The pandemic has gifted me over 9 months and counting in the beautiful country of New Zealand. I’ve spent the past eight of them in Kerikeri, in the Northland region of the North Island. Because New Zealand has focused on keeping people healthy first, and the economy second, I’ve been able to travel and have a fairly normal life. Due to these ideal circumstances, I’ve had a long while to discover the gems that create the north of the North Island. I’ve even been lucky to befriend people with cars to see more of it than I could have by bus or on foot. Everyone raves about the South Island, which is why I decided to come up north. In my 3 years of nomadic life, I’ve learned that some of the best parts of a country are the locations that fewer tourists venture to. I present to you my personal list of places not to be missed on your next trip to New Zealand.
1. Cape Reinga And Ninety Mile Beach
Though this is a tourist destination, it’s worth the trip. The lighthouse on the cape will leave you feeling you’re standing on the end of the earth, looking into an endless sea. Unless you have a perfect, sunny day, in which case, you can see the Three Kings Islands in the far distance. The walk to the lighthouse has perfect rolling hills, and one of them reminds me of the goddess in the movie Moana after she takes her place on the land at the end of the movie.
On your way to Cape Reinga, you’ll pass Ninety Mile Beach. Interesting that a country that uses kilometers kept the name bestowed by Captain Cook. The beach goes on and on, as the name implies. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a gorgeous view of The Hole in the Rock (Piercy Island). Another bonus, if you enjoy it, you can do some sandboarding.
I’ve written about my visit to the quaint town of Kerikeri, and after living here for 8 months, I can say it’s got a lot more to it than I originally expected. There’s history (the Stone Store and inlet are where the indigenous Maori and settlers met for the first time), there are beautiful hikes to five different waterfalls, there are fairy pools, a parrot sanctuary, and more. I’ve been staying at Wharepuke Subtropical Accommodation, Restaurant, Garden And Art, which houses a beautiful public garden and Maha restaurant, one of Kerikeri’s best. There are forest walks, cafes, and I’m only getting started. This is a town you can choose to see the highlights or hunker down for a while and get to know it better.
3. Paihia, The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, And The Hole In The Rock
Paihia is another more touristed spot, but it’s still worth a couple of days. The town is adorable and a 15-minute walk from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, one of the most important sites you can see in New Zealand. Paihia is also where you catch the boat to view the famous Hole in the Rock, also known as Piercy Island. Along the way, you’ll be gifted glimpses of dolphins or whales. In fact, if you aren’t, you get a free ticket to try again another day.
As an added bonus, the tour also drops you at the idyllic town of Russell, a perfect place to spend your afternoon.
Pro Tip: If you do get off at Russell on your way back, make sure to request a ferry ticket, which is included in your tour price, and will get you back to Paihia at no additional charge.
4. Matauri Bay
The famous Greenpeace ship was sunk here in 1987. You’ll only see it if you go diving. Otherwise, you’ll walk up and gasp at views of the bay. When you arrive at the top, you’ll see the work of one of New Zealand’s well-known sculptors, Chris Booth. He used the ship’s propeller as part of a sculpture commemorating the vessel.
Pro Tip: Parts of this walk may be a bit steep for weak knees, but worth it if you can grin and bear it or bring a walking stick.
5. Ngahuha Gardens
The average tourist probably never gets here. While in Kerikeri, I had the pleasure of doing a Garden Safari held once a year in October since 1987. People here take their gardens seriously! The subtropical climate allows many plant species to grow in the area. The couple that cultivated Ngahuha started with farmland 35 years ago. Today it’s 15 acres of amazing plant and tree life, perfectly sculpted into their rolling hills. You can call and make an appointment for a private tour if you’re not here for the garden safari. Along the way, you’ll meet the dogs, the kids, and see the avocado grove which produces the avocados I buy at the Sunday market in Kerikeri.
6. St. Paul’s Rock
This is a hikeable volcano. Don’t let the small size fool you. After a steep walk up, there’s a section perpendicular to the ground that you’ll have to climb. Even with chains to help you, it’s no easy feat. If you have any leg or arm issues, you probably won’t make it up those chains, at least not without assistance. Despite my shaky legs after braving that section, I ventured to the very top and was glad I did. A 360-degree panoramic view of the area delighted me every direction I turned. This is not an experience you can have every day!
There are two important things to do in this tiny town. First, visit the dolphin statue. It’s there to commemorate Opo, the bottlenose dolphin who, in 1955, began following fishing boats around Opononi and played with children that swam near her. The other important thing to do here is have a fish ‘n chips meal. The most well-known place to do that is Opo Takeaways. A few benches are outside to enjoy your food. The fish ‘n chips is a huge meal, and if you’re really hungry, try one of the fried seafood sandwiches, stacked high with varieties not commonly on the menu in other countries. Either way, bring your appetite!
8. Tane Mahuta
When you come to New Zealand, you’ll hear a lot of talk about kauri trees. They are beautiful and huge. Sadly, they’re being devastated by a new disease, called kauri dieback. One tree, in particular, is extremely special because it’s over 2,000 years old, and still alive. It’s called Tane Mahuta, or God of the Forest. If its sheer size doesn’t amaze you, consider that it was alive in the time of Jesus Christ.
Pro Tip: Make sure that you carefully scrub and clean the soles of your shoes on the way in and out of this beautiful park, and stay on the path, to save the kauri.
9. Marsden Cross
The hikes and views at Marsden Cross are a perfect way to spend a few hours. It marks the first mission settlement and first Christian service conducted in New Zealand.
When you enter the track, you have the option of taking a path out to sea or staying on the main track which takes you down to the cross itself. If you walk out to the sea views, you’ll have to sit down to take in all the beauty. If you walk down to the cross itself, you’ll go through a beautiful nature track. At night, this protected area is alive with native kiwi birds. I had the pleasure of doing a night hike where I saw about eight of them.
10. Aroha Island
This island has a Brigadoon quality -- it’s only open in the warmer months of the year. You can go for a walk, or stay the night in one of their various accommodations, ranging from tent to cottage. Staying overnight will give you a true experience in nature, and you might see a wild kiwi at night. It also gives you more opportunities to see local nature and wildlife. By day, you can walk around the island.
Pro Tip: Atop off at the office and read about the island’s history and landscape.
11. Mahinepua Bay
Make sure you’ve eaten your Wheaties for breakfast before you do this hike. Two mountains lie before you. From afar, they don’t look that bad, but once you get closer, you’ll see it’s a long way up the first. When you finally reach its summit, you then realize you have a whole other mountain to hike! Well worth it for the views. Some parts of it reminded me of Asia, especially the staircase that seemed to go on forever. The hike is a solid hour each way, so bring plenty of water and a light snack.
12. The Koutu Boulders
The boulders of the Northland feel magical. The most touristy ones are the Moeraki boulders. I recommend skipping them (in fact, many tourist reviews of it are disappointing) in favor of the Koutu boulders. To visit them you have to go at low tide because you’ll need to walk along the beach to find them. Their size and shape are quite a sight complemented by the beach.
Pro Tip: Make sure to take a photo of you next to the boulders so you can understand how big they are!
13. The Wairere Boulders
Close to the Koutu boulders, you’ll find a completely different experience at the Wairere Boulders. While the prior experience is on a beach, this one is inland. You could easily spend a half-day walking the trails here among the spectacular boulders. Instead of round, they’re massive and stand out as a perfect contrast to the beautiful nature around them. If you’re with kids, they’ll love trying to find all the fairy houses. You can also stay on the property, but the true highlight (in my opinion) is the herd of Highland cows that call the area home.
14. Marsden Estate
If you’re in Kerikeri, and you like wine, Marsden Estate is a must-visit destination. You’ll need a reservation. I suggest having lunch -- the food is delicious. I’ve had both the seared tuna and the lamb. You can have your lunch with a flight of wines and you get to choose which wines will comprise your flight. After lunch, head over to the wine-tasting area for a post-meal tasting flight. This will give you five wines, slightly less quantity than you had at lunch so you’ll be able to have an excellent overview of the wine selection without getting too tipsy. My favorites are the rose and the pinotage.
15. Living Nature
This company started in 1987 in the founder’s kitchen. Today, Living Nature is a thriving cosmetics company with wonderful creams and makeup made with local and natural ingredients. You can have a tour of the factory. However, the real hook is that when you shop in the factory store, you get a 13 percent discount on everything, which you can’t get anywhere else! Beware, you’ll fall in love with the products, and they’ll make a dent in your wallet.
The Northland is rich with less well-known sites (and a few touristy ones) which makes it one of the most worthwhile places to spend some time, in my opinion.