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I’ve now been living in the North Island of New Zealand for over five months. After lockdown ended, we got free reign to travel within the country. I wanted to get away for a few days. So I took a two-hour bus ride south, to Whangarei. I quickly learned this may be one of the most underrated cities in New Zealand.

Hiking to Mount Parihaka in Whangarei.

Things To Do In Whangarei

Hike To Mount Parihaka

This is one of the walks easily accessible from the center of town. It’s steep in sections, so if you have bad knees, you may have to sit this one out. The walk will take you right into nature, and there are several trails up to the top, which is the best part. There’s a spectacular view of Whangarei in every direction. Even though it rained on my way up, at the top, the clouds cleared and the scene was breathtaking.

Also at the top is a beautiful commemorative stone called Te Korowai o Papatuanuku (Cloak of Mother Earth). It was unveiled in 2016 and commemorates the return of the sacred mountain she guards to its ancestral name in 2005.

The Parihaka War Memorial is also located here, and if the sun is at the right angle, it will glow red in the middle of the day. Quite a sight.

Pro Tips: A walking stick might be helpful for some sections, though I managed without one on a rainy day. This same path also takes you to the A.H. Reed Memorial Kauri Park and Whangarei Falls.

The Quarry Arts Center in Whangarei.

Quarry Arts Center

If you hike to the Quarry Gardens from the center of town, you’ll first arrive at the Quarry Arts Center. You’ll find handmade jewelry, paintings, pottery, and more. It’s worth at least a quick visit through all the shops. You can speak with the artists, learn about their work, and see very unique pieces. The grounds are lovely to walk around, and there’s even a cafe.

In addition to viewing art, you can attend workshops and exhibitions which happen throughout the year, and there’s a ceramics shop where you can buy clay and supplies if you happen to enjoy that medium.

Whangarei Quarry Gardens

From the Arts Center, you can walk to the Quarry Gardens. It’s a good 45-minute hike, or longer, depending on which trail you take. You’ll be completely surrounded by nature along the way, and it’s a good time to get familiar with measuring distance in meters!

The Quarry Gardens comprise sculptures and different flowers and plants and grounds you can walk around to view them. There’s also a cafe where you can grab a bite to eat before or after. If you’re too tired to hike back, grab an inexpensive taxi to the center of town instead.

Boats in Whangarei's Town Basin.

The Town Basin

You’ll find boats lined up along the many docks that line the basin. One of my favorite things to do each day was come here and just stare. Any place is perfect for a lovely view of yachts of all different sizes as you imagine where they’ve come from and where they’re going. You can walk along the basin or grab a bite to eat. Even when it’s raining, it’s a beautiful sight.

One of the sculptures along Whangarei's Sculpture Trail.

Sculpture Trail

Along the Town Basin is a sculpture trail. Chris Booth, one of the most well-known sculptors in the north of New Zealand, has a beautiful piece called Waka and Wave, and you’ll see other sculptures of all sizes and shapes. If you walk across the Te Matau A Pohe (Fish Hook of Pohe) Bridge, you can see the rest of the sculptures. If you’re lucky, while you walk along the water, you’ll catch a glimpse of a kingfisher bird. I was stunned to see one sitting quietly, bursting with colors, and no tourists around to scare him away.

Claphams National Clock Museum

Also along the Town Basin is the Claphams National Clock Museum. Though fairly small, it’s chock full of timepieces from different eras. There are tours, or you can walk through independently and be awed by creativity and complexity that line the walls. The museum is very small, so is a great quick activity or one to do with kids.

While all of these activities can be done in Whangarei, there are plenty of other things to see and do within a short drive or bus ride. Kiwi North: Museum and Kiwi House and Heritage Park is a great treat, as are many of the nearby beaches and trailheads. Visit the Whangarei Tourist Office website for ideas.

The Mokaba Cafe in Whangarei, New Zealand.

Best Restaurants In Whangarei

I wouldn’t call Whangarei a food capital, but it does have a nice mix of local and international foods. I was so captivated by the view and the feeling at the Town Basin, I ate there every day.

Mokaba Cafe

This is the first cafe you’ll pass on your way to the Sculpture Trail. I naturally walked on and looked at all the other cafes first, to make sure I wasn’t missing out, but returned here. The outdoor area is the most pleasant of all the casual cafes in the area. On a cold day, there are heat lamps and blankets to keep you cozy outdoors. I found their food delicious, considering it’s just a casual eatery. I enjoyed the salad with squid -- even though the squid was fried, it was perfect and the mix of flavors so good I came back and ate it again. The coffee is fantastic, and the staff really nice. When I ordered a coffee for later, they checked on me outside, reminding me to ask them, anytime, when I was ready for my coffee. I’d recommend them for breakfast or lunch.

No.8 Restaurant And Bar

No.8 is more of a restaurant than a cafe and is further along the basin, near the clock museum. What’s fun about it is the Asian-themed tapas-style menu. It’s a great way to share food with friends and try out many different dishes. The service can be a little underwhelming, but it’s a great place if you want a more hearty meal and like tasting many different things in one meal.

Quail Cafe At Whangarei Quarry Gardens

Quail Cafe is a nice refuge in nature. Make sure you look at the menu, not just the board with the day’s specials, or you could miss out on a lot! The cafe tends to be packed with locals, so you might have to wait for a table. Great for a coffee or a bite to eat before or after you see the gardens.

Hannsang Korean BBQ Restaurant

If you want to try another type of cuisine or enjoy Korean barbeque, this is a great choice. Hannsang is outside the center of town, closer to the Quarry Arts Center. On a chilly day, it’s the perfect lunch place to get your fill of bulgogi over rice.

The Artisans Market in Whangarei.

Where To Shop In Whangarei

While nobody comes to Whangarei for shopping, it’s worth noting a few highlights.

The Artisans Market happens on Saturdays, weather and COVID permitting, near the Town Basin. You’ll find arts and crafts and food as you meander the stalls.

Eko Hub on Walton Street offers wonderful organic, environmentally protective products of all sorts. They make teas and moisturizers, you can find all kinds of aromatherapy products, and they sell bamboo cutlery and more. Worth a wander.

If you enjoy second-hand items, there’s a huge Hospice Shop on the corner of Robert and James Streets.

Finally, the center of town offers a small shopping mall, and Cameron Street offers discount stores that reminded me of being in Asia. You might not need or want to buy any of the gadgets and gizmos, but it’s another fun place to spend a little time.

Best Places To Stay In Whangarei

This is not a luxury hotel town. I stayed at the Discovery Settlers hotel. The room was nice though simple. It was slightly out of the town center so offered a quiet night’s sleep, and a restaurant was on the premises, which was both convenient and pretty good. I thought breakfast was a bit pricey and would suggest getting yours in town if you’re on a budget. This hotel is great whether or not you have a car because it’s a short walking distance to the center of town.

Up the road is the Pembrooke Motor Lodge if you have a car.

Airbnb is a great option and, if you prefer a hostel, I’ve found the YHA chain reliably clean with great amenities and staff. The YHA Whangarei is also outside the town center but within walking distance, if your bags aren’t too heavy.

Pro Tip

Be prepared to be surprised by all that Whangarei offers. You can visit all year round, but winter is cold and rainy. In fact, just this year, they had so much rain it caused once-in-500-year flooding. If you visit in warmer months, you’ll be able to enjoy time at the nearby beaches.

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