Northland Anniversary and Waitangi Day. So what to do? Luckily Northland has no end of steadfast options that surely Covid can't even shut down. This weekend, Jodi Bryant takes a look at the Whangārei area through the eyes of a tourist.
Let's start with what was recently named one of New Zealand's top 10 playgrounds in the Herald's Best of Summer competition – the Town Basin Playground.
After what has been described as a "bold and imaginative makeover", the centrepiece playground has a "time and tide" theme, referencing both the famous and nearby Clapham Clock Museum and traditional rhythms of the sea and seasons. These are represented in the hourglass-shaped climbing tower; the spiral Titan Xtreme Hoop Course of climbing nets and connecting bridges that represents the tide forming ridges of sand and depositing debris from the sea; the all-abilities Inclusive Carousel, musical instruments and swings.
The adjacent Claphams National Clock Museum has a collection that comprises more than 1800 items, some extremely rare and most in working order, and is one of the largest and most historically significant in the southern hemisphere.
Known for his quirky character and sense of humour, Archie Clapham's favourite clocks were those that did something unexpected and made people laugh. The oldest clock in the collection includes a grandfather clock, circa 1690, which still goes!
Free guided tours bring the individual timepieces to life with demonstrations such as how cuckoos "cuckoo", why clocks go "clockwise" and why we have 24 hours in a day.
This is situated at the Town Basin, which hosts the internationally-popular marina in the heart of the city, where you will find a range of shops, cafes, restaurants and galleries. It is also part of the 4.2km Hātea Loop, suitable for foot traffic, bikes and small wheels, as well as dogs. This wraps around the river, linking numerous existing and future activities and experiences including parks, gym equipment and art, dog, skate and bike parks.
Here you will also notice a large golden dome (cupola). It sits atop the striking new Hundertwasser building, a parting gift to the city from one of the most celebrated European artists. In keeping with Friedensreich Hundertwasser's grass-roof theme, the building boasts the largest afforested roof in the southern hemisphere. The project is due for completion next month but meanwhile, you can wander around the exterior and marvel at the quirky architecture. It is the world's last authentic building design by the late Austrian-born artist and architect and the only art centre outside Vienna to host his original art.
Overlooking this scene is Mt Parihaka, an ancient volcano, once reputedly the site of the largest pā in New Zealand. It contains the visible remains of settlement, including housing terraces and storage pits.
Tracks lead through native bush to the 241-metre summit where there is a viewing platform offering panoramic views over the city and harbour. The track also leads to Otuihau Whangārei Falls, a breathtaking 26.3m-high waterfall cascading over basalt cliffs.
Out at Whangārei Heads, past the array of unique, picturesque beaches, the Bream Head Scenic Reserve walk covers one of the best examples of coastal forest in the country, with spectacular 360-degree panorama views. Likewise, if taking on one of the two nearby maunga – Mts Manaia and Aubrey, be rewarded with sweeping coastal outlooks.
A popular stop-off for a meal or drink in the area is the legendary Parua Bay Tavern. In warm weather, sit at a picnic table or lounge on a beanbag on the expansive waterfront lawn and admire the extensive views, including the mountain just conquered. Or watch people arrive by boat to the tavern's own jetty! (Note: closed Monday.)
Another destination eatery is Schnappa Rock at Tutukaka – be sure to check out some of the beaches on this coastline. They include Whale and Matapouri Bays, recognised by the Lonely Planet guide as among the best beaches in New Zealand.
Also here is Dive! Tutukaka – New Zealand's premier dive charter operator, offering the best sub-tropical diving in the world courtesy of the internationally-iconic Poor Knights Islands.
Speaking of water adventure, Whangārei has the largest inflatable water park in New Zealand. Compete on the inflatable obstacle course and experience the thrill of the water slides. Entry includes stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, swimming and basketball. For land-based thrillseekers, HeadsUp Adventures is Northland's most diverse mountain bike park and home to New Zealand's first and only monster scooters. It has authentic forest paintball too. Onsite is a funky cafe offering up some of the best views in town. And for high-thrill activities, try the family-friendly, world-class treetop Adventure Forest with its range of tree-climbing circuits, ziplines and canopy walkways - training, equipment and help provided. Book first.
If the weather's dodgy, a good option is Northland's only kiwi house, Kiwi North Whangārei - also home to the Whangārei Museum, Kiwi House and Heritage Park, offering a unique blend of experiences.
Here, day turns into night and the outdoors is brought inside so visitors can view the unaware kiwi while they forage as they would in the wild.
In the adjoining museum, the current special exhibition is "Tora! Tora! New Zealand" along with many displays telling local stories. The Heritage Park has mini train rides as well as heritage buildings.
Nothing quite matches a lion experience – 249kg of fully-maned male lion is something to behold. A Bengal tiger experience is equally thrilling. Yes, the Kamo Wildlife Park is back open! (Closed Monday.)
Whangārei Quarry Gardens is a subtropical oasis created by volunteers in the remnants of a former stone quarry in Northland. The gardens are set on over 24ha and feature a lake, waterfalls, picnic areas, forest walks, a variety of gardens styles, and several historical remnants.
A multitude of flora and fauna make their home in the forested hillsides. Native birds such as tui, kererū (wood pigeons), pīwakawaka (fantails), and kōtare (kingfishers) can be seen flying and foraging throughout the forest.
Nestled in the heart of the gardens is the Quail Café (closed Monday). It's the starting point for a walk in the gardens, and a wonderful place to refuel and relax.
For the non-claustrophobic, The Abbey Caves Reserve is scattered with giant, limestone rocks that date back millions of years and in their midst are three significant caves: Organ, Middle and Ivy.
Within them, you will see large overhanging stalactites and thousands of glow worms. Take a torch and expect to get your shoes wet as you will be wading through water.
Waipū Caves have stalactites, stalagmites and a galaxy of glow worms. Bones of bats, birds, amphibians, and reptiles are commonly found in the caves. Some caves also contain remains of fossil invertebrates, often of previously unknown or locally extinct species. Torches are a must and wading through water and clambering over mud banks may be necessary. There is a cold shower outside the cave that you can use to clean up afterwards.
There is also a walk up through the bush past the caves, taking you up to a viewpoint with amazing views.
Note: The caves can fill with water quickly. Before entering, always check the previous week's rainfall.
Tune in next week when we take a look at what to see and do around the rest of the Northland region.