Things to Do - Northland New Zealand

5 things to do in Northland, New Zealand

Northland, as the name suggests, is the most northerly part of New Zealand. It boasts a sub-tropical climate and is home to pretty beaches, history and lots of adventure sports. Given the relative proximity to Auckland, it’s also an ideal place to explore if you’re flying in or out of Auckland Airport. Read on for my top 5 things to do in Northland, New Zealand!

1. Sail around Bay of Islands on a tall ship

Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - R. Tucker Thompson Tall Ship in Bay of Islands

Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - R. Tucker Thompson Tall Ship in Bay of Islands

Cost: $149
More info:
Bay of Islands
R. Tucker Thompson

As the name suggests, Bay of Islands is a small bay with a smattering of islands and islets of varying size. It’s popular for all sorts of adventure activities, including scuba diving, skydiving and parasailing.

There were several companies that offered sight seeing trips around the bay, but we were hooked when we read about the R. Tucker Thompson, a majestic, old-fashioned tall ship. Our day sail was far and away one of the most memorable things we’ve done in New Zealand. That’s even including a bout of seasickness for me. I loved climbing the rigging and sitting out on the bowsprit, legs dangling, looking for dolphins. Apparently they are such sociable creatures that they will swim alongside if people are visible to them. Unfortunately we were only able to see a pod from afar on this trip, though we later witnessed this exact phenomenon!

My favourite part, though? When we dropped anchor to go over to an island for a little break we had the chance to do a “tarzan” – swinging out from the boat on a rope and then dropping into the sea. So exhilarating!

2. Stroll along Russell’s historic foreshore

Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Visit the Pompallier Mission, Russell

Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Stroll along Russell's quaint foreshore

Cost: Free (Pompallier Mission: $10)
More info: Russell; Pompallier Mission and Printery

Another Bay of Islands recommendation. In days gone by Russell was known as the “hell hole of the Pacific” due to the less-than-savoury activities sailors got up to in this part of the bay. Thankfully tese days it’s a lot less hellish! The Pompallier Mission (pictured above, top) was the main point of interest for us. A former mission printing shop where religious literature would be prepared ready for distribution to the local maori populations, the building is set in its own lovely gardens right on the foreshore. They offer tours that take you right through the printing process, from preparing leather to pressing to binding the pages.

Tip: If history isn’t your thing, you can always sit in one of the restaurants or bars that line the front and take in those gorgeous sea views.

3. Take a tour up 90 mile beach to Cape Reinga

5 Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Cape Reinga

5 Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Sand tobogganing

Cost: $50
More info: NewZealand.com – Ninety Mile Beach / Cape Reinga; Harrisons Cape Runner

Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand and the meeting point of the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Tasman Sea to the west. It’s imbued with meaning for maori too – after death, spirits travel to this headland before heading onwards to the land of their ancestors. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also absolutely stunning!

Besides plenty of spectacular scenery and the novelty of driving on a beach, we also got to go sand tobogganing. I’m sad to say I’d never even heard of this before arriving in New Zealand but I can heartily vouch for it now. Swooping down on a sand board was so much fun! It’s not without risk of course; sadly there was a lady on another tour who broke her collarbone while we were there.

Tip: If your tour ends back in Kaitaia, definitely stop by the Ancient Kauri Kingdom to check out the insanely cool giant staircase inside cut into the trunk of an enormous (~140 tonnes) and ancient (~45 to 50,000 years old) kauri tree. It is truly like something from a fairy story.

4. Grab a slice of paradise on idyllic beaches

5 Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Karikari Beach

5 Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Karikari Beach

Cost: Free
More info: Karikari Bay Walk

I’ve never been a huge beach person. I definitely appreciate idea of the desert island idyll, all pristine sand and sparkling water. But in the past my experiences have been more about avoiding cigarette butts in the sand or struggling to find a good space on a beach packed with people…

We saw plenty of lovely, quiet spots during our time in Northland, but nothing can compare to Karikari beach. Pretty much as soon as we’d climbed over the last ridge and onto the soft sand we were declaring it our favourite beach in the world. Quite simply, it was my desert island idyll. White sand, gorgeous sea, but most importantly – it was almost deserted. During our whole time there we only saw a couple of other people, and always at a distance.

5. Float in a lake the colour of Coca Cola

5 Things to do in Northland, New Zealand - Lake Rotopokaka aka Coca Cola Lake

Cost: Free
More info: Localist – CocaCola Lake

Granted, reddish brown is not the most appealing of colours for a lake. Discolouration of water in most contexts would send alarm bells ringing, but in this case it’s entirely harmless. It’s the result of tannins from the silt, the same stuff that makes your tea brown. The official name is Lake Rotopokaka but everyone calls it by the wonderfully evocative nickname “Coca Cola Lake”.

There’s not much to this one. You bring your togs (that’s kiwi for swimming gear, as we learnt!), park by the lake and then go for a dip. Note that if you’re as fair skinned as Ben and me, the deep colour of the water will make you look even paler than normal by contrast! Embrace that pallor, folks.

6. Discover huge kauri trees in Waipoua Forest

Cost: Free
More info: Waipoua Forest

Cascades of lush greens line the boardwalks in Waipoua Forest. It immediately brought to mind an article I read recently about the restorative power of nature – even without the extraordinary kauri trees mentioned below, it offers a wonderful place to relax, wander and breathe in New Zealand’s natural riches.

FYI – Kauri Trees:
Kauri grow to immense sizes and live an extraordinarily long time – Tane Mahuta, pictured above, is thought to be around 2000 years old. The wood of the New Zealand type of kauri was (and is) highly sought after for its straight grain, workability and strength. The popularity came with a cost, of course – New Zealand kauri forests today are greatly depleted.

Don’t miss:

  • Tane Mahuta or “Lord of the Forest” – 51.5m total height with a trunk girth of 13.8m. The tallest kauri in New Zealand
  • Te Matua Ngahere or “Father of the Forest” – 29.9m total height with a girth of 16.41m. The second-tallest and girthiest (great word!) in New Zealand

Over to you

Have you been to Northland before, or do you plan to visit? What would make your list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

P.S. Some things to do in Auckland and travel tips for Hobbiton.

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Things to do Northland New Zealand - The Painted Globe

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