Alexia Santamaria finds that Whangarei is much more than just a rest stop.

Like so many, I have often stopped in Whangarei on my travels north so was keen to find out what it actually had to offer as a city. Turns out, quite a lot, especially for families with young kids.

We arrived in Onerahi on a wet Friday night. With the rain coming down in sheets we were very glad of the warm, comfortable, inviting space at Channel Vista Bed and Breakfast, right by the water and only 10 minutes from the city centre.

It wasn't just the place that was warm. The hosts were incredibly helpful and even took me to the markets the next morning at 7am.

It was a lovely experience with convivial stallholders and outstanding produce. Stands overflowed with big, beautiful, freshly picked green lettuces; glistening fish; enormous, shiny, red, capsicums; a wealth of spray-free fruit; free-range eggs and more. This is the original farmers' market and has been running since 1998.


I bought up large for picnic purposes: Mahoe cheese, freshly smoked kahawai, German rye bread, rhubarb meringue cake and fresh figs. Since we were up way too early for lunch I returned to the B&B and we took the kids to the playground and beach across the road. There was plenty of fun to be had among the rocks and sand.

Whangarei Subtropical Quarry Gardens was next on the list, a community project created in the remnants of an old quarry. We were quite surprised by its size and after devouring our picnic we were off exploring. It's steepish but worth the walk to see the waterfalls, lake and subtropical gardens. There are loads of little tracks - perfect for two little boys with excess energy.

All run out, we drove to gorgeous Ocean Beach at Whangarei Heads to be mesmerised by the dunes, white sand and the wild turquoise surf. Rested from the ride, the kids squealed madly, running in the waves.

On our return, a stop at the Parua Bay Tavern for a bite seemed like a good idea. Nestled on the waterfront, it was the perfect spot for a beer and some hearty pub food. The staff were super-friendly and happily pan-fried some fresh fish for our gluten-free child who couldn't consume the battered version. More charming Whangarei hospitality.

Sunday morning was all about adrenaline with a trip to Adventure Forest (15 minutes out of town). With seven circuits and 60 activities (including 20 flying foxes) there was something for us all - even our three-year-old. Circuits are rigged from tree to tree, and involve high wire walking , rope swinging, wobbly bridges and lots more good heart-stopping stuff. They go from 1-12 metres high and there is strict safety training. We all had a blast, despite some fairly heavy breathing from myself on the swing bridges as I repeatedly assured myself that I was attached to a harness and totally safe.

Next it was back to town, via the picturesque Whangarei Falls, for an afternoon at the Town Basin, having lunch, eating icecreams, noseying round the galleries and shops, scooting down the riverside and climbing on the sculptures. The playground was enormous and it was hard pulling our little men away.

The Town Basin is quaint with villa-style shops and cafes and it sits right at the edge of the marina. In the centre is the Claphams National Clock museum, a collection of more than 1000 clocks. It did look kind of quirky and odd but turned out to be a lot of fun with a wonderful guide who made it very interesting for both us and offspring.

With reluctance we headed home vowing to return soon. Don't write Whangarei off as a lunch and toilet stop, it's well worth staying awhile.

Channel Vista: 254 Beach Rd, Onerahi, (09) 436 5529. Ask Geoff to take you for a ride on his Harley.

Whangarei Growers Markets: Water St opposite Forum North. Saturdays from 6.30am (don't go too late as it sells out fast). Try the German cakes.

Whangarei Quarry Gardens: Russell Rd, Kensington. Open 7 days 8am-5pm. Take walking shoes.

Parua Bay Tavern: 1034 Whangarei Heads Rd, Parua Bay, (09) 436 5856. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 11.30am-late. Enjoy the view from the deck.

Adventure Forest: Maruata Rd, Glenbervie Forest, (09) 459 4485. Open weekends, public holidays and school holidays 10am-5pm. The French couple who run it are lovely and will allay your fears.

Claphams Clocks: Quay Side, Town Basin, (09) 438 3993. Open 7 days 9am-5pm. Afterwards take the kids to the playground or walk down by the river.