Northland, unsurprisingly, comprises the uppermost tip of the North Island of New Zealand. Northland is perfect for exploring in a campervan. It is long and narrow, and the drive takes you through ancient forests and along stunning coastlines. Northland is rich in history and culture, both Maori and Pakeha (European), and it has its own micro-climate.
In Part One of this Northland Travel Blog, we headed north from Auckland along the Kauri Coast Highway. We stayed overnight at the stunning clear freshwater Kai Iwi Lakes, we visited a local chesery, discovered unique New Zealand history and slid down the giant Te Paki Sand Dunes.
In Part Two of our Northland Travel Blog, we leave the uppermost tip of New Zealand and head back down south. We visit fantastic wineries, stunning beaches, see Kiwis in their natural environment, explore underground caves, and discover plenty of history!
Heading south from Cape Reinga, our first stop was the Karikari Peninsula. As you leave the Highway and turn off into the Peninsula, the view is drop dead gorgeous. This really is a piece of paradise, in the “tropical north”of New Zealand. No wonder so many Kiwis holiday here!
The Peninsula is home to more amazing white sandy beaches with clear water. A glitzy golf course. And a winery. Which of course is where we were headed first :).
Northland is actually the birthplace of viticulture and wineries in New Zealand. We spent the afternoon tasting wines and enjoying a platter at New Zealand’s most northern winery, Carrington Estate. The kids ran around outside, playing on the grass and climbing boulders.
We camped overnight at the Matai Bay DOC camp, right on the waterfront. We ventured out early in the morning for a spot of fishing straight off the beach, and to watch the sunrise.
Ironically, this is where I discovered taking an electric toothbrush camping is not a great idea, particularly when you are not hooking into power to re-charge it! We learnt quite a few good lessons on our first campervan trip….
This is the stunning scenery, right in front of our campsite.
Mongonui is a historic fishing town, now home to a collection of charming 150-year-old buildings that house cafés, art and craft shops. Another main attraction at Mongonui is the legendary fish and chip shop on the wharf (which also serves wine!).
Our favourite surprise though were the visiting stingrays. The girls (and us too to be honest) were amazed to see locals feeding the huge rays straight off the wharf! What an unforgettable experience!
Matauri Bay, Rainbow Warrior Memorial
Matauri Bay is another long white sandy beach with crystal clear water. It is stunning. But the real reason we detoured here was to visit the Rainbow Warrior Memorial on the headland above the Bay.
The Memorial to the Greenpeace Flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, points to her final resting place near the Cavalli Islands. The Memorial itself sits atop a sacred Maori Pa site, the fact it was placed there shows its importance to the people of New Zealand, and the sinking’s place in our history.
The New Zealand people as a whole are proudly Nuclear free. And its journey to become Nuclear free was a key part of developing who we are as a people.
In 1985 the Rainbow Warrior was moored at the Port of Auckland, on its way to protest against a planned French nuclear test in Moruroa. The ship was bombed by two French DGSE officers, one crew member was killed. Although the attack was on Greenpeace, rather than New Zealand itself, most kiwis did not make this distinction. The fact that the bombing was committed on New Zealand territory by a supposed ‘friend’ produced a shared sense of outrage.
The attack was credited as fueling an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism at the time. The failure of traditional allies to condemn this act of terrorism hardened support for a more independent foreign policy line. This all lead to our ‘Nuclear-free moment’ in 1987 when New Zealand legislated to enforce its Nuclear-free stance. New Zealand remains Nuclear-free today.
Kerikeri, Bay of Islands
We were lucky enough to stay at Aroha Island in Kerikeri. Aroha Island is a 12 ha eco-sanctuary just north of Kerikeri, and accessible by a causeway. This is a really special spot with native bush, native birds and an estuary to explore.
Remember to bring a torch, and pick up a piece of red cellophane from Reception before they close. After dark, you can head out with your torch through the native bush tracks. Move really slow, and stay quiet. You should be lucky enough to spot Kiwi in their natural habitat. It was a surreal experience for both us and the girls, and we were lucky enough to see four.
In the morning you will be woken up by a majestical Bird Song, the sound of native birds chirping and singing at sunrise.
We spent the morning exploring the native bush tracks, completing challenges with the girls, and kyaking in the harbour.
This place was a gem, not featured in your standard tourism guides.
The Bay of Islands is also home to a fantastic self-drive wine trail. We tend to pick one winery to try wines and enjoy lunch at the same time. This time we chose Marsden Estate Winery, mainly for its stunning surroundings both inside, and out. Great wine, great food, great views. We also managed to pick up a few bottles from smaller wineries to enjoy on the remainder of our trip.
Paihia and Waitangi
Paihia is a town with the glitz and glamour, but also the history. This is the place where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed between Maori Chiefs and the British Crown, at Waitangi. The Treaty is the founding document of colonial New Zealand and established British sovereignty. However, its interpretation has long been established to differ in terms of what sovereignty, amongst other key terms, meant.
If you are visiting New Zealand, I strongly recommend a visit to the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi. Entry is by donation, however, you will need to pay the donation if you want to access the magnificent meeting house and the cultural performance, which you will definitely want to do.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds will give you a better understanding of New Zealand, how it was formed, and why there is an ongoing tension still today.
And this is the moment we became hooked on mobile homes.
This is our campsite at Otamure Bay. A DOC Campground. No hotels. No motels. Not even any hookups. Just beachfront campsites.
The girls played on the beach and in the giant Pohutukawa Trees. We chilled out in the shade with a glass of wine collected on our travels.
If you are travelling with children, I would recommend taking a ball to kick around, a kite, and a couple of sand toys to keep them entertained. As the girls have gotten older we have added tennis rackets and balls to our list, as well as devices unfortunately.
Miss T had been studying Stalactites and Stalactmites at school, so exploring the Waipu Caves was a special treat for her. We also managed to find fossils in the limestone rocks
If you are lucky enough you might also spot glowworms, although you may need to wade through waist-deep water to get far enough into the caves to reach the main cavern. We weren’t going that far with children in tow…
Need to know: The caves are a short, easy walk (2 km) from the carpark. The caves are free, as are almost all DOC run sites in New Zealand. However, please remember these caves are unguided, you need to take care of your own safety. Also, the inner chambers are suitable for experienced cavers only.
Goat Island Marine Reserve
We spent our last night in Leigh. We chose Leigh because it is also home to the Goat Island Marine Reserve. As a marine reserve it is a remarkable place to snorkel, and to teach children to snorkel. The fish will swim right up to you, and it is always fun following a cray along the bottom of the ocean.
On this visit, we also visited the Marine Discovery Center. This was phenomenal for learning about the ocean and conservation. The kids loved the interactive displays. A perfect cold-weather option.
In the past, we have also gone out in the glass bottom boats which take you on a guided tour around the reef. These are a fantastic experience. Unfortunately, I was two months pregnant at the time, and I ended up feeding the fish myself. Hmmmmm.
We spent our last night freedom camping at Leigh, or ‘boondocking’ as the the Americans would call it. This was our first time freedom camping, and we were nervous! This was a beautiful park, right on the beachfront. We chose a park next to another RV to make sure we had company on our first night freedom camping.
Unfortunately there were a few people partying in the reserve. They lit a fire, and made plenty of noise. But the worst they did was swear. And they headed home at a reasonable hour.
Overall we got a good night sleep, and we were pretty happy to wake up to this sunrise on the last day of our trip:
And then, unfortunately, it was time to start heading home. Time to start planning our next big adventure!
This article does not contain affiliate links. Any recommendations are my own honest accounts. I will not receive any commission from any of the recommendations I have made in this article. However, I will have helped support the New Zealand tourism industry post-Covid-19 lockdown.
This blog is part of The Place I call Home Series, a #NewZealandTravelBlog. Earlier blogs in this series include:
- The Place I call Home, a New Zealand Travel Blog
- The Place I call Home, a New Zealand Travel Blog, Northland in a Campervan Part 1.
#travellocal #supportNewZealand #tourismNewZealand #NewZealandTravelGuide