Northland New Zealand is an absolute gem with stunning beaches, pristine thousand year old rainforest, and the beautiful Bay of Islands. Here’s a guide to planning the ultimate Auckland to Cape Reinga road trip and back, which includes stop offs in Paihia for the Bay of Islands, exploring Cape Reinga lighthouse at the very top of New Zealand, the windswept Ninety Mile Beach, beautiful Hokianga and the Waipoua Forest.
We’ve also go the lowdown on the best places to stay, including Cape Reinga accommodation, and options of self-drive, hiring a campervan for your road trip, or taking one of the Cape Reinga tours on offer.
- 1 Auckland to Bay of Islands
- 2 Things to do in the Bay of Islands
- 3 The Best Places To Stay In The Bay Of Islands
- 4 Paihia to Cape Reinga
- 5 Cape Reinga
- 6 Cape Reinga to to Hokianga (including 90 Mile Beach)
- 7 Southwards to Rawene
- 8 Rawene
- 9 Opononi and Omapere
- 10 Hokianga to Mangawhai (including Kai Iwi Lakes)
- 11 Mangawhai to Auckland
- 12 The best tour options from Auckland and Paihia
- 13 The verdict
Auckland to Bay of Islands
Your journey from Auckland to Cape Reinga begins with a drive to Paihia which takes around 3.5 to 4 hours depending on traffic. It’s a picturesque drive that passes through rolling farmland, the forested Dome Valley and Brynderwyn Hills, past the town of Whangarei before turning off to Paihia which is the main town in the Bay of Islands.
If you’re leaving Auckland early, you might like to stop for a morning coffee and pastry at La Nonna Italian Bakery in either Kaiwaka or Ruakaka. They sell the BEST almond and chocolate croissants, donuts, danishes, filled sandwiches and the New Zealand classic – a mince pie. Highly recommended!
Another must-see quirky stop are the Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa, just before you turn off for the Bay of Islands. We wouldn’t normally recommend public toilets as an attraction, but these are well worth seeing! Built by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (who made New Zealand his home from the 1970’s) the toilets really are a piece of art, constructed from ceramic tiles, glass and constructed around a live tree!
A short drive from Kawakawa and you have reached Paihia, which is the main town in the Bay of Islands.
Things to do in the Bay of Islands
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Waitangi is known as the birthplace of New Zealand and a short drive or an easy half an hour beachfront walk from Paihia. It’s where the Treaty of Waitangi document was signed in 1840 marking a partnership between the indigenous Māori of Aotearoa New Zealand and the British Crown. If you’re interested in learning more about NZ culture and history then Waitangi is a must-do.
Your entrance ticket covers a visit to the excellent Museum of Waitangi that has recently opened and does a brilliant job of telling the story of New Zealand colonisation with interactive exhibits.
You also get a guided tour of the grounds by a local, who explains more about what happened with the treaty signing and the giant war waka (canoe) Ngātokimatawhaorua, which is the world’s largest at 35 metres long.
The grounds also house the Treaty House, which is the second oldest house in New Zealand and the home of the British crown in NZ at the time of the treaty signing.
The guide then takes you to the beautiful carved meeting house Te Whare Rūnanga where you take part in a traditional pōwhiri or welcome ceremony.
Once inside you can admire the traditional carvings, and watch a performance of traditional Māori song and dance.
Even as New Zealanders we learned so much from visiting Waitangi, and would highly recommend it for visitors. Allow two hours for a rushed visit but ideally half a day.
Bay of Islands cruises
There are a number of different tours and boat trips that you can take to see the Bay of Islands. A Bay of Islands cruise is the perfect way to explore the 144 islands and beautiful beaches of the area, and if you’re lucky spot some dolphins!
Hole In The Rock cruise
The most classic trip that has been around since I was a child is the Hole In The Rock cruise. This half day trip takes you cruising through the bay, and out to the famous hole that you literally drive through in the boat! Options include looking for wild dolphins and whales or an island stopover.
See prices for Hole In The Rock cruises and book here.
Cream Trip cruise
The Cream Trip cruise is a full-day cruise that takes you out to the Hole In The Rock, visits a secluded island, goes dolphin and whale spotting and lets you try boom-netting, which is hanging on to a net as you glide through the water!
See prices for the Cream Trip cruise and book here.
Tall Ship Sailing
If you’re short of time but still want to experience sailing in the Bay of Islands, then check out the 2 hour sail aboard the R. Tucker Thompson tall ship for a gentle cruise around the bay. You’ll even learn how to hoist the sails!
See prices for cruising on the R Tucker Thompson Tall Ship and book here.
Paihia is the hub of the Bay of Islands and popular with tourists because of its large range of accommodation. It’s a good place to base yourself if you want to visit the islands, Russell and Waitangi.
There’s a good range of shops, restaurants and cafes and it’s very pleasant sitting in one of the waterfront bars and restaurants admiring the view out over the Bay of Islands.
A short five minute drive from Paihia is Haruru Falls, a pretty waterfall and river that’s worth visiting. Haruru means ‘big noise’ in Māori and is accessed down a short bush walk from the carpark.
If you’re feeling energetic, you can do the 3 kilometre walk from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds via a boardwalk.
A short ferry ride across the bay from Paihia is the gorgeous town of Russell (originally Kororareka), the first capital city of New Zealand and once known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’ due to the drunken sailors and debauchery that took place there!
Today it’s a cute village that has many preserved buildings that give you a taste of what life was like for the early settlers of New Zealand. There’s lovely art galleries, cafes, cute little shops that make it a great place for a half day visit.
A must-do is to visit the wonderful Duke of Marlborough hotel, which dates back to 1827 and is New Zealand’s oldest pub! It’s been beautifully restored and is a great place to grab a drink and relax on the balcony overlooking the seafront, or dine on great food in the sumptuous dining room.
Kids are welcome and they have a fabulous menu – check out those ice-cream sundaes!
You can also also visit New Zealand’s oldest church, with a graveyard of some of the first settlers to NZ, and the gorgeous Pompellier Mission house which has been restored back to it’s original French style.
Getting to Russell
You can either take a passenger ferry from Paihia or if you want to take a car over, the car ferry from Opua (note for beginners – unless you intentionally want to take the windy coastal but spectacular road to Russell, don’t turn off at the Old Russell Road north of Whangarei. The car ferry is much quicker!)
The first passenger ferry leaves Russell at 7am and the crossing takes around 20 minutes. Tickets are $12 return for adults, $6 return for children.
The car ferry leaves from Beechy Street, Opua which is a 10 minute drive from Paihia. The first ferry leaves at 6.50am and takes around 10 minutes. It lands at Okaito which is a short drive into Russell itself. Tickets are $12.50 one way which includes all passengers, or $1 for foot passengers only!
The Best Places To Stay In The Bay Of Islands
There’s a lot of choice for Bay of Islands accommodation and here’s some of our favourites:
Copthorne Hotel and Resort Bay of Islands
We stayed at the Copthorne Hotel and Resort in Waitangi.
- The price! We secured a family room for $150NZD per night which was by far cheaper than any other Paihia hotel we could find (we were booking last minute though)
- The pool complex is fabulous – a massive resort style swimming pool and spa overlooking the harbour, complete with sun loungers and palms. The kids had a great time splashing around even though the weather wasn’t ideal
- Location to Waitangi – it’s located right next door to the Treaty grounds via a short beautiful bush walk, so ideal if you’re wanting to spend time there.
- The hotel is a bit dated and is probably due for refurbishment. But it was perfectly clean and adequate. If you’re looking for luxury this probably isn’t for you
- If you’re wanting to be in the heart of Paihia then this hotel is out on a limb. It’s fine if you have a car but it’s a 20 minute walk into Paihia (along the waterfront, so a lovely walk!) The hotel do also offer a shuttle bus.
Click here to view prices and book the Copthorne Hotel and Resort
Other Bay of Islands accommodation
There are so many options for accommodation in the Bay of Islands – from motels and hotels, apartments, backpackers and campgrounds.
You can search for your dates and check prices here:
Paihia to Cape Reinga
The Paihia to Cape Reinga leg of your roadtrip takes you into the heart of Northland NZ, passing through some cute towns and picturesque scenery right to the top of the country. It’s around a three hour drive and best to take the State Highway 10 route which is more picturesque.
A short 15 minute drive from Paihia is the town of Kerikeri, a great place to stock up on any supplies as there are two supermarkets, pharmacies, bookshops and great cafes there.
While in Kerikeri it’s worth visiting the Stone Store, New Zealand’s oldest stone building. It’s now a gift shop selling some lovely NZ souvenirs (not the tacky kind) and vintage items.
The waterfront town of Mangonui is another gem, with more restored colonial buildings, an old school pub and the famous fish and chip shop which reputedly has the best fish and chips in NZ. They are very good albeit expensive by New Zealand standards!
It’s ideal to stop off for an early lunch or gather picnic provisions for the trip north!
North of Mangonui
There’s a number of small towns that you pass through north of Mangonui, but they’re very small and sometimes with little more that a shop or petrol station.
The small town of Houhora has a beautiful harbour, New Zealand’s northern-most pub and the Pukenui Pacific Cafe is another spot to grab a bite to eat.
Continuing north, Spirits Bay (Kapowairua) is the closest Cape Reinga accommodation. It’s a basic campsite administered by the Department of Conservation.
There’s not much in the way of Cape Reinga attractions (don’t expect shops, souvenir stands and a Cornish pasty stand ala Lands End in the UK!) but that only enhances the stunning beauty of this windswept and special place.
The Cape Reinga lighthouse is the most obvious landmark, but look closely for the 800 year old gnarly looking pohutukawa tree clinging to the cliff. This is a sacred Māori site who believe the spirits of the dead leap from this tree into the ocean to return to their homeland of Hawaiki.
Cape Reinga is also where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. It’s a breathtaking site to see the two slightly different coloured oceans colliding and swirling.
Because of the sacred nature of Cape Reinga eating is not allowed, however a short five minute drive away is the pretty bay of Tapotutopu which is a lovely picnic spot.
Cape Reinga to to Hokianga (including 90 Mile Beach)
From Cape Reinga head back south down State Highway 1.
Sand dunes Cape Reinga
One of the best things to do in Cape Reinga is visit the fabulous Te Paki Sand Dunes. If you’re one of the Cape Reinga tours you’ll almost definitely stop here. The dunes are the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and a fun activity is to go sand tobogganing down. You can also do an ATV safari tour across the dunes.
Ninety Mile Beach
It may seem a crazy question but how long is 90 mile beach? Well in true NZ fashion it’s actually only 55 miles long – the legend goes it felt so long that it must be 90 miles.
This beautiful windswept beach has golden sand and big waves – it’s a great spot for surfing.
90 mile beach driving
It’s also a public highway meaning that cars are allowed to drive on the beach. However, it’s only recommended for experienced 4WD and is safe only at certain tide times.
Rental cars are not permitted on the beach. If you’re wanting to experience the thrill of driving along ninety mile beach you’re best to look at doing a 90 mile beach tour.
90 mile beach accommodation
If you’re wishing to break the journey southwards up you might like to stay around 90 mile beach for the night. There’s not much in the way of hotels here, just a campsite and some stunning vacation rentals. Some of our top picks for accommodation are:
Ahiapara Holiday Park
Walking distance to 90 mile beach the Ahiapara Holiday Park features simple holiday cottages and dorm rooms if you’re on a budget. Check prices for Ahiapara Holiday Park and book here.
Escape to 90 Mile
This gorgeous 2 bedroom holiday home overlooks the beach and you can listen to the waves as you drift off to sleep! Check prices for Escape to 90 Mile and book here.
ASURE Wayfarer Motel
If you’re wanting motel accommodation then you’ll need to travel slightly inland to the town of Kaitaia. The ASURE Wayfarer Motel has cooking facilities and a year-round swimming pool. Check prices for the ASURE Wayfarer Motel and book here.
Southwards to Rawene
Continue driving south down State Highway 1, through Kaitaia and the Mangamuka Gorge towards the small town of Kohukohu.
Kohukohu is a small village that was one of the first European settlements in New Zealand and sits at the entrance to the beautiful Hokianga Harbour.Here you can board the Kohu Ra Tuarua car ferry to take the short crossing over to Rawene to continue your journey. The ferry timetable and fares can be found here.
The gorgeous town of Rawene is one of Northland’s gems and a fabulous place to stop for a coffee or lunch. We highly recommend The Boat Shed cafe which has a range of delicious food, coffee and a small shop selling local arts and crafts. Grab one of the outdoor tables and take in the beautiful views over the upper Hokianga Harbour.
A must do if visiting with kids (or kids at heart) is visit the Simply Fun puzzle and games store. It’s an absolute treasure trove of puzzles and toys from around the world and also houses a unique collection of rare items that the owner has collected over the years.
Opononi and Omapere
Continuing on from Rawene around another half an hour you come to the seaside villages of Opononi and it’s twin town Omapere. This is quintessential Northland and worth spending a night or more if you have the time.
Opononi’s claim to fame was a dolphin called Opo who visited during one summer in the 1950s, becoming quite the national celebrity and is part of New Zealand folklore. She would play with local children and follow fishing boats around until she was sadly found dead. You can see the monument to Opo outside the Opononi Hotel and her grave by the War Memorial Hall.
Even the local dairy (store) has Opo on the roof! These double scoop ice-creams were an amazing $3.50 each!
The main landmark of Opononi and Omapere are the giant towering sand dunes on the other side of the harbour. They’re absolutely phenomenal and the best places to view them are from Lookout Point accessed from the main road up the hill as you head South. Here you can see the dunes and the entrance to the Hokianga Harbour with its treacherous sandbar.
Opononi and Omapere Accommodation
Copthorne Hotel and Resort Hokianga
This is the biggest hotel in the area and has a prime location overlooking the harbour at Omapere. It’s popular for weddings and other celebrations due to its stunning beachside location and cute jetty. Check prices for the Copthorne Hotel and Resort Hokianga and book here.
Opononi Lighthouse Motel
The Opononi Lighthouse Motel is a great choice for families, with self-contained units only 20 metres from the beach. Check prices and book the Opononi Lighthouse Motel here.
Hokianga to Mangawhai (including Kai Iwi Lakes)
The drive from Hokianga down to Mangawhai is one of the most stunning in the world. You’ll drive through pristine NZ rainforest and see one of the oldest trees on earth. Visit the beautiful fresh water Kai Iwi Lakes and swim in the turquoise water and white sand beaches.
The mighty Waipoua Forest is one of New Zealand’s treasures and home to Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand’s oldest kauri tree around 2,000 years old!
Tāne Mahuta is a short walk from the road but please respect the fragile eco-system of the area and stick to the paths and take note of the signs about kauri dieback disease.
There’s plenty of other kauri forest to view also, and the Trounson Kauri Park is on the southern edge of Waipoua.
Waipoua Forest Accommodation
We stayed just south of the Waipoua Forest in an amazing glamping tent and hut on a farm. It was absolutely paradise – the tent had a comfortable double bed, and two camp beds for the kids and it was tucked away in pristine rainforest.
The highlight was the outdoor bath with its stunning outlook onto the New Zealand bush.
The glamping is situated in a Kiwi conservation area so if you’re lucky you might hear them calling at night. We did hear an amazing ruru (morepork owl) conversation going on, it was fabulous!
A small hut made from kauri is next to the tent which has a well-equipped kitchen, sofa and wood burner stove if you’re visiting during winter.
Find out more on the Canopy Camping website.
For more conventional camping and motel accommodation, check out the Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park. They have a great kids playground, barbeque and convenience store on-site. They even offer night walks to go kiwi spotting!
Check our prices and book Kauri Coast Top 10 Holiday Park here.
Kai Iwi Lakes (Taharoa Domain)
Drive 40 kilometres south from Waipoua Forest and you’ll come to the amazing Kai Iwi Lakes (or Taharoa Domain if your GPS doesn’t recognise it!)
You’ll find three lakes that were formed 1.8 million years ago, with sandy white beaches and pristine turquoise fresh water. Not far from the lake edge is a pontoon which is great for diving from, it’s also an ideal place for kayaking, stand up paddleboards and jetskis.
Kai Iwi Lakes Accommodation
Camping is the best option for accommodation at Kai Iwi Lakes, with two campsites available at Pine Beach and Promenade Point.
For camping alternatives, try the gorgeous Wai Hou Oma Lodge, which has studio, 1 and 2 bedroom apartments in a beautiful secluded location but still close to Kai Iwi Lakes. Check out prices and book Wai Hou Oma Lodge here.
30 minutes from Kai Iwi Lakes along State Highway 12 is the town of Dargaville. It’s a medium sized Northland town and good for stocking up on supplies – it has a supermarket and several petrol stations!
Dargaville is famous for growing kumara (NZ sweet potato) and you’ll pass by many places selling it on the side of the road in season.
Drive onwards to Maungatoroto and take a short few minutes drive back to Kaiwaka, where you will turn off to Mangawhai.
Mangawhai is a rapidly growing town (due to its proximity to both Auckland and Whangarei) that still manages to retain a laid-back beachside village vibe. It’s a great place to break up your journey back to Auckland.
It has a beautiful white sand surf ocean beach and a great tidal estuary which is fabulous for younger kids to splash around in.
Mangawhai also has a growing restaurant and cafe scene – favourites include Bennetts, Sail Rock Cafe, the Mangawhai Tavern for casual fish and chips.
The Mangawhai Activity Zone is a fantastic playground with a skate park, mega playground and surrounding bush walks.
Our recommended Mangawhai accommodation
Mangawhai Holiday Park has camping and motel accommodation right next to the beach, with good reviews. Check out Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park prices and book here.
If you’re looking for something slightly bigger, you can rent an entire house at Arandar Holiday Home, another great location close to the estuary beach and shops. Check prices for Arandar Holiday Home and book here.
Mangawhai Chalets are set in a beautiful garden with barbeque facilities and have twin bed plus family chalets available. Beach towels and umbrellas are also available for trips to the beach. Check prices and book Mangawhai Chalets here.
Mangawhai to Auckland
A short 1.5 hour drive will return you back to Auckland. If you’d like to do some more exploring on the way back, here are some great things to do:
- Visit Sheepworld in the Dome Valley to experience a taste of rural New Zealand. Learn all about sheep and watch a sheep shearing demonstration
- Explore stunning Pakiri Beach, a beautiful white sand ocean beach
- Head to Goat Island by Leigh which is a marine reserve and offers amazing snorkelling and diving. Stop at the Sawmill Cafe on the way home for craft beer and pizza!
- Visit Tawharanui Regional Park, home to a wildlife sanctuary and one of the best beaches in New Zealand
- Have a relaxed lunch at one of the many vineyard restaurants in the area such as Plume or Ascension Winery
- If it’s a Saturday, check out the wonderful Matakana Farmers Market, home to fresh and local made produce, arts and crafts.
The best tour options from Auckland and Paihia
If you don’t have your own car, there are a number of tours and bus options to do a tour of Northland, all the way up to Cape Reinga lighthouse leaving from Auckland.
Bay of Islands Tour from Auckland
This two day, one night tour will transport you from Auckland to Paihia by bus where you can visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and take a Dolphin Watching Tour. Find out further information about Bay of Islands Tours from Auckland and book here.
Auckland to Cape Reinga Tour
This three day bus tour, which takes you to visit Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Russell, Cape Reinga and a Hole in the Rock cruise. Find our prices and book the Cape Reinga tour from Auckland here.
Cape Reinga Tours from Paihia
A full day trip visiting Cape Reinga, sand duning, travel along 90 mile beach and visit a 1,000 year old kauri forest. Find out prices and book the one day Cape Reinga tour here.
Northland New Zealand is often a destination that’s overlooked in favour of heading to the South Island. But if you want to experience the heart of New Zealand culture, experience amazing unspoiled beaches and landscapes, and get a bit more off the beaten track, then an Auckland to Cape Reinga road trip is a great way to do it.
Back in Auckland after your roadtrip? Take a look at our guide to The Best Places To Eat In Auckland With Kids.
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What a great post, I am from New Zealand and I think you have done an awesome itinerary in the winterless North! I’ll definitely be sharing with my friends that are heading that way.
Awesome, thanks Kaylie! It certainly is a special part of the world 🙂
This is great. I am in the process of planning our week itinerary for the North Island so I enjoyed reading this! Many thanks L)
That’s awesome Amber 🙂 Shout out if you need any more tips for your itinerary 🙂 Cheers, Kylie
HEADING TO NZ FOR DEC/JAN FROM NORTHERN IRELAND FOR AN ADVENTURE WITH THE KIDS! ILL DEF BE FOLLOWING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS IN THE NORTH. THANK YOU SO MUCH THAT WAS A FAB READ.
Oh that’s brilliant Nina! Thanks so much for your kind comments. You will have such an amazing time 🙂 If you need any help with the planning of your trip or have any questions I’m happy to help 🙂
Great description, very useful for us to plan our upcoming trip. If you had a total of 7 nights to spend, trying rather to spend more days in 1 place rather than moving around every day, how you split them? We are a family with 2 small kids. I was thinking 3 nights Bay of Islands, 2 nights Opononi, 2 nights Waipoua forest.
A bit concerned about it being a very long day of driving leaving from the Bay to the Cape and down to Opononi though.
Hi there, I’m glad you found it useful! Yes that’s potentially a very long day with 2 small kids, also it will really only leave you time for a quick look at the lighthouse and not a lot of time to do the sand dunes, 90 mile beach etc. I think you definitely need 3 nights in Bay of Islands, then I would do the Cape Reinga trip then stay the night in Kaitaia or out a the beach at Ahiapara which is nicer. Karekare Peninsula is also beautiful and a good choice, but a bit further. Then head down to Opononi from there. It’s very doable to visit Waipoua Forest from Opononi so if you don’t want to move around too much then choose either the forest or Opononi to stay in and explore the other. Just a note too – the forest is incredible but there isn’t much there in the way of shops/restaurants/amenities etc so if you think you will need these then Opononi or adjoining Omapere is a better bet. Hope that helps!
Thanks so much for your post,has really helped to plan our New Zealand road trip
You’re welcome Lesley, enjoy your trip!
Wow thanks for sharing your awesome adventure! We are about to take the same trip early March. Also NZers but ready to explore our ‘backyard’. Just a question regarding the ferry to Rawene. If coming down that side of the island is that the only way to continue down the back through to Auckland? Thanks 😊
Hi Sharne, that’s so cool, you’ll love this part of home I’m sure! If you go via the ferry at Rawene then yes that’s really the only road back to Auckland, through Waipoua Forest and Dargaville then back out to the east coast and State Highway 1. If you want to cross over earlier so you don’t go back through the forest, from Rawene, head on State Highway 12 to Kaikohe which will bring you back out onto State Highway 1 and the East Coast. Waipoua is incredible though and really worth doing in our opinion. Hope that helps!
Kylie, I have been thinking about doing this trip for awhile now. I live in Mount Maunganui and wanting to take my two daughters who are aged 6 & 9. Would a week be long enough to do all the things you have done or do you think more time is needed? Did you pre plan before you did this!
Hi Caroline, sorry I only just saw your comment! Yes you could do it in a week for sure but you would be moving and driving most days I would imagine, if you had longer then you could spend more time exploring but it’s definitely doable in a week. Depends on the time of year, if you’re doing it in summer school holidays then I’d definitely book ahead, but otherwise you’d be fine to wing it as you go in terms of accommodation. Hope that helps!