IF THE WEATHER is starting to feel autumnal in your neck of the woods, Northland is calling you. Summer glows all the more longer, the weather and foliage is seductively subtropical and the sun-kissed beaches are absurdly gorgeous.
Northland's thriving capital of Whangārei, is a city of adventure, culture and natural beauty.
Head for the summit of Parihaka, the city's highest point, which was once the site of the largest Māori pā (fortified village) in New Zealand. The excavations are still visible and are accessed by a pleasant walk through native forest from the summit.
Whangārei Town Basin is a sophisticated yet leisurely hub for eating and entertainment, particularly around The Quay. Modern landscaping blends artfully with colonial architecture, housing a slew of stylish cafes and restaurants, museums, art galleries and specialty shops.
Explore the City Centre Street Art walk with 15 large-scale art murals, the Hundertwasser Art Centre, and Wairua Maori Art Gallery.
Another absolute unmissable is Claphams National Clock Museum, a world-acclaimed storehouse for one of the largest and most historically significant collections of timepieces in the southern hemisphere. You'll be enthralled by the surprise discoveries within this ticking, time-warped wonderland.
When you've had your fill of the city's finest features, set your sights on some short and sweet scenic drives from Whangārei. Striking out from Onerahi, the Whangārei Heads Rd serves up a rolling 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.
Every princess-pretty bay, like Munro, McLeod, McGregors and McKenzie, reveals new watery vistas framed by gnarled pohutukawa trees on the foreshore, backed by time-honoured holiday cottages, rising up the volcanic slopes.
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 crowd-pleaser, with gin-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.
Soaring above the harbour entrance, majestic Mt Manaia's jagged peak, crowned with fang-like pinnacles, dominates the skyline. To scale her, it's a thousand steps up to reach the sizzling 360-degree views.
Back in the car, Whangārei Heads Rd climaxes at Ocean Beach, a powerful Pacific sweep of big surf, bounded by hulking sand dunes. After the sweet serenity of those inner harbour coves, Ocean Beach is all muscle, raw and wild.
Tracking back to Whangārei, head north to the Tutukaka Coast. This two hour-long 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, stout little settlements abuzz with creative types, small convivial pubs and out-of-the-way restaurants.
Follow the road towards Matapouri and make your way to the Tutukaka Forest Conservation Park, home to Tane Moana. Moana may not enjoy the rock-star billing of big brother, Tane Mahuta, but Moana is a treasure too — the largest surviving Kauri on Northland's East Coast. Reaching nearly 30 metres in height with a stunning crown, and boasting a circumference of 11 metres, an audience with Moana requires a workout. It's a four-hour return walk through tracts of native bush to commune with this East Coast giant.
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, this celestial pocket of coastal splendour is accessed by a short walk through a grove of ancient Puriri trees.
After taking in the coastal charms north and east of Whangārei, one final suggestion? Saunter south down the main highway to lap up Bream Bay's sprawling arc of white sandy beach and lolloping around 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.