We've picked five great attractions that will keep the whole family happy on a road trip journey between Auckland and Whangārei. From beach walks and gelato to donkeys and monster scooters, the kids are guaranteed to have a great time.
1. Charlies Gelato and Slow Blooms
The most challenging part of visiting Charlies Gelato on the outskirts of Matakana is weighing up which flavour to choose. Luckily they provide tasters so you can make an informed decision. From dairy-free sorbetto, to deliciously creamy gelato you’d be mad not to sample several. Try the After Dinner Mint, or Sweet and Salty – classic salted caramel swirled with chocolate flakes.
Also at Charlies you can build your own picnic to enjoy in the garden on a sunny day. Choose a board from the picnic station, pick a selection of antipasto goodies, crackers and breads, then take it all – along with a blanket – out to the vines to enjoy.
And, while you’re here, why not stop to smell – and pick – the flowers? Slow Blooms allows you to handpick your own bouquet of flowers and herbs from the neat rows next to the vines. Help yourself to a basket and snips, then wander the rows selecting what you fancy. Choose herbs, leaves or flower tips for making teas or pressing, or just pick your own colourful posie.
2. Highfield Gardens Reserve
Comprised of two adjoining blocks of land, the reserve on Māhurangi East Road has incredible panoramic views across to the surrounding peninsulas and offshore islands, pretty bush walks and, most notably, resident donkeys.
Gifted to the people of New Zealand by Māhurangi locals, Ted and Alison Roberts, in 1985, the reserve has always been home to a herd of donkeys once used to carry loads for the Roberts’ gardening projects and to keep the grass under control. Today, the park is maintained by a community group and you can make your way through several donkey-proof gates to meet the friendly animals.
They’ll happily take a snack from you, too – so long as it’s only apples, carrots or silverbeet – and will pose for photos.
3. Mathesons Bay
Turn off the main road just south of Leigh to find Mathesons Bay, a small cove sheltered by steep bush-clad hills with views out to the edges of the gulf.
Protected by a rocky reef and outlying island, Mathesons Bay is a popular spot for rookie divers learning the ways of the ocean, and is a safe spot for summer swimming. At low tide there are a myriad of rock pools to fossick in.
Across from the beach there’s a tranquil campground, playground, a calm stream and several bush walks to explore, where you’ll find both a hidden waterfall and a large swimming hole complete with a rope swing for a refreshing dip.
4. Heads Up
Heads Up Adventures is all about a hill. A big, steep hill. Though while it would be an arduous climb, all the activities here are focused on coming down it.
At the inner edge of Whangārei Harbour a steep dirt road climbs vertiginously to the top of a ridge where you’ll find New Zealand’s first monster scooters. These fat-wheeled beasts are perfectly suited to the steep terrain. Gravity powered, with a platform wide enough for both feet, the scooters will take you flying down a network of tracks of varying intensity.
Even the introductory track will see you get some serious speed up if you release your grip on the brakes. Gloves are recommended, and you’ll definitely want closed-toe shoes in case you step off at speed. Using your knees as shock absorbers you’ll crest wave-like tracks that undulate through the bush, zip around corners and boost down the straights to the shuttle waiting for you at the bottom. You’ll want to pause along the way to take in the gorgeous views across the harbour on one side and bucolic farmland on the other.
5. Smugglers Bay
As the Whangārei Heads peninsula tapers to its coastal end, you’ll find an easy walk that takes you to a pretty spectacular beach. Pick your route: You can either choose the short ramble that takes you directly across the isthmus from Urquharts Bay via a kikuyu-filled paddock full of placid cattle to Smugglers Bay.
Or, for a richer experience, choose the longer, history-filled stroll encompassing a Māori pā site and WWII gun emplacements to Busby Head before finishing at the same beach. Reaching Smugglers Bay with its fine white sand and large beachside pōhutukawa trees is like discovering a secluded paradise.
Hot tip: don’t try to swim here at low tide. There are sharp, slippery rocks in the low tide wave zone that make getting into the sea nigh on impossible. Time your visit for high tide to avoid disappointment after a hot walk.