Tāwharanui Regional Park at dusk. © Anna Sarjeant

5 top picks for a coastal road trip between Auckland and the Bay of Islands

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Head north from Central Auckland to discover the best of the rest in North Auckland and Northland. These are the top five spots worth stopping for.

1. Habitat Tours in Tāwharanui Regional Park

Being light-footed will serve you well in Tāwharanui Regional Park. As night descends and the once green and lush interior turns to black, you’ll be following Tristan from Habitat Tours deep into the thicket to find kiwi – and they don’t respond well to heavy footsteps. As skittish as they are, Tristan, with his infrared gear and kiwi-spotting prowess, enjoys a high success rate. He’s also good at finding camouflaged wētā clinging to the mānuka, which emit a rich and heady aroma. Having arrived a few hours earlier, you’ll get plenty of time to explore the park, its coastline and flurry of wildlife before tucking into a delicious picnic dinner, come dusk. Then, when the call of a ruru signals that nature has claimed the night, it’s time to tiptoe into the bush.  

2. Unique Matakana experiences

Matakana is just one hour north of Central Auckland and for those fond of a good browse, there is no better place. A small yet lively collection of shops feature artware and one-of-a-kind clothing, as well as a carefully curated selection of Māori keepsakes and an independent art store, Pigment Art.

From leather bound sketchbooks to art materials that punctuate the air with earthy aromas of pigment and paint, if you’re not yet an artist, this store will inspire you to become one.

Run by two talented creatives, ask about their upcoming workshops, then admire your new bundle of materials over a coffee at nearby Matakana Market Kitchen – its line of river-fronting tables might just inspire your next masterpiece. 

3. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Paihia

As part of the cultural performance at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a male visitor is asked to become the group leader and greet the Māori chief outside the marae. Fearless types might like to nominate themselves – or wait for their significant other to do it for them. The chief will then appear, wide-eyed and bare-chested as part of the rich experience you can expect to enjoy on the grounds. Other highlights include informative tours, the Te Rau Aroha Museum, which details Māori commitment to the armed forces and an ascent of the very hill Māori chiefs climbed to sign the Treaty. James Busby’s house sits at the top, where the views over Russell will knock you for six.

4. Discover the Bay Cruise, Paihia 

"There’s no chance the captain’s going through that." Is what you’ll likely say upon seeing the famed ‘Hole in the Rock’ on a Discover the Bay boat cruise. The narrow grotto is all but an inch wider than your vessel and thrashed by frothing swells. Fear not as, according to your skipper, he’s “been through worse.” Giddiness sets in right about now, as the boat rocks before the hole. The captain is negotiating his approach, but it does have the air of a raging bull sizing up its nemesis. Suddenly the motor revs and within seconds the boat hurls its way through the gap. A collective sigh of relief. This daring escapade is sandwiched between a leisurely cruise past several tranquil isles and a 90-minute sojourn on the dreamy Urupukapuka Island. The latter has a licensed bar, which you might just need to help settle your nerves.  

5. Beach Hopping along the Secret Coast 

The road ahead is flushed with gold. Golden beaches that is, and it doesn’t matter if they’re soaked in sun or if a slate-grey sky is drizzling them in mist – you’ll get an eyeful of good views. The Secret Coast snakes its way 54km between Helena Bay and Russell and very much lives up to its name. With every bend in the road (and this is a mightily bendy road) a new curve of dramatic coastline appears, with hidden bay after bay beckoning you to sit or to stride out onto the sand. Elliot Bay is favoured for its breathtaking location and epic surf, while beauties such as Ōpunake, Taupiri and Ōakura Bay also entice. Don’t forget a pocketful of change for an ice cream because whatever the weather, it’s always Tip Top-o’clock on this track. 

Download journey map PDFs for even more things to see and do in Auckland and Northland:

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