From country roads to offshore island detours, boats, beaches, snorkelling and surfing, this journey between Auckland and Whangārei is packed full of exciting activities.
Day One: Auckland to Scotts Landing
Head north from Central Auckland, zipping along the Northern Gateway toll road and slipping into the countryside on the outskirts of the city. Turn off at Warkworth and head towards Scotts Landing at the tip of Māhurangi East Peninsula.
Departing from the sleepy settlement is New Zealand’s only oyster farm tour. Onboard the Shuckleferry not only will you have the chance to shuck and sample delicious Māhurangi oysters, you’ll learn about the local aquaculture industry and why the harbour provides ideal growing conditions for these briny bivalves.
Potter around the regimented farm rows where tiny baby oysters attach themselves to underwater sticks and slowly grow to optimum size over a 12-month period.
You can sample the succulent seafood, shucked straight from the water with a squeeze of lemon or with mignonette dressing, or try them gently steamed open on the barbecue.
On your way back from Scotts Landing, stop in at Highfield Gardens to meet the local donkeys. A unique park managed by a dedicated community group, Highfield Gardens has a herd of friendly, free-ranging resident donkeys that you can pat and hand-feed apples or carrots.
On the outskirts of Matakana you’ll find Beau Regard, three immaculate self-contained cottages decorated with soft French flair. Set amongst beautiful gardens and backing on to native bush, Beau Regard is both private and serene. Lovely touches include recipe books featuring local producers that will inspire you to sample the marvellous Matakana fare.
Day Two: Kawau Island day trip
From Matakana, head back to the tidal estuary at Sandspit where Kawau Cruises depart daily on an intriguing island adventure.
On the Royal Mail Cruise, you’ll take a tour of the island’s bays, coves and tranquil harbours stopping along the way to deliver post and parcels to the local residents. Ringed with brutally craggy orange cliffs, Kawau has many marginal-looking house sites with weatherboard baches sitting alongside sleek new builds peering out of the bush.
Copper was discovered on the island in 1844 and a mining venture was soon established by the North British Australasian Company of Aberdeen. The copper was to be shipped back to Wales for processing, however the high sulphide content often caused it to spontaneously combust – not ideal on board a wooden ship – so in 1847 a smelter was set up on the island. The venture ultimately proved unprofitable and mining operations were shut down in 1855, but relics of the mine shafts and smelter remain today.
In 1862, Sir George Grey purchased the entire island, converting it into his own private playground.Today, Mansion House Bay is still a testament to Grey’s eclectic and exotic tastes.
Importing foreign flora and fauna, including monkeys, zebras and many species of tropical trees, Grey created an environment unlike anywhere else in New Zealand.
Because of this you can wander amongst towering palm trees alongside resident peacocks and spot wallabies on the island’s walking tracks.
Step back in time inside Mansion House, where you can explore stately sitting rooms, small sculleries and sumptuous bed chambers preserved in the style of the 1800s.
Day Three: Matakana to Leigh
Spend the morning exploring the cafés and boutique shops in Matakana Village, then it’s just a short drive north to the Sawmill Brewery for lunch.
Producing more than 40 different types of beer on site, the Sawmill offers tastings, fillings of BYO beer vessels, and stellar cuisine in the stylish restaurant, the Smoko Room.
With a strong focus on locally-sourced produce and line-caught fish from nearby Leigh Fisheries, the menu is rich in seasonal flavours and interesting ingredient combinations.
The brewery also takes pride in their sustainability efforts. All brewery waste is repurposed for stock feed or compost, giant grain silos are used as an environmentally-friendly alternative to 12,000 plastic malt bags each year, the business runs on solar power, and all wastewater is treated to irrigation standard and used for growing grass and livestock.
All of this adds up to the Sawmill achieving a remarkable B Corp certification – a prestigious credit for businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance. They’re the only brewery in New Zealand to have one, and one of only 2,500 companies globally.
After lunch, stop off at Mathesons Bay for a gentle stroll along the sandy beach, a spot of rock pooling at low tide, or if you’re feeling more energetic, tackle the walking trail that leads to a waterfall and fresh water swimming hole.
Since you’re in the area it would be rude not to check out the famous Leigh Sawmill Café. Not to be confused with the Sawmill Brewery. A casual restaurant serving easy, tasty fare, on site accommodation and one of the country’s most iconic music venues, the Leigh Sawmill Café can rightly be called an institution.
Day Four: Leigh to Whangārei
Leaving Leigh, the gravel road that takes you to Pakiri Beach is an adventure in itself. Narrow, and winding it shrinks down to one lane in several places, so you’ll want to take this bit at a crawl and, if you’re not driving, absorb the views of coastal bush.
Pakiri means ‘to grin’ in Māori. Chances are that’s exactly what you’ll be doing when you reach this massive sweep of icing sugar sand favoured by riders of waves and horses. Stretching for 14 kilometres, it’s worth the short detour.
From here, take the country roads north to Whangārei where you’ll find Heads Up Adventures.
A hive of gravity and pedal-powered activities, you can zoom down a network of tracks on either mountain bike (BYO), or New Zealand’s first non-motorised monster scooters.
Begin on a clay introductory track winding through the bush and progress to intermediate or advanced options that include jumps for the more adventurous. Each run takes around 20 minutes and the shuttle will be waiting for you at the bottom to do it all again.
Around Whangārei Heads the road wraps like a wet noodle around coastal landscapes that change from tidal estuary in the inner harbour to ocean beaches at the outer edge. In the centre the towering peaks of Mount Manaia, Bream Head and Mount Lion loom above sleepy settlements with grandstand views of the sea.
Stop for lunch at Parua Bay Tavern, nestled on the narrow strip of land between the winding road and tranquil estuary. The tavern makes the most of its coastal setting with an abundance of outdoor dining options and a pirate ship in the shade of a pōhutukawa to keep little ones amused. Choose from pizzas, classic pub fare or fresh seafood, and stay for a game of pool with a bucket of chips.
Continue on to Urquharts Bay at the end of the road. There are number of lovely walks to pick from, circling around and across the peninsula. Choose the longer route out to Busby Head, past WWII gun emplacements and a historic pā site, or simply stroll across the grassy headland on a 15-minute walk to the white sands of the evocatively-named Smugglers Bay.
Day Five: Whangārei to Tutukākā
Begin with breakfast at Biggie Bagels, a casual street-side spot in Whangārei serving easy eats and pretty latte art. The gangsta rap inspired menu here includes inventively-named delights like ‘Beastrami Boys,’ ‘Mother Dukkah’ and ‘De La Salmon.’
From Whangārei, head north, past Whangārei Falls, through undulating countryside to reach the base of Sandy Bay Horse Treks. Here, you’ll be paired with an equine partner to suit your experience and saddle up for a tour of the beautiful coastal farm. Tours range from gentle one-hour treks suitable for families and absolute beginners, throughout to longer rides for the more experienced that include beach expeditions and the opportunity to swim with the horses in the summer months or overnight excursions.
Lessons can be tailored to suit anyone from kids to novice adults and, thanks to clear, enthusiastic teaching and plenty of guidance in the surf, it’s possible to haul yourself up to standing even if you’ve had no prior experience.
After so much activity you’ll be keen for a relaxing afternoon. Stop in at the classic Matapōuri Bay Store for a hot package of fish and chips to eat at the picture-perfect Matapōuri beach.
Day Six: Poor Knights Islands day trip
Crossing the open ocean on the 22km journey to the marine reserve can get pretty gnarly in windy conditions, but once you arrive the islands’ rocky cliffs provide ample shelter and a snorkelling experience unlike anything you’ve experienced.
Early autumn is one of the best times to visit, as the sea temperature stays warm for at least eight weeks post summer, and the water is often at its clearest.
While the marine life encountered on each voyage totally depends on the day, it’s not uncommon to spot Bryde's Whales, pods of dolphins and even, occasionally, sea turtles.
Underwater, it’s like swimming through a dream, with regal blue ocean and large schools of curious, multi-coloured fish. Seaweed flows sleepily in the currents and large snapper circle calmly with their luminescent freckles and large eyes.
The islands themselves are a collection of incredible shapes – archways and rugged outcrops being continuously eaten away by wind and waves. Pōhutukawa trees cling to the steep orange cliffs by their toenails. On the eastern side of the island the soaring Southern Arch is officially the largest sea arch in the Southern Hemisphere. The trip also includes a tour of Rikoriko Cave – the world’s largest sea cave.
Back ashore, take the time to explore the shops at Tutukākā Marina, or stay for a meal at Schnappa Rock – world-famous in Tutukākā for serving fresh seafood in a delightfully sub-tropical setting.