Our holiday in Northland over Christmas turned out to be one of our best trips yet in New Zealand. The weather was incredible, we met some of the nicest people and it was filled with all kinds of unique, hidden gems along the way. The area was full of so many side trips that we didn’t even get to experience everything we wanted! One of the reasons we definitely have to go back again. Although we took in some of the exciting adventures like sandboarding, blokarts and diving Poor Knights Islands, we wanted to share some of our favorite hidden gems (and FREE activities) that we took in along the way.
Massive Kauri Trees
The Waipoua Forest is home to the largest Kauri trees in the world. Easily accessible, there are a couple great short walks where you can take in these gentle giants. The Kauri Walks provide an easy path to three incredible features in the Waipoua forest. A 40 minute walk from the carpark, the Yakas are the only large Kauri trees you can actually touch! Wrap your arms around the trunk and get a true feel for how massive these trees really are!
A few minutes off the main path also leads you to the Four Sisters – an impressive stand of four tall and graceful Kauri trees growing extremely close together. The major attraction though is Te Matua Ngahere. The second largest living Kauri, but the oldest and ‘fattest’ of them all. With a girth of 16.41m and a height of 29.9m, stand in awe of this magnificent living creature.
Lastly, about 2km north of The Kauri Walks is the largest living Kauri – Tane Mahuta. Known as the Lord of the Forest, it is estimated to be over 2,000 years old. Since the feeding roots of the Kauri trees are shallow and delicate, the boardwalks are there to protect the trees from damage, so while you can’t get too close to Tane Mahuta, it’s a much better view to take in from afar of his magnificent 51.5m height!
The Moeraki Boulders on the South Island are a famous geological phenomenon that attracts many visitors to the Otago coast every year. A lesser known, but equally unique adventure is the Koutu Boulders located just outside Opononi in Northland.
Accessible within 2hrs of low tide, these spherical boulders are scattered along the beach just a short walk from the carpark. Although they are more spaced out than Moeraki Boulders, they are just as fun to explore with some as large as 5m in diameter!
Just make sure you watch out for the slippery mud as you round the point towards the really big ones. I seriously went head over feet on a slippery rock, cutting my foot and soaking my dress in wet sticky mud. Luckily no one was around to witness it but I can image it would have been a funny sight for anyone other than me! Another funky geological wonder not far from Koutu Boulders are the Wairere Boulders however we didn’t have time this trip to stop!
Most tourists miss this unique attraction as it’s not posted on many road maps or guidebooks. Luckily our NZ Frenzy book gave us the tip that this series of caves was not to be missed and was a must-do for any adventure seeker! Located just outside Whangarei, set amongst a lime-stone outcrop, there are three different cave systems to explore – Organ Cave, Middle Cave and Ivy Cave. One thing to note – if you’re not up for scrambling on rocks and getting a little muddy and wet, might be best you skip this adventure.
The first, Organ Cave, was by far the most impressive. The walls of the cave were orange and black stripped, making it feel like you were inside a tiger! Glow worms and stalactite formations adorned the high cathedral ceilings until about an hour in when we hit our turn around location at the waist deep, eel filled underpass.
Middle Cave and Ivy Cave are less spectacular than Organ Cave but still worth the adventure. Middle Cave is the easiest and shortest of the three, but provide some cool twisting, narrow passageways with plenty of glow worms. The entrance to Ivy Cave was the most impressive with a huge rockface above and a deep drop to get inside. The only through-cave, the vaulted ceilings and deep water make for challenging climbs. We didn’t make it all the way through as we were thwarted by another waist deep, murky, eel infested roadblock. By the end of this adventure I had seen more eels than I ever wanted too!
One place that holds a special place in my heart is the Waipu Museum. Known as New Zealand’s Best Small Museum, it showcases the unique and interesting history of the early European settlers to the area. What makes it so special to me is the famous explorer, Norman McLeod, and his nearly 1,000 followers first made their journey from Scotland to PICTOU (MY HOMETOWN IN CANADA) in 1817. Despite only staying a few years as the town was ‘full of drunks’ (haha guess things never change :P), he then moved on to St. Ann’s in Cape Brenton before making his way to Adalaide in Australia and his final destination in Waipu, New Zealand.
As I drove into the town, it immediately felt like home with streets named ‘Nova Scotia Road’ and NS flags flying everywhere! We even managed to be there during the famous highland games – the largest in New Zealand – and were able to take in some of the Scottish games and massed pipe bands. You may not know it, but I was in an all-girls bagpipe band called The Heatherbells between the age of 10 and 16 (yeah I know sounds kind of funny eh?) Being amongst the sound of the pipes brought back some great memories of playing in the band.
Although it’s not really a hidden gem, Cape Reinga is definitely not to be missed. It’s busy with tourists throughout the day, but if you go late in the afternoon, closer to sunset, there’s a lot less crowds and you can take photos without a million ants in the picture.
The iconic lighthouse perched on the tip of the North Island is a picturesque location. A short walk from the carpark, you can venture up the small hill to get a better view before making your way down to the lighthouse and the famous street sign.
Although we didn’t have time to take any in this time, there are a number of short walks just off the carpark that take you on either side of the coast along the ridgelines or to the beach. One of the most stunning things to witness is the colliding of the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean. I couldn’t believe how obvious this was to see as it created a standing wave, crashing together just below the lighthouse. Of course Jordan mused about how fun it would be to take the surfboard and ride it, but with the ferociousness of the currents, I can image that would be a deadly ride.
World Famous Icecream
One thing not to miss on your way up to Cape Reinga is the ‘world famous’ icecream at the Te Kao local store. You can’t miss it on your way up to the top as it usually has a parking lot full of cars and a line up out the door. Claiming to give the biggest icecreams in the country, they stack the flavors up and top it off with a delicious sour cherry candy. If you’re feeling up for the challenge, take on the 6 scoop ‘whoppa’ – and see if you can finish it!
We’ve seen our fair share of caves in New Zealand but when our NZ Frenzy book claimed this one had arguably a better display of glow worms than the famous Waitomo caves we knew we had to check it out. A short drive outside Waipu, the entrance of the cave is located in an open ‘freedom’ camping site provided by the local township. The decent into the cave is wide but very muddy. My sandals were getting so stuck I had to take them off and slosh my toes through the thick gooey mud (Yuk!) After a few shallow water crossings (filled with eels so watch your step!) we came into the large cathedral COMPLETELY filled with turquoise glow worms! It seriously looked like you were looking up into a star filled sky!
The longer we sat with our torches off the more our eyes adjusted and even more came into view. It was amazing being able to get up close to see the sticky strands and tiny glowing tail of the larvae. They definitely look better with the lights off! In case you missed it here’s our glowworm video where many shots were taken in Waipu Cave:
We tried to explore more of the cave, but the passageways appeared to come to a dead-end or loop back to the same location. Luckily there was a cold shower next to the toilets to wash off all the mud, so be prepared to get dirty if you venture into this cave!
During our 12 day tour of Northland we camped in our tent for all but 2 nights (due to rain and wanting a real bed) Northland has some of the best DOC campsites that we’ve stayed in yet, all with their own unique features and better than average facilities. Our top 3 sites were at Trounson Kauri Park, Rawara Beach and Spirits Bay.
After driving 12hrs on Christmas eve, we landed at the Trounson Kauri Park on the west coast on our way up Northland. Famous for its Kiwi bird sightings we set off just before midnight on Christmas Eve with our red torches in search for the illusive bird. Walking through the pitch black forest, filled with giant Kauri trees, we listened intently for any sign of a Kiwi. About 10mins down the track we froze at the sound of scurrying in the brush just beside the track. Just as we stopped though the sound stopped and we stood there in a silent stand-off waiting for another movement to give us an indication of where it actually was. Our patience quickly weakened, so we threw a twig in the bush hoping to stir him out. Unfortunately all we heard was a loud scurry in the opposite direction but it was so loud it sounded like it could have been a person which seriously freaked me out! We had another close call just before the carpark, but alas still no luck seeing a Kiwi bird in the wild.
In the morning we went for another loop around the Kauri tree track but considering it was daylight there was no hope for a Kiwi Bird sighting. We wished we had more time to stay another night but needed to continue on our way. The facilities at this campsite were the nicest we’d ever see at a DOC site with a fully enclosed kitchen, flush toilets and HOT showers!! Definitely a place you could spend several nights at for a reasonable $10/pp fee!
We stayed at two other great campsites up in the far North at Rawara Beach and Spirits Bay. Both were very large campsites with on-site DOC managers. Located just off the beach it was just a short walk for both to white sandy beaches with amazing sunsets! These sites also had both flush and long drop toilets, water and cold showers as well! We really enjoyed staying in our tent this trip when you’ve got great places like these to stay at for really cheap rates ($6/pp), nice facilities and beautiful locations.
One of the most famous waterfalls in Northland is Whangarei Falls just outside the city. The two nights we didn’t tent we stayed at the Whangarei Falls Holiday Park that is conveniently situated a short 2 minute walk from the falls. Seriously if you’re in the area, stay here! Ali and Graham are the sweetest hosts and they offer free wifi, cute little cabins or campsites, there’s a little pool and spa tub and a fully equipped kitchen and BBQ!
The short 20 minute loop walk around the falls gives you a viewpoint from the top as well as the bottom. A picturesque 26m falls, it cascades over basalt cliffs into a pool below. If you continue on through the track, it connects up to AH Reed Kauri Park that offers an up close and personal view of 500 year old Kauri trees through its stunning canopy walkway.
Best Fish & Chips
Fish and Chip shops are on nearly every street in New Zealand, but finding a really good one can be tough. We’ve had our share of mediocre fish and chips (to the point where we’re getting quite sick of it) but when we heard Mangonui Fish Shop had some of the best in New Zealand we just had to make a stop on our way up to Cape Reinga.
Funny enough, it wasn’t until I was back at work chatting with a co-worker that I realised we had gone to the WRONG fish and chip shop in Mangonui. We stopped at the first shop, assuming that was the famous location (thinking it was such a small town how could we miss it), but apparently it was around the next corner perched over the water. Either way, the fish we had was still some of the best, but now that I know we missed out on THE best, I want to go back and try it for myself! Here’s a picture of what it looks like so you don’t make the same mistake as us!
What are your favourite hidden gems of Northland? What should we put on our list for our next trip up there?