This epic roadie connects the little coves, beaches and bays of the east and the immense dunes, wild coastline and vast, sweeping harbours out west.
With 800km of distinct and spectacular scenery – artist Colin McCahon described the 'real Far North of New Zealand' as 'unlike any other part of the land...' – driving this highway, in part or whole, is one of the best ways to experience as much of this beautiful region as possible.
Where better to start than Auckland?
Every Aucklander, of course, will tell you that everything starts in Auckland, but rest assured should you choose to start your journey here: you’ll exhaust yourself well before you can possibly exhaust all the possibilities Tāmaki Makaurau has to offer. And certainly before you’ve put even a kilometre on the clock...
Big-city style, art, culture and stunning natural beauty all go hand-in-hand in Auckland. You don't need to restrict yourself to the beating metropolitan heart either: sparkling harbours and island retreats are but a beat away. Grab a boat, rent a kayak or jump on a seaplane and explore the Hauraki Gulf. Only in this place can you discover the delights of the islands as you bob about betwixt beaches, cafés and wineries.
By now you should feel nicely satiated on every level, so head north...
To the magical east coast...
Up the east coast, you can stretch your legs in Whangārei around the upper river on a solid 4.2km loop for walkers and cyclists.
The pathway passes through the charming hub of the Town Basin (another perfect spot to indulge in more café culture) before taking in local sculptures and glorious info panels that tell you all about the area's heritage. If you're into bridges this loop has two: Te Matau a Pohe (a lifting road bridge over the Hatea River) and the Kotuitui Whiti foot and cycle bridge over the Waiarohia Stream.
Whangārei harbour’s full name is Whangārei Terenga Paraoa, ‘the swimming (gathering) place of whales’ or ‘the meeting place of chiefs.’
Drive further north still and you can explore any one of the hundreds of pristine bays in this part of the world, from Mangawhai and Mangawhai Heads in the south to the Tutukākā Coast in the north, recently heralded by National Geographic Traveller as one of the world’s top three coastlines.
Rich in sand dunes and rock pools, and perfect for a swim or kayak, the raw, natural beauty here combines with a soulful, creative vibe most evident in the local surf community and charming artist studios established on most roads in and out.
The boutique charm of the Bay of Islands...
Here, in one of the world’s most visited natural paradises, you can dive (with or without dolphins), fish (deep sea or otherwise), or get ferried about amongst the historical landmarks that signify this country’s deepest beginnings.
Drop by the gentle seaside village of Russell, once the seething 'hellhole' known as Kororāreka, try Paihia, all ancient churches and modern dining, or Waitangi, the very special spot where the nation’s founding document was signed. All under the seemingly endless sunshine that has earned the region the enviable title of 'The Winterless North'.
The wonderfully undeveloped and subtropical Far North is renowned for its beautiful beaches, bays and harbours, and the great thing about travelling here is that you’re never very far from the coastline.
Take your time while you explore popular beaches around Whangaroa Harbour the bays here are fringed with native bush and dotted with beautiful rock pools and small lagoons), explore the gigantic sweeping arc of Doubtless Bay and be sure to eat a hearty supper of fish and chips at Mangōnui.
On the Karikari Peninsula take a detour to visit New Zealand’s northernmost vineyard before heading further north still, to a surfeit of surfing, swimming and snorkelling coves and bays as you head towards Kaitāia, a sedate launching pad that will jettison you towards the sacred spot at the top of the map: Cape Rēinga.
Show some grit and travel via Ninety Mile Beach on one of the sand buses, stopping for a daring dune ride at Te Paki.
At Cape Rēinga breathe in the awe and majesty of two oceans colliding, then, thus transformed, tootle on back down the west coast.
On your way back down, view the relics of the forest and a gumdiggers’ village at Gumdiggers Park before exploring the site of an ancient, buried kauri forest at Awanui.
The Hokianga and Kauri Coast
Mighty kauri will dwarf your very being in the Waipōua Forest, while the exquisite colours and landscapes of the Hokianga Harbour, home to the twin settlements of Ōmāpere and Ōpononi, and famous for the golden sand dunes that monopolise the view from the shoreline, will fill your boots.
Along the Hokianga Harbour, too, are the history-filled towns of Rāwene, Kohukohu and Hōreke. Look out for home-based artist studios and excellent galleries.
Not far from Kaikohe, 40km southeast of Rāwene is Ngāwhā Springs where the thermal pools are more modest than many of New Zealand’s hotspots but no less therapeutic.
Relax at gentle coastal lakes, or bounce your way along the mountain bike trails that take you deep into winding woods. The choice is yours which, neatly, sums up the whole exciting journey. There’s not just something for everyone: there’s everything for anyone. Get in, be moved, go forth. Haere mai!