26th December, Boxing Day and the first time we had stepped on a plane in 2020. Man, did it feel weird, yes. BUT we are in New Zealand where it is safe to travel domestically, so that’s what we did. After a year of cancelled trips and adventures due to lockdown, we decided to aim safely for the end of 2020 to have a brand new adventure here in New Zealand.
We have been living in Queenstown for the past six years and never have we ever made it further north than Auckland on all our travel trips, crazy right? We decided that we needed to explore the Northland region and the summer holidays gave us our exploration window. With the help of our friends at Apollo Motorhome holidays, we had our Euro Tourer van packed up and ready to depart Auckland for an adventure to the tip of the North Island.
Our route was loosely planned, we had to book campsites due to the busy Summer season but apart from that, we left it open to experience whatever Northland may have to offer along the way. Our seven-day trip took us from Auckland to Whangarei, to Paihia, to Ahipara and Cape Reinga then back down to Auckland. The weather gods blessed us with bright blue sunshine days every day and showed us Northland’s rich, cultural, and spiritual history.
We drove, laughed, explored, camped, ate good food, drank beer, ocean swam, kayaked, and chased waterfalls and it was magical. A week just didn’t seem long enough.
Day one Auckland – Whangarei
It was pick up time. We stayed close to the airport after a late flight through from Queenstown but also so we could maximise our time and be the first through the Apollo doors at 8 am when they opened. The team there are awesome. They showed us through the van with quick ease and explained everything we need to know about pipes and cables and all things that make camping in a van easy. We hit the road just after 9.30 am hangry and on a coffee mission. Little did we know that Auckland is just one big ass motorway and we didn’t find a rest stop for a good hour. Fuelled up both the van and ourselves we hit the road, none stop to Whangarei.
Whangerei is a vibrant little city on a harbour. Beautiful views, boats, the ocean, and some pretty impressive landscapes on the drive around the Whangarei heads. The main town basin is the perfect place to relax and have a great café style feed, the coffee is also great! We checked into our campground and got back on the road to explore. No trip to Whangarei is complete without a trip to the falls. You can walk down to the base of the waterfall that’s often called the ‘most photogenic waterfall in New Zealand’ it’s a sweet little twenty-minute loop track and has a very tropical vibe. We didn’t want to head back to the campsite too early so we checked out the AH Reed Kauri Park. This forest is beautiful, full of nature, we spotted Tui’s and a native Kererū. Walk the Canopy Walkway for a birds-eye-view of the Nikau palm trees and walk to the hidden gem of Whangarei, Pukenui Falls.
Auckland to Whangarei drive time – 2 hours 15 minutes, however, this is on a motorway and you should allow extra time.
Day two Whangarei to Paihia
When on holiday why can I never switch off and relax? I was awake and the kettle boiling as the sun peaked through the curtains of our van. Our first night of van life was awesome. We cooked up a summer salad storm in the kitchen and supped on a few cold ones before turning our day van into a bedroom and settling in for the night. Getting ready in the van and turning it back into a day van is super easy and quick so we decided to pack up early and hit the road, headed for Paihia in the Bay of Islands. As I punched the location into google maps it showed another coastal route, adding a few hours to the drive but always up for the adventure we set off east, and boy, am I glad we did! The Tutukaka Coast beaches are among the most spectacular and beaches that Northland has to offer and to think we wanted to head up the motorway. The white sandy beaches of Matapouri, Wooley’s bay, and Sandy Bay are some of the finest beaches I have ever seen. Beautiful rock pools, surf at Sandy Beach, and summer vibes everywhere. We parked up, flung the back doors open, and soaked up what was our first taste of New Zealand Summer. It was getting on and we thought best to head to our next destination, reluctantly I closed the back doors and we set off further up the east coast of New Zealand.
We arrive in Paihia just in time to witness the most beautiful pastel pink sunset. There’s something magical about blue oceans and blue skies when the sun goes down. What an introduction to our two night stay here in Paihia.
Day Three & four Pihaia & Russell
No day in the Bay of Islands would be complete without getting out on the water. We tossed up a jet ski tour or a kayak around the islands and opted for the latter so we could go at our own pace and explore all the hidden beaches. For just $50 we rented a double kayak for two hours, an ample amount of time to paddle around the islands and pull up for a dip in the ocean on the private little beaches. It was bliss. We spent the afternoon lazing around the town, sampling the many variants of ice cream, sorbet, and real fruit ice creams on offer before heading back to the campsite for lunch. We paid for a powered site here so our campervan fridge was plugged in and working, it also works off the power so you can pull up anywhere at any time and make yourself food. Finding secret spots, lookouts, and beach views is one of my favourite things about having a van and it made our trip so awesome.
We decided to head out to dinner on our last night in Paihia because one cant simply visit a beach town and not indulge in a fish and chip tea on the waterfront, can you? The passenger ferry leaves every half an hour from the main wharf, $13 will get you a return ticket and over to the quaintest little town. A flurry of cute bars lines the waterfront, old buildings from the early settlers are around every corner and it is the perfect place to relax for an evening by the ocean. We found a bar that had great views and even better Aperol spritz, so good that we missed the last orders for the chip shop and had to run to the ferry to make it back in time before dark… maybe our holiday mode kicked in here? Did you know Russell used to be the first capital of New Zealand? In the early 19th century, was the first permanent European settlement and seaport in New Zealand.
Never fear fellow foodie readers we made it back to Paihia just before their last takeaway closed and we managed to get our classic fish and chips before the sunset on our last day in the Bay of Islands. We walked back to the van, our path lit by a full moon. Magic.
Paihia is also home to the Waitangi treaty grounds. Here you can discover the history of New Zealand. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are a journey of discovery through New Zealand’s most important historic site, wherein 1840 New Zealand’s founding document was signed: the Treaty of Waitangi. I highly recommend you visit here and educate yourself about New Zealand and Maori history.
Whangarei to Paihia (Via the Tutukaka Coast) – 2.5 hours driving time but allow yourself enough time to soak in all the beach goodness.
Day Five Paihia to Ahipara
Every day is a bluebird day in the winterless north. It was absolute bliss to wake up with the sun streaming through the curtains of the van and enjoy my morning tea with the sound of nature waking up around us. I loved having breakfast sat on the step, nodding to our fellow campers before packing up for the day and heading to our next destination. We hit the road and headed inland, in fact, the route would take us across the country from the East Coast to the West coast.
You will find Ahipara at the southern end of 90-mile beach, It’s home to beautiful open beaches, surf, incredible sunsets, and a quaint little township. We stocked up at the last town before Ahipara, Kaitaia, and grabbed everything we would need for two nights beachside. On route we heard about a bush fire that had taken over the southern end of the beach, cutting us off from our intended campsite. We squeezed into the other holiday park and set up for the evening. There is honestly nothing I love more than a good view, a good brew, and our new home on wheels. If you have a 4WD drive vehicle or quad bikes then hit the beach, we watched so many people taking advantage of the open beach and the sheer size of the area. It is also a popular horse riding area.
Day six Cape Reinga
One of our biggest adventures during our Northland adventure was to visit Cape Reinga. A place that has sat high on my New Zealand bucket list since we arrived. One, because it is the northernmost point of the island and two because I have a thing for lighthouses. When Robbie & I first met we had our very own campervan and hit the Great Ocean Road on our first ever road trip. We stopped at every single lighthouse on the way down and it kind of became our thing.
We set off early in a bid to beat the crowds, although the crowd had the same idea. Even with the lack of international tourists, this little white lighthouse is pretty popular and now I know why. Cape Reinga holds significant spiritual meaning to the Maori’s. At the northernmost tip of the Cape is a pohutukawa tree, believed to be over 800 years old. According to Maori oral history, the spirits of deceased Maori leap from this tree into the ocean to return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. It’s where the spirits go home, such a spiritual, magic place.
Also at the Cape, the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of current creating a distinct line in the ocean, that was pretty crazy to see. After a short walk around the lighthouse and up to the viewpoint we jumped back in trusty Nancy girl (the nickname we gave our Apollo Ruro Tourer van) and hit the road, stopping at every pull-in, harbour and viewpoint down the coast.
Back at Ahipara, we planned to watch the last sunset of 2020 and she did not disappoint. Finding ourselves nestled in the tussock grass sand dunes on Ahipara beach watching the sky light up all shades of pink and orange. After what has been a very interesting and turbulent year it was the perfect way to enter 2021.
Ahipara to Cape Reinga – 1.5 hours one way along state highway 1. When you leave Kaitaia you won’t pass another big town or many amenities so stock up on coffee and snacks before you leave.
Day 7 Ahipara – Auckland
Day 7 and the final day of our trip. The day I was least looking forward to, why? Because our van life dream was over and Apollo needed our trusty stead back for the next adventurous couple. We cleaned out our van, emptied, restoked, and refilled everything we needed (like the good responsible campers we are) and hit the highway bound for Auckland. We encountered our first day of rain, it’s as if the weather gods knew our adventure was over. We took it slow, knowing he had enough time to reach our final destination. We decided to take the Tutukaka Coast road one last time, in search of some sunshine, spending our last afternoon exploring rock pools, the bluest ocean, and digging our feet into white sandy beaches for the possibly the last time this Summer. A concoction of food was made from the leftovers in our van fridge but enjoyed with the finest view, doors open, slight offshore sea breeze and ocean for miles… remind me why we only booked seven days again?
True to Auckland city life we hit every man and his dog in a traffic jam on route to the big smoke. The rain bouncing off the tarmac and inching us closer to Auckland by the millisecond. What should have been a two-hour drive from Whangerei took over four and our snack bag quickly diminished through boredom. Making it back to Auckland just in time to drop off our van we reflected on what was a wonderful seven-day adventure exploring new territory and hitting that relax button.
Ahirpara to Auckland – In total a 5-hour drive. However, we broke up the drive with an overnight stay in Whangerei and a detour to the Tutukaka Coast road. Although the long drive down follows state highway 1 I highly recommend regular stops or breaking up the drive if you have the time.
White sandy beaches, open ocean, friendly faces, waterfalls, surf, water sports, and good ol’ Kai Moana… this trip will be one that sits high in our travel memories forever.