Nature, surf & culture: 7 things to do in New Zealand’s Northland

New Zealand’s Northland means family fun in the sun, pohutukawa in bloom and dolphins frolicking in pretty bays. It is beaches without a scrap of development or crowding. It’s the spectacular remnants of the ancient kauri forests that once blanketed the top of the country. And it’s a place where history hangs heavily, the site of the earliest settlements of both Māori and Europeans. Northland is unquestionably the birthplace of the nation – here’s seven of our favorite sights and activities.

A golden sun pierces a dark cloud on the horizon as it sets into the ocean, the rest of the sky is various hues of beautiful blue; in the foreground is a rocky Cape Reinga, with its narrow flat top lined with grass and a stone wall that flanks a paved path to the Cape Reinga Lighthouse
In the Māori culture, this point of land where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet is where souls leave the earth © Nazar Abbas Photography / Getty Images

End of the road at Cape Reinga

Where the waters of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet at Cape Reinga, waves break up to 10m high in stormy weather. This dramatic headland is the end of the road both literally and figuratively: It’s where State Hwy 1 terminates but it’s also where, in Māori tradition, the spirits of the dead depart the world – making it the most sacred site in all of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand).

Below a deep blue sky streaked with whispy white clouds, a man fishes on Ninety mile beach, North Island, New Zealand; large waves roll into the flat beach, and the fisherman stands at the highwater point; behind him are large dunes with moss green vegetation
Fishing is just one of the many activities to be found where the sand dunes meet the sea at Ninety Mile Beach © RenataAphotography / Getty Images

Sand and surf at Ninety Mile Beach

If Cape Reinga is the jumping-off point for souls, that makes the Aupouri Peninsula a giant diving board. On its west coast, Ninety Mile Beach is a continuous stretch lined with high sand dunes. The spunky beach town of Ahipara marks the end of the beach, where the locals keep things real, rubbing shoulders with visiting surfers, sandboarders and quad-bike riders.

Aerial shot of boats off Roberton Island, Bay of Islands, New Zealand; the boats are all at achor in a horseshoe shaped bay with torquoise waters near the beach it its heart; the ends of the bay are both forested; the opposite side to the bay across a narrow isthmus is a shore dominated by tall rocky outcrops topped by trees
Boating and other waters ports are the main draw for the Bay of Islands in New Zealand's Northland © Ruth Lawton Photography / Getty Images

Water and history at the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s top summertime destinations, and its turquoise waters and 150 undeveloped islands are huge tourist draws. Yachting, big-game fishing, kayaking, diving or cruising around in the company of whales and dolphins is the main attraction, but it’s also a place of enormous historical significance … read on.

In the foreground are calm ocean waters; they abut a rocky, tree-lined shore that makes way to a lush lawn that is home to a large flagpole and single building nestled among trees; forested hills dotted with homes fill the background; the scene is the Waitangi treaty grounds in Paihia, Northland, New Zealand
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the place where Maori chiefs first signed their accord with the British Crown in 1840 © vale_t / Getty Images

Race relations at Waitangi Treaty Grounds

It was here on the Bay of Islands in 1840 the first 43 Māori chiefs signed a contested sovereignty pact with the British Crown. Today the grounds are a warts-and-all memorial to both Māori and Colonial culture and history. Admission includes a guided tour, a cultural performance, and entry to the Museum of Waitangi, the Whare Rūnanga (carved meeting house) and the Treaty House.

Tourists standding on a large boardwak look up to a giant kauri coniferous tree in the Waipoua Forest of Northland Region, New Zealand
The Waipoua Forest is the largest remnant of the once-extensive kauri forests of northern New Zealand © RnDmS / Getty Images

Ecological giants at Waipoua Forest

This superb forest sanctuary is the largest remnant of the nation’s once-extensive kauri forests. A kauri – which can reach 60m in height and have a trunk more than 5m in diameter – are an awe-inspiring sight and one of the nation’s treasures. Te Roroa, the local iwi (tribe), controls the forest as part of the Treaty of Waitangi, and now runs the visitor centre, cafe and campground.

In blackish blue sea, a female diver in full scuba attire inspects an underwater pinnacle covered in bright orange, purple, green and peach colours
The Poor Knights marine reserve is rated as one of the world’s top-10 diving spots © apsimo1 / Getty Images

A diver’s delight at Poor Knights Islands

Colourful underwater scenery combines with two decommissioned navy ships to provide a perfect playground for divers at Poor Knights Islands. A subtropical current from the Coral Sea brings unique varieties of tropical and subtropical fish, and make it one of the best dive sites in the world. The waters are clear, and underwater cliffs drop steeply to the sandy bottom, making a labyrinth of archways, caves, tunnels and fissures. Schooling fish, eels and rays are common (including manta rays in season).

Aerial view of Mangawhai heads, North Island, New Zealand; lines of white waves build as they approach the azure shallows before crashing on the pinkish sands
Mangawhai's main claim to fame is the surf beach at the northern head of its large estuary © Nazar Abbas Photography / Getty Images

Catching a wave at Mangawhai Heads

The surf beach at the northern head of Mangawhai’s large estuary is a real gem, and the large beach-side car park fills up quickly in peak surfing season. The village is a quintessential laid-back New Zealand beach town. For another natural excursion, there’s a seabird sanctuary a short kayak across the estuary, just take care to avoid endangered dotterels and fairy terns nesting.

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