Heading north of Auckland is a time-honoured Kiwi summer tradition. Beaches and forests and history are all waiting, just a few hours' drive away. But though you've no doubt visited the Bay of Islands, there's a high chance you haven't ventured across to the west coast of Northland. I certainly hadn't before I hit the road in early November for a trip full of exciting off-the-beaten-track highlights.
This private nature reserve spans about 150 hectares and contains native bush, farmland, streams and giant basalt boulders, dating back a cool 2.5 million years. The erosion you can see in the rocks is unique and their size — some stand more than 9m tall — will blow your mind.
The land and on-site campsite are owned by Graham and Paula Grant, originally from the islands of western Scotland, who settled in Hokianga via stints in France and Raglan. Visiting the Hokianga in 2017 they discovered the entire reserve was up for sale and in need of some careful TLC.
Graham and Paula bought the land and took painstaking time to upgrade it, placing a strong focus on sustainability to keep this special spot protected and thriving for generations to come.
Walking tracks loop through the boulders and across the Wairere Stream — the Grants have put in wooden steps, handrails and bridges to make some of the trail more navigable, but be prepared for uneven ground, tree roots, slippery rock surfaces and steep climbs.
Walk a loop through the boulders, or take a steeper, more taxing route up to Magic Rock, high on a hill which on a clear day has views for miles and miles. Kids will enjoy searching for "animals" (rocks painted to look like crocodiles, gorillas, horses etc) and fairy doors within the forest.
Elsewhere on the property, you'll find a campsite ($20 per night), highland cows, an information hut and an old caravan now decked out as a cafe, serving Raglan Roast coffee, cold drinks and fresh baking by Paula. You can also stay at the bach on the hill next to the Grants' house. It's rustic and homely, with wonderful views down to the valley and Paula will deliver hearty home-cooked meals direct to your table.
Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail
You don't have to drive to see the best of the Hokianga — it's also navigable by bike. The Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail is an 87km route that takes you from Opua in the Bay of Islands to Hōreke in the Hokianga, or vice versa. The route is split into four sections, most of it graded 1 to 2, with only the 28km Ōkaihau to Hōreke section graded 2-3.
An easy way to tackle the trail is to base yourself in Kaikohe or Ōkaihau, hire bikes from Top Trail Hire and Tours and make good use of their shuttle service to get you between starting and finishing points.
We were short on time, so rode e-bikes from Ōkaihau to Hōreke. The trail took us past historic churches and war memorial gates, through the Utakura Valley and along the river and surrounding picturesque farmland, lily ponds and towering beech forest, before travelling along a 1km boardwalk through the Mangrove Estuary to Hōreke at the Hokianga Harbour.
For those not shuttling back to Kaikohe, you'll find lovely waterfront accommodation at the historic Horeke Hotel — NZ's first licensed pub — or its standalone three-bedroom cottage House over the Water. Rates are exceptionally good, and won't find a better spot to drink a celebratory beer while you reminisce about your ride.
While in Hōreke, the second-oldest town in New Zealand and home to the country's first shipbuilding yard, don't miss the Māngungu Mission House just around the harbour. This is the official end to the cycle trail, but is worth a visit in its own right as it was a key location in the history of Te Tiriti — the Treaty of Waitangi. The largest Treaty signing took place here on February 12 1840, with more than 70 rangatira and a crowd of up to 3000 people.
The mission house has been undergoing restoration, thanks to Heritage New Zealand, and reopened last week. Visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like for Reverend John Hobbs and family who lived in the house until 1955. You'll also be able to see just what goes into a restoration of a heritage property, as well as enjoy unparalleled views down to Hōreke and across the Hokianga Harbour. Visit on February 12 to join the annual commemorations of the Treaty signing.
You can drive between Hōreke and Kohukohu, but a lovelier way to get there is on the Ranui, a beautifully restored 10m kauri launch once used to ferry returned World War II servicemen across Lake Rotorua to Lake Rotoiti, to a convalescent hospital.
It is now used as a passenger craft to take cyclists and their bikes between towns, or guests on sunset pleasure cruises, and it's a peaceful way to travel across the harbour. Captain Craig Pinkney gives a history lesson as you travel, explaining more about the region's important pre-European and colonial past.
Kohukohu is a delightful little town, right on the edge of the harbour. At the height of the ship-building, forestry glory days the town had a population of around 2000, but it has since dropped to about 160 permanent residents. Various fires destroyed many of the original buildings but some remain around town, all easily walkable on a self-guided tour (pick up a map from shops around town).
Pop into Village Arts and say hi to owner Marg Morrow, a photographic artist who has lived in Kohukohu for 43 years. She opened the gallery 16 years ago to showcase Hokianga and Far North artists, and the gallery features regularly changing exhibitions.
Further down Main St is Art of this World, a light, bright space featuring contemporary New Zealand art, craft and gifts. Owner Angela Lush Randle relocated to Kohukohu from Auckland, and not only opened the gallery, she also took on the daunting task of renovating and restoring the historic cottage next door, now known as The Bank Manager's Residence. You'd never believe just what a derelict state the building was in when Angela bought it — ask her to show you some photos to get a true understanding of just how much blood, sweat and tears went into creating the stylish, comfortable, rental accommodation you see today. It's a wonderful place to stay, with tranquil views across the water, a private garden, and some thoughtful touches from Angela which will make you want to stay far longer than you first intended.
Other accommodation worth checking out in town is the Historic Kohukohu Villa, where hosts Dee and Sean will treat you like a VIP. This historic property dates back to the 1840s and its past uses are rumoured to include a mill office, a billiards room, a reading room, workingmen's club and even a police station. Now, there are two rooms available for B&B accommodation, offering a luxurious yet homely stay. Meals are available and you absolutely should partake — Dee is a wonderful host and the multi-course dinner we enjoyed, accompanied by local Waitapu wines, was an absolute delight. Hours of great food and even better conversation meant we left feeling like old friends.
A vehicle and passenger ferry sails between Kohukohu and the colourful town of Rāwene, just across the harbour. Your first stop should be the Boatshed Cafe, perched on the water, with an excellent menu from morning to night. We enjoyed brunch and great coffee, then left laden with homemade chutney and sweet treats to go. Wander around town and call into the eclectic mix of galleries and stores, like Oh Studio and Simply Fun, before visiting another Heritage New Zealand property, Clendon House. Here, you'll find out more about the house's formidable first lady, Jane Clendon.
Clendon, of Hokianga Māori descent, raised eight children solo in this modest home after her husband, ship owner and trader Captain James Reddy Clendon died, leaving her with massive debts.
Spend a night or two at Marriner's Boutique Guesthouses, where host Robyn, a former lawyer from Melbourne, serves high-quality home-cooked dinners in your beautifully appointed guest suite with views out to the harbour. We were treated to Sri Lankan prawns with roti and fresh salad with limes from the garden, a Goan fish curry with fluffy rice and chutneys, followed by a decadent homemade vanilla almond and cinnamon ice cream with dark chocolate and espresso sauce. We loved the extra personal touches in the suite, including candles, fresh coffee beans and grinder, an espresso pot, Sky TV and Netflix, which made it feel like a home away from home.
This best way to view this lovely beachside town, perhaps best known to Kiwis as the home of Opo the friendly dolphin, is from the water.
Awesome Adventures Hokianga, a tourism business operated by locals Leonard and Antoinette Naera, offers package holidays including homestay accommodation, great Kiwi kai and warm hospitality, or day trip guided jetski safaris out on the harbour. Leonard will give you all the basics of how to safely operate a jet ski, take you for a whiz around the beautiful warm Hokianga waters, and tell tales of the region's history.
We discovered more about Opo, and her tragic end, as well as learning about Whiria mountain — the former pā site of 16th-century chieftain Rahiri and a hugely significant place for Ngāpuhi. After a fun couple of hours and numerous high-speed manoeuvres on the jetskis, we headed back to Len and Antoinette's home for drinks and a platter groaning with delicious cheese and crackers.
Before calling it a day, we drove further along the coast, through Ōmāpere and up to Ara te Uru Nature Reserve, at the south head of the Hokianga Harbour. Māori mythology tells of Arai Te Uru and Niua (the north head of the harbour) being two taniwha who guarded the harbour entrance. When invading waka approached, they would lash their tails and stir up the waters, so the visitors would be left helpless in the sea.
As we looked out across the sand dunes and out to the Tasman Sea the waters were gently rolling and sparkling in the sun. All was calm, and we felt endlessly grateful for the warm welcome we'd found in this often-undiscovered Aotearoa gem.
GETTING THEREWe hired a zippy compact SUV from Avis Rental, which was comfortable and easily handled the twists and turns of Hokianga's off the beaten track roads.
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