From stunning scenery to succulent seafood, we've rounded up our top five picks on a road trip journey north from Auckland to Whangārei.
1. Oyster Farm Tours, Mahurangi
If you’re bivalve-curious there’s no better experience for sampling seafood than on board the Shuckleferry. Departing daily from Scotts Landing at the very tip of Māhurangi East Peninsula, the Shuckleferry is a unique, flat-hulled boat that takes you on a tour of the harbour’s oyster farms.
Māhurangi Harbour is also known as the Jade River because of its colour and length, with the head stretching all the way back to Warkworth. The western coves and bays are ideal growing grounds for oysters, as nutrient-rich currents circle through the narrow harbour entrance and into the shallow tidal waters.
Today, the harbour is home to 13 separate farms, with the largest covering more than 250 acres.
Aboard the Shuckleferry you’ll learn all about the delicious kaimoana. Like the fact that it takes 12 months for an oyster to grow to full size, depending on the amount and quality of nutrients in the sea. As filter-feeders, each oyster will process 100 litres of water each day, and if they’re left high and dry when the tide goes out, they seal shut. Which also means they’ll keep for up to three days once harvested, retaining all their juices in the shell.
You’ll have an opportunity to shuck your own oysters and sample them straight from the shell or gently steamed on the barbecue drizzled in garlic butter.
2. Sawmill Brewery
While the Sawmill Brewery has been operating for 16 years, originally leasing space at the Leigh Sawmill Café, it has been in its current location on the outskirts of Matakana for the last five. First a brewery, it now includes a full dining experience with the addition of the Smoko Room, serving creative, tasty food by head chef Will Michell who cut his chops at Peter Gordon’s The Providores in London and Monique Fiso’s acclaimed Hiakai in Wellington.
Local produce is the hero here, with a focus on less common cuts of meat and unglamorous (but seriously delicious) fish like mullet.
The open-plan layout also means you can experience the brewing process while you sample the beers – seeing, hearing and smelling the business of mash and yeast and fermenting.
Sawmill Brewery makes 40 different types of beer on site, but the Pilsner is their signature, along with a fruity XPA.
You can also BYO bottles, flagon or growler to fill up and take away, in line with the brewery’s overall commitment to sustainability and waste reduction.
3. Whangārei Heads
Explore the diverse landscapes and dramatic geology at Whangārei Heads. The mountainous peninsula forms the northern edge of Whangārei Harbour, with the sheltered, tidal Parua, McLeod and Urquharts bays on one side and the white sands of Ocean Beach on the other.
The centrepiece of the promontory is the iconic Mount Manaia, whose steep bluffs and jagged peaks make for an exhilarating day walk, with incredible views making the steep climb well worth the effort.
However, Manaia’s highest peak, standing at 420 metres, is tapu (forbidden) as Māori chiefs were once laid to rest here. Other short walks in the area include Te Whara Track, one of DOC’s top day walks, or the easy stroll across farmland from Urquharts to the picturesque Smugglers Bay.
For those not feeling so energetic, the drive around the edge of the harbour is a pleasure in itself, as the road meanders through sleepy coastal communities, past playgrounds, cafés and seaside vistas.
Matapōuri is so beautiful it’s cheesy. Approaching the sea via the small sand dunes that ring the curved bay, you’ll feel as if you’re viewing the beach through a beauty filter. Creamy golden sand forms a perfect crescent, the sea is clear and safe for swimming, and there are interesting rocky outcrops to explore at either end of the bay.
Swimming here is divine, with gentle waves and soft, rockless sand underfoot. There’s no squirm-inducing seaweed tangling around your ankles either. The sheltered bay is also a popular spot for paddle boarding and kayaking, if you get bored of simply soaking up the spectacular scenery.
Ramp up the classic Kiwiana with a paper-wrapped pack of crispy fish and chips purchased from the nearby Matapōuri Bay Store to eat with sand between your toes.
5. Lodge 9, Tutukākā
Run by the team at Dive! Tutukaka and located on the same site of their onshore base at Tutukākā Marina, Lodge 9 is a special spot to stay. Book a room, or hire the whole place if you’re travelling with a group. Lush furnishings and thick carpet make the bedrooms soft and soundproof. Downstairs in the communal living area you’ll find everything to make your stay comfortable, including an array of local loose-leaf teas and pods of Walu Lane coffee roasted by Manaia Espresso.
Outside, the sparkling saltwater swimming pool is a particular highlight. At three metres deep, it’s used for dive training, and its underwater windows provide great entertainment for anyone relaxing in the courtyard.
The gardens and outdoor areas at Lodge 9 are filled with giant wooden bollards, ropes and life rings repurposed from the Tutukākā Marina when it was upgraded. These, alongside swaying palms and other mature plants, lend the property a tropical, maritime feel like staying at an island resort.
In the morning, you’ll wake to the scent of freshly baked bread and coffee, with seasonal fruit, dairy and coconut yoghurts and cereals laid out in an enticing spread on beautiful handmade crockery.