Take the time to explore all the variety on offer in Whangārei, writes Elen Turner
Northland's only city, Whangārei, is easy to overlook.
Conveniently located on the route north to the Bay of Islands and other beautiful spots further up the east coast of the peninsula, Whangārei is easy to whizz by but it's so much more than a pass-through destination.
With hilltop and riverside hikes, easy access to beaches, top-notch dining with marina views, and a long-awaited, soon-to-open museum dedicated to Māori art and 20th-century Austro-Kiwi artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, there are good reasons to pause on your trip north. Or to just hang out in Whangārei for a few days.
1. Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Art Gallery
Many who have travelled to the Bay of Islands have made the little detour to Kawakawa to use the public loos. Whangārei is offering something even better: an entire art centre dedicated to local artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser's work. Long before the artist's death in 2000, he proposed the building for Whangārei. Now, more than two decades after his death, his original plans have been used to create the stunning landmark building right beside the water at the Town Basin.
Although the museum won't open until later in 2021, visitors to the Town Basin can admire the in-progress construction of the building. The black-and-white chequered tiles, organic wavy lines, golden domes, and proliferation of trees and plants from the building itself (the finished gallery will have a roof garden) suggest that this will be a building unlike any other. Once it's open later in the year, the displays of Hundertwasser's work and contemporary Māori art will be a reason to return to Whangārei.
2. Climb a mountain
If you've driven to Whangārei from the south you'll have noticed the volcanic headlands of the Whangārei Heads and Mt Manaia, to the east. Like other volcanic outcrops in the area, Mt Manaia is believed to be part of what's left of a massive volcano that erupted about 20 million years ago. If you're fit and mobile, you can climb the 420m high Mt Manaia. It's not an easy walk as it's pretty steep, but the views across Whangārei Harbour and Bream Bay are worth the effort.
A gentler alternative is to climb Mt Parihaka (241m), directly behind the city. There are great views from the summit, and other walking and biking trails on the mountain.
3. Dine at the Town Basin
The pretty Town Basin located at the marina is always a fun place to take a stroll and identify the far-flung places the yachts have sailed from. And it's got the city's best food. Whether you're after an icecream from the NZ Fudge Farm Cafe, brunch from Mokaba, or dinner from No 8 or The Quay Kitchen, there's an option to suit at the Town Basin, all with marina views. The boutiques and art galleries are a destination in their own right, too.
4. Harbour Cruise
Whangārei Harbour cruises on the M V Waipapa depart from the Town Basin in season. Sailing up the Hātea River between the yachts, under the Te Matau ā Pohe Bridge (which opens up), past mangrove forests and dockyards, and into the harbour beside the suburb of Onerahi is a relaxing way to see the city from a different perspective.
5. Admire the Camera Obscura
Camera Obscuras have been used to safely study solar eclipses for centuries. They became popular with European artists studying perspective in the Renaissance, and in November 2020, Whangarei got its own. The Camera Obscura Timatatanga Hou was designed by photographer Diane Stoppard, architect Felicity Christian, sculptor Trish Clarke and artist Poutama Hetaraka, and placed beside the Hātea River, near the distinctive Te Matau ā Pohe Bridge.
The curved exterior draws on and reflects a range of cultural and historic influences, particularly those that reflect Whangārei's maritime history and present. The detailed steel lacework of the front panel whorls around the Camera Obscura lens itself, which draws in light from outside and reflects it onto the dark interior walls of the structure.
To see the projected images, visitors must brave the dark, curved tunnel to arrive in the inner chambers of the small building. It's best visited on a bright, sunny day. The scene outside the Camera Obscura — yachts sailing along the river, cars crossing the bridge and its intermittent opening to let boats pass underneath — are projected on to the walls, in greater or lesser detail depending on the light conditions of the day.
6. Complete the Hātea Loop Walk…
The Camera Obscura is connected to the Town Basin along the 4.2km, accessible Hātea Loop walkway. Walking the circuit is a great way to have some exercise while getting an overview of the city's landscape, with the river, harbour, mountains, and mangrove forests as well as interesting public art. Take hats and drinking water, especially on a hot day, as there's minimal shade.
7. …or the Hātea River Walk
If you prefer your walks to be of the bush variety, check out the Hātea River Walk. Walk from the Town Basin to 26m metre-high Whangārei Falls (or vice versa) via the beautiful native kauri forest in the A H Reed Memorial Park. This walk is in the opposite direction from the Hātea Loop Walk but it can be connected to it. The walk to the falls takes about two-and-a-half hours one way.
No trip to Northland would be complete without spending time on the local beaches, whatever the season. Although Whangārei itself is set on a river and harbour, it's not far to some of the finest white-sand beaches and surf in the country. Bream Bay (including Ruakaka Beach and Waipū Cove) are just to the south, the Tutukaka Coast to the north, and Ocean Beach east, at the end of the Whangārei Heads peninsula.