For those choosing to drive up the Bay of Islands from Auckland, you’ll find this a pleasant trip at just over three hours plus breaks. There are plenty of interesting spots on the journey to rest, enjoy a relaxing walk, or something to eat.
We’re pleased to share a few favourites. These places are actually on the main Highway, or only a few minutes from the roadside. Planning to make a day of the trip to arrive late afternoon could be a very enjoyable way to start your holiday in the Bay of Islands!
After each location, we’ve indicated the approximate travel time from Auckland.
Note: click any image to view full size
Leaving Auckland, and on the far side of the northern tunnel …
Still bearing a close resemblance to the town when it was first established in 1853, Warkworth (45 minutes) sits peacefully on the edge of the Mahurangi River – once a main transport route for steamboats between Auckland. A great place for a break; buy a snack, and stroll along the riverside walkway. There are also public toilets and an i-site (tourist information) located here.
The Brynderwyn ranges are one of the most striking geographical features on the trip from Auckland to the Bay of Islands. There are several towns on the approach where it’s worth taking a break. Wellsford (1 hour) has a number of nice cafes, but maybe hold out a little longer, and try one of the two funky cafes a little further north: Café Eutopia in Kaiwaka, (1 hour 15 mins) with its mystical boat like appearance, or the rather curiously named Swinging Cow Café (1hour 20 mins), at the foot of the Brynderwyn hills to ensure your driving concentration is up to the winding drive.
It’s worth taking a detour off the main road to a little town full of contradictions. Host to the Waipu Highland Games every new year, Waipu (1hour 35 mins) has a strong Gaelic connection, and also lays claim to having the biggest little museum in New Zealand.
There’s now a by-pass road so you don’t need to travel through Northland’s biggest town, Whangarei (2 hours) at all. However if you avoid peak hour between 8-10am and 4-6pm it shouldn’t add more than 10 minutes to your trip. The Whangarei basin area (follow the signs), located on the Hatea River has a relaxing ambience, the Claphams National Clock museum, and a couple of nice restaurants if you’re in the mood for a sit down lunch. The Whangarei i-Site with public toilets is located on the main highway just before your reach the town centre. If you prefer to avoid the main centre, consider stopping by the 26m Whangareri Falls. Not quite as high as Kerikeri’s spectacular and well known Rainbow Falls, but only 5 minutes from the Highway. You can either view the falls from the top, or enjoy the easy walk down to view from the foot of the falls.
This part of Northland was once home to a bustling coal industry, but most of the surrounding towns have been swallowed up by the ever-expanding Whangarei suburbs. But Hikurangi, (2 hours 20 mins) is a little town where time has stood still. Don’t expect a polished tourist town: its sleepy little streets and old wooden villas are its charm. If you pack a lunch, head to the Waro limestone scenic reserve on the highway at the edge of town – literally limestone caves and formations that have erupted to the surface. Take time out to take the 15 minute walk around the park.
Whilst Towai (2 hrs 30 mins) seemingly hosts only a pub; nearby Ruapekapeka (Maori for ‘bats nest’) is a hidden treasure – the remains of one of the final and most bitterly fought confrontations between Maori and Europeans during early settlement. Follow the sign, and take the turn off on the right, just after Towai. Allow an extra 15 minutes for the detour, and up to an hour to walk through the site itself. Highly recommended and free!
If you have limited time in New Zealand for your holiday, and missed out on the famous Waitimo caves 2.5 hours south of Auckland, don’t fret! Whilst not as well known, the Kawiti Glow Worm Caves at Waiomio (2hrs 40 mins) are well worth the stop, and less crowded. Just make sure you bring cash for the $10 entrance fee: there are no EPTPOS or credit card facilities. Allow 30 to 40 mins for the tour which depart up to every half hour depending on the season.
Kawakawa (2 hrs 45 mins) is the gateway to the Bay of Islands, and a funky little town in its own right. And YES – the colourfully tiled Hundertwasser toilets are worth a stop to visit. And whilst you’re there, take a break at one of the many cafes and soak up the quiet/lively street life that is Kawakawa. On the weekends and summer holidays you may be lucky enough to see the old steam train running down the middle of the main street.
Kerikeri is New Zealand’s earliest European settlement, and is often described as the Cradle of the Nation. The official travel time to Kerikeri in the heart of the Bay of Islands is 3 hours and 5 minutes. Any of the above stops will add to your travel time. Overseas visitors should remember that New Zealand roads are rarely straight and often up and down hills, so it’s doubly important to ensure you don’t travel when tired. So use this guide to plan your breaks!
Finally, we welcome your suggestions for interesting side trips to break the journey. Feel free to add your comments below.