Never mind A to B – how about the road less travelled? Post-lockdown, head north from Auckland, avoid the well-worn rut of State Highway 1 and discover what there is to enjoy on a detour to the west.
There are many corners ahead so fortify yourself first with a coffee at the quirky and cute Eutopia Cafe in Kaiwaka, full of birds, patterns and colour; and maybe buy a treat from the Dutch cheese shop opposite. Now you're ready.
The Twin Coast Discovery Highway begins at Brynderwyn — turn left for a pleasant drive through green farming country, skimming past a finger of the Kaipara Harbour. Stop at Matakohe for a nose around the remarkable exhibits at the Kauri Museum. The range is astonishing: from delicate and beautiful kauri gum jewellery right up to an immense polished slab of the tree itself, dominating an airy gallery. There is intricate antique kauri furniture to admire, complicated milling machinery, tools, boats, bottles and a recreated pioneer home with some dramatic domestic scenes enacted. The display of golden kauri gum is simply gorgeous, and the region's history, Māori and European, war and peace, is well presented.
That's your introduction to the Kauri Coast, so carry on westwards to Dargaville, where you could call in at Rick Taylor's woodturning gallery, to watch him magic this golden wood into beautiful smooth bowls and ornaments. You can even arrange for a tuition session.
Back on the road, and just past Mamaranui, take a detour to Kai Iwi Lakes to admire the crystal-clear fresh water in these three dune lakes. With their white sandy beaches and sparkling turquoise water, you could think you were in Aitutaki — until you step in for a paddle.
Continuing north, the farmland finally gives way to the star of this route: Waipōua Forest. The contrast is immediate, the road hemmed by thick, lush bush, tall trees and feathery ferns. Winding and hilly, this is a trip back in time, to when Northland was covered in forest just like this. Waipōua has the largest stand of kauri left in the country, and its stars are Tāne Mahuta, the tallest, and Te Matua Ngahere, the biggest by girth, and oldest, at an astonishing estimated 2500 to 3000 years.
It's only a short distance into the forest along a boardwalk to the base of Tāne Mahuta, looming 51m overhead. It's the bulk of the trunk though that is most impressive: only 17m high, but almost 14m around. It truly is an awe-inspiring sight, and its importance to local Māori is entirely understandable. For a richer experience, you can go on a Footprints Waipōua Twilight Encounter, entering the forest when it is closed to the public, escorted by Māori guides who provide a spiritual, educational and entertaining experience.
Continuing the drive, no one ever failed to stop at the spectacular Pakia Hill viewpoint over the Hokianga Harbour entrance, where the green bush to the south contrasts so vividly with the golden sand dunes to the north.
Passing the long boat ramp at Ōmāpere, you'll follow the beach along to Ōpononi, famous for its friendly dolphin Opo, who played with swimmers and boaties over the summer of 1955-6. Before you get to her bronze statue, stop at Manea Footprints of Kupe for a real treat: Māori history and legend presented in an exciting mix of tradition and 4D technology. A guided tour includes a pōwhiri, an introduction to impressive carved statues, song and dance, and an inventive retelling of the story of Kupe.
If the tide is low, and you're a fan of boulders, you could detour to Koupu to see them scattered along the beach like a Northland Moeraki. Then carry on along the Twin Coast Discovery Highway to where it's broken by the harbour at pretty and historic little Rawene. Here you'll find colourful heritage houses, galleries and cafes, one full of art, the other perched over the water, from where you can watch the car ferry chugging across to Kohukohu.
It's another tempting detour — but turn around now and continue along SH12 through more rolling farming country dotted with big shady trees. Finally, you'll come to Kaikohe, where the Left Bank hotel is a good place to stay and to eat. It was once a bank, so there's a lot of heritage inside — but for a proper taste of historic buildings, visit the Pioneer Village, imaginatively presented by friendly staff, and ideal for a wander.
It's been a busy couple of days, so you'll be wanting a chance to relax, and Ngawha Springs is just along the road. Here, freshly renovated, is a complex of 16 geothermal pools, each offering a different mix of minerals and temperature, traditionally valued for their therapeutic effects. It's the perfect place to reflect and remember the places you've been and the things you've seen — and to regret the ones you missed. This time.
Kauri Museum: Open daily 9am-5pm – adult entry $25, child $8, family $55 kaurimuseum.com
Footprints Waipōua: Departs daily 5pm – adult $105, child (5-12) $45 footprintswaipoua.co.nz
Manea Footprints of Kupe: 90-minute tours three times daily – adult $65, teenager $12, child $6, family $142 maneafootprints.co.nz
Kaikohe Pioneer Village: Open weekdays in winter, 10am to 4pm – guided tour adult $20, senior $15, child $5 pioneervillage.org.nz
Ngawha Springs: Open 9am to 9pm with an afternoon break, closed Mondays – adult $34, senior $27, child $15, family $90 ngawha.nz
For more, visit northlandnz.com
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz