4 Things You Should Do in Northland, New Zealand

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Just before I was about to end my study abroad stint in New Zealand, my friend Andrea and I decided that we wanted to have one last adventure in Aotearoa before we had to return to a soggy, grey Ohio just on the verge of winter.

We chose a trip to Northland.

The Northland Region is (as one might expect) the northernmost section of New Zealand’s north island, and is known for its sparse population and warm summer weather. Since we had been living in a rather urbanized area (Wellington) for nearly 5 months, getting away to somewhere quieter sounded like a perfect end to our time in New Zealand.

Plus, we were told Northland had some amazing scenery.

Paihia sunset

We flew up to Auckland on cheap domestic tickets (one of my favorite things about traveling in New Zealand), and caught an afternoon bus to the little town of Paihia in the Bay of Islands.

The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s prime destinations for tourists and fishermen alike. Not only is the area gorgeous and chock full of fish, but its main town, Paihia, is a great jumping off point for many Northland tours.

We used Paihia as our base for the next few days, seeing the very best of what Northland and the Bay of Islands has to offer.

Paihia, New Zealand

If you're planning your own trip to New Zealand's far north, here are the things you won't want to miss:

4 Must-Dos in Northland, New Zealand

Drive on 90-Mile Beach

Whether you take your own wheels or book a bus tour from Paihia, driving on 90-Mile Beach is a must-have Kiwi experience. 90 Mile Beach is an official part of New Zealand’s State Highway 1, but is sadly not anywhere near 90 miles long. It's actually only about 55 miles long, and it’s unknown how it got the name “90 Mile Beach.”

90 Mile Beach

The leading theory is that the name stemmed from the days when missionaries would traverse New Zealand on horseback. A horse could generally go about 30 miles in one day, and, since it took them three days to cross the stretch of beach, they estimated at being 90 miles long. They must have forgotten that everything moves slower in sand…

Regardless of how the beach was named, it was crazy (yet also very cool) when our tour bus pulled off the main road and started trundling along on the hard-packed sand.

Bus on 90 Mile Beach

Our driver joked that this is both New Zealand’s oldest and newest highway — oldest because the beach has been around for as long as the country has, and newest because the tide “repaves” it each day.

We stopped for a short time on the beach for some photos, before piling back into the bus and continuing on along the sand highway.

90 Mile Beach

Visit Cape Reinga

Our ultimate goal was to reach Cape Reinga – essentially the northernmost reach of New Zealand.  Here, the tip of the country juts out like a finger, with Cape Reinga on one side and Cape Maria van Diemen on the other.  We were told that Cape Reinga *technically* isn’t the northernmost point (that honor actually goes to the Surville Cliffs), but it’s often treated as such anyway.

We arrived at the Aupouri Peninsula under sunny skies, and spent time admiring the capes and the Cape Reinga lighthouse.

Cape Reinga Lighthouse
Cape Reinga Lighthouse

I’m not going to lie: I was slightly partial to Cape Maria van Diemen as far as pure scenery goes.

Cape Maria van Diemen
Cape Maria van Diemen

Cape Reinga is not only a popular tourist destination, but also has significance to the native Maori people. Reinga means “underworld” in Maori, and the Maori believe that the cape is where the spirits of the dead enter the underworld. An alternative name for the cape is Te Rerenga Wairua, meaning “the leaping-off place of spirits.” There’s a singular gnarled tree that clings to a cliff on the cape, and it’s said this is where the spirits “leap off” from.

Cape Reinga is also interesting because it roughly marks the spot where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. From the lighthouse, you can see where the two bodies of water clash. The water erupts in waves, and you can see the two distinct colors – deep blue for the Pacific and lighter blue for the Tasman – come together.

Where two oceans meet

I could have spent all day in this place, but we were moving on again before too long.

Ride the Te Paki Sand Dunes

On our way back toward Paihia, we made a stop at the Te Paki Sand Dunes on the edge of 90 Mile Beach for a popular New Zealand adventure sport – sand surfing. Our driver once again guided the bus over hard-packed sand, and soon began pulling plastic toboggans and boogie boards out from underneath the bus.

Te Paki Sand Dunes

I had forgotten to bring my eyeglasses or an extra pair of contacts with me, however, and so I was advised not to try it out. I was admittedly bummed, but I had fun watching everyone struggle up the large dune (some can reach 100 meters!) and then dive head-first down it, gripping their toboggans for dear life. One or two completely wiped out and ending up rolling a good way down the dune.

Te Paki Sand Dunes

The clouds began rolling in before long, and, once everyone had had their fill of sand, we piled back into the bus and headed south once more.

A stop at a fish and chips shop in Mangonui rounded out our adventure. After a long day of sightseeing and being wind-whipped at the capes, the greasy food never tasted so good.

Dolphin-watching in the Bay of Islands

The next morning, Andrea and I rounded out our Northland adventure with a water tour of the Bay of Islands. Unfortunately we were greeted with cloudy skies, so we probably didn’t appreciate the true beauty of the area as much as we could have.

New Zealand Bay of Islands

Our tour was a sightseeing and dolphin watching tour with Fuller's, and we came across a few pods of bottlenose dolphins on our way out to Cape Brett and the famous Hole in the Rock.

Dolphins in New Zealand

Hole in the Rock
Hole in the Rock

On calm days, the tour boats usually sail through the hole in the rock, but rough seas made it a bit too dangerous. Another tour boat attempted it, but we watched as it ultimately had to turn around.

Hole in the Rock

Since this tour left from and returned to Paihia within a couple of hours, we arrived back in the drizzly town before lunchtime. We had just enough time to grab lunch and a few souvenirs, and then it was back on a bus to Auckland.

We both vowed to return to the Bay of Islands on some future trip to New Zealand, in hopes that we might catch it in all its sunny-weather glory. As it was though, it was still pretty impressive, even under a cloud-laden sky.


Where to stay in Paihia: The Breakwater Motel and the Cook's Lookout Motel are the top-rated hotels in Paihia on TripAdvisor. Or there are also a lot of great B&Bs in Paihia to choose from.

Tours to book from Paihia:

Have you visited any of these spots in Northland? What else would make your must-do list?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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23 Comments on “4 Things You Should Do in Northland, New Zealand

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  1. Hey Great blog! We’re planning our trip and this NZ stuff has provided some great morsels! thanks a bunch!

      Great to hear! Have a fantastic time in New Zealand! 🙂

    Sounds and looks wonderful. If anyone gets to New Mexico, try to sand surf at White Sands–pure soft white sand for 360 degrees, and if you get lucky, and impossibly blue sky.

      I was indeed great! And White Sands is definitely on my list to get to one of these days. I’ve seen photos, and the place looks amazing!

    This post brings back good memories of when I was in NZ! I did a similar tour to you and would agree it’s worth it!

    I went sand tobogganing… I wiped out! But was a good laugh, definitely do it if you go back!

      So glad I could dredge up some good memories from your time in NZ! Sand boarding is definitely on my list of things to try out eventually!

    Im a kiwi. Born there many decades ago before heading out to Australia to live as a child. Family and extended family are in Wellington. After i turned 19, I went up north to Paihia with friends, taking a plane from Auckland from Wellington.. with a severe hangover.

    Thing is, 4 weeks before, i broke my thumb catching a bus and i was to go kyaking up in Paihia. Still did it anyway, but it hurt like hell.

    Bit of a tip, up north in that area, the sunlight, while it doesnt feel all that warm, will burn you to a crisp and pretty damn quick, so wear sunscreen! I had sunburn in 40 minutes of being in the sun.


      I love Wellington. Despite it’s harsh weather, it’s my favorite city in New Zealand. I studied abroad in Welly for almost 5 months during university, and I’d love to move back there someday.

      And you’re right about the sun! Later in this trip, my friend and I rented a car and drove around the Coromandel Peninsula. We went on a boat tour in Whitianga, and, even though it wasn’t very warm out, I got sooo burnt!

        Dont get me wrong, i love Wellington. Its a delightful city, but the entire country is far too slow for me. Wellington is just like Melbourne in its art, culture, nightlife and weather as well as general feel. I freaking loooove Cuba St. But where i was born (lower/upper hutt) is.. to put it nicely.. the redneck side of town 😀

        I lived in Johnstonville for 2ish months in 2004. Never. Again.

        As my dad says “New Zealand, nice place to visit, wouldnt wanna live there”. 🙂


    Love the pictures, especially the dolphin ones but I have a soft spot in my heart for dolphins.

      Thanks, Natalie! I really love dolphins, too. I went on a strictly dolphin-watching tour in the Marlborough Sound on NZ’s South Island, and I took soooo many dolphin photos!

    This area looks to be both charming and magnificent! I hope we make it that far north – we’re in Whangarei in a couple of weeks and plan to do a driving tour to the Bay of Islands – now you’ve got me thinking we should head even further north!

      You definitely should head farther north if you can! It’s well worth it, I think. Northland is in a 4-way tie with the Coromandel Peninsula, the Catlins on the South Island, and Milford Sound as my picks for most gorgeous parts of New Zealand.

    incredible photos!!! the group going up the hill?! wow. met some great kiwis in rarotonga and am really hoping to get there in 2011. you’ve put northland on my must-see list now 🙂

      Thank so much, Lorna! This was one of my favorite batches of photos from New Zealand, I think. If you get the chance to visit in 2011, DO IT! It’s such a great country. And yes, definitely find time to fit Northland into your itinerary!

    These photos are so BEAUTIFUL. I am itching to go to NZ so badly!!

      Thanks, Emily! I think these are among my favorite bunch of photos, for sure. Though, so much of New Zealand is gorgeous! I can’t even begin to pick a favorite area, let alone a favorite picture!

      But you should definitely go to NZ, ASAP!

        I know! I just have to convince my bf that flying in a plane in that part of the world does NOT mean we’re going to end up on the Lost island. sigh.

          Hahaha. I’ve flown there and back twice now (and even over to Australia once!), and I have never been transported to a strange island inhabited by a smoke monster!

    Haha, I think everyone has the same pictures!

    I wrote about my time(s) there a few weeks back. http://travelsat88mph.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/new-zealand-paihia/

    On my 2nd time there, we didn’t have the best weather either! What is with that?!

    But I loved sandboarding! Sucks that you didn’t go:-(. NEXT TIME!

      Yeah, there are definitely those “must-take” photos in these places!

      I was pretty bummed about the cloudy weather in Paihia, especially after hearing about what great weather the Bay of Islands has! Haha, oh well. It was still definitely worth the visit.

      And yes, I definitely want to try sand boarding next time!

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