Matakana vineyards. © Conrad Blind

The secret coast: an indulgent road trip between Auckland and the Bay of Islands


Head north from Central Auckland via the very scenic route to the Bay of Islands. This journey is full of things guaranteed to bring pleasure – food, wine and art. It’s one big, moveable feast.

Day One: Auckland to Matakana

The gorging all starts at the Puhoi Valley Café and Cheese Store. It bodes well to arrive hungry – and early – for a substantial cooked breakfast on the terrace. Located just 40 minutes from Central Auckland, peek into the cheese cellar, sample half a dozen cheeses and observe some tasty-looking blues ripening behind picture-length windows. Load up on a few delicacies from the store, it’s a full 25 minutes to the next stop and you wouldn’t want to arrive famished.  

With belt notches fully loosened, drive 24km further north to the handsome village of Matakana. A scribble of country roads will first lead to the Brick Bay Wines and Sculpture Trails. Grab a coffee from the foyer-cum-café and venture into natural bush interspersed with works by New Zealand artists.

Being a vineyard, you may expect this art trail will be manicured to perfection. Well, you’re in for a surprise. This is a trail governed by nature, in all her twisted and gnarly glory.

Humans have not laid a finger on this landscape, other than to pepper it with artworks – and perhaps a boardwalk or two.

Lunch at the vineyard’s impressive Glass House Kitchen, overlooking a water lily lake. Much of the produce is seasonal, garden-grown and goes down very well with a wine tasting. Drivers needn’t despair, there’s also a trio of home spun wines to taste that collectively make up one glass, so sip away. 

To freshen up for tonight’s dinner, head 15 minutes down the road and stay overnight in Leigh, a dainty wee inlet well known for its seafood exportation, some of which is shipped all the way to New York. You could stick around for a fish and chip supper, or you could try something a little different…

Tristan from Habitat Tours offers a unique kiwi spotting tour combined with a picnic dinner in Tāwharanui Regional Park. Joined by thriving birdlife and cotton-tailed rabbits, tuck into a hamper of goods just before dusk. Then, with the sun in full retreat, follow Tristan into the forest to spy North Island brown kiwi, crawling wētā and squawking ruru. Layer up for this one, it gets nippy in the thicket and things don’t wrap up until 10pm.  

With heavy eyes, you’ll be thankful to rest your head at Leigh Central, an enclave of seaside-inspired cabins, a campervan ground and renovated motel. You won't want for anything here, with every home comfort provided including jars brimming with biscuits to go with your evening cuppa.

Day Two: Matakana to Russell

Wake up and grab a coffee from Leigh Eats, then briefly double-back to Matakana to meet Bacon Steve. Serving the humble bacon butty, his store, The Matakana Bacon Company is what mornings were made for. The man behind the rind prides himself in rashers that are 100 percent free from nitrate and sugar. For a caffeine fix, the Roastery by Matakana Coffee is conveniently next door. 

With drinks and butties in hand, a short detour to Ti Point offers a coastal pathway loved by the locals. Minutes into the walk there is a small bay framed by picnic benches and jetty views. The ideal place to sit and sip your coffee.   

There’s a long stretch of road ahead, but just past Whangārei, you can unfold your limbs at Waro Limestone Reserve. There’s a large gravel carpark, with picnic benches and if the weather’s warm, a pontoon to hurl yourself off. Alternatively, walk the lake’s perimeter on the Yvonne Stewart Track. Littered with limestone boulders, this gentle stroll takes 30 minutes. 

From here, the road shakes off its urban attire and delves into subtropical rainforest.

Cocooned in this lush jungle is The Gallery & Café Helena Bay Hill. Primarily a home, the space has grown to encompass a wonderfully higgledy-piggledy garden teeming with trinkets, a large, sprawling art gallery and an award-winning café sitting high above the valley floor. From its terrace the shrub falls away into a big basin of green. Drink up the scenery over lunch. 

Heading north, the road hugs the coast, dropping into one eyeball-pleasing beach after another. Baches line swathes of near-empty sand and the quintessential Kiwi dairy sells ice creams. Standout coves such as Ōakura and Elliot Bay are noted for their golden sand and azure water, beckoning visitors to drop a towel and go for a swim, or in cooler months, an invigorating beach stroll. 

Once you reach Russell you can turn off the ignition and dress up for dinner. Sage Restaurant at Paroa Bay Vineyard is tucked away in the hillside, offering fabulous views, fine dining and wine tasting. 

Day Three: Russell to Paihia

Once known as the ‘Hell Hole of the Pacific,’ it seems appropriate to grab a quick bite at Hell Hole itself, a café specialising in fresh, loaded bagels.

Just three streets in size, what Russell lacks in scale it more than makes up for in scandalous stories. Mostly from two centuries past.   

Buckle in for an hour-long whistle stop tour through the town with Kelly from Russell Mini Tours. Zigzagging by minibus from street to street, up to Flagstaff Hill and over to Long Beach. Discover New Zealand’s oldest store, a bullet hole-riddled church, former brothels, grog shops and arson attacks. It’s an eye-opener all right. 

Concluding at the wharf, hop off and explore Russell’s esplanade on foot, including the famous Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Linger in luxury stores such as Caravan or Wood2Water and load up on homemade sarnies from The Grazing Table. You’ll want to take lunch for your next tour, this time on the water.

Explore Russell’s surrounding motu with a half-day Discover the Bay cruise. Sail by the Cape Brett Lighthouse and adjacent show stopper: the Hole in the Rock. Keep an eye out for seals and dolphins before you’re deposited for a glorious 90-minute sojourn on the island of Urupukapuka. Snorkels come in handy for exploring the aquamarine water, while a helpful DOC board will tell you which of the six walks you can complete in 20 minutes or 2.5 hours. Or simply sit and sip a frosted beer at the fully licensed bar at the shoreline. 

Back on dry land, the car ferry from Ōkiato, just 10 minutes from Russell, will drop you in Ōpua. On the doorstep is Paihia, complete with lively restaurants, water-fronting hotels and seaside vibes. You can’t go wrong with dinner at Charlotte’s Kitchen, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows and the water lapping mere inches from your feet. 

Day Four: Waitangi Treaty Grounds to Auckland

Stride out for a brisk morning walk along Paihia’s parade. A cluster of central cafés will satisfy your eggs bene cravings. 

If you’re a bonafide history buff, or your historic nous could do with a boost, Paihia couldn’t be better placed – it’s just 2km from Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Book a tour and weave your way through native bush to an enormous six-ton/140-warrior waka and then the very spot 40 Māori chiefs signed the treaty.

Duck into James Busby’s former home as well as the impressive Te Rau Aroha Museum. Opened in 2020, it takes a deep, poignant dive into the involvement of Māori soldiers during wars past.

You’ll also get to partake in a cultural performance, step inside a traditional marae and meet some seriously talented folk in the carving studio. Allow at least three hours here. 

As your adventure draws to a close, make the most of your drive back to Auckland with a little more eating and ambling. Visit the world’s most unusual toilet block in Kawakawa, 20km south of Paihia and designed by Austrian artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. And arrive peckish in Warkworth, just 60km from Auckland, for an award-winning Savan’s Bakery pie. Because it’s not really a Kiwi road trip until you’ve stopped for a classic steak and cheese. 

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

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