Often called 'The Winterless North' because of its mild climate, Northland occupies 80% of the Auckland Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island. Famous for both its kauri forests of exceptionally tall trees, and very long, straight beaches on the west coast, Northland may be sparsely populated, but that just means there's more stunning landscape to go around.
On the rugged east coast, you will find several bays and peninsulas – the most notable being the Bay of Islands (over 150 of them); a popular destination for fishing and sailing. New Zealand's northernmost city, Whangarei, lies 60km south of the Bay of Islands, and is the most populous place in Northland.
A wide range of activities will keep you occupied here, including: diving; kayaking; surfing and even dolphin-swimming. Or you can just while away the hours sunning yourself on the famous Ninety Mile Beach.
Called 'the tail of the fish' by the Maori people, Northland is thought to be where Kupe, the great Maori chief, first made landfall in New Zealand – making it the country's birthplace. Thirty per cent of Northland's population are Maori, and it was also here, in Waitangi, that the eponymous Treaty was signed in 1840, between Maori leaders and the first European settlers, creating the 'New Zealand' we know today.
Bay of Islands
Renowned for the big-game fishing here, the Bay is a natural harbour, 16km wide, with several inlets that stretch back to the land. It was the first area in New Zealand to be settled by Europeans, and is home to some of the country's most historic towns, including Russell, Waitangi and Kerikeri. The main town is Paihia which is a hub for many of the boating and sailing operators, and offers the best selection of accommodation and restaurants. With plenty of golden sandy beaches and coves, warm clear waters and great seafood restaurants, the Bay of Islands is a popular destination with locals.
Ninety Mile Beach & Cape Reinga
Famous not just for the sand and surf, but the massive sand dunes, Ninety Mile Beach sits on the extreme northwestern coast of Northland. Despite its name, the beach is actually 'only' fifty-five miles long, and its desert-type landscape makes it perfect for bodyboarding – an amusing sight for the non-initiated!
Right at the head of Northland sits Cape Reinga ("Underworld" in Maori). A hundred kilometres from the nearest town of Kaitaia, the Cape was nominated in 2007 as a potential World Heritage Site. You can watch tidal races from the lighthouse, as the Tasman Sea clashes with the Pacific Ocean. It's from here that Maori legend tells us the spirits of the dead travel on their way to the afterlife, and is a sacred site, still, for the Maori people.
One of the oldest parts of New Zealand, Doubtless Bay was named by Captain Cook who, rather logically, declared that it was "doubtless a bay". Stretching from Taupo Bay to the Karikari Peninsula, there is much to explore. Mangonui is the main town, which claims to have New Zealand's best fish and chip shop, and from here you can visit the whaling museum at Butler Point, or take the Heritage Trail from outside the courthouse. The beaches around Doubtless Bay are famous for their luxurious sands and, once you've sampled the clear-blue diving and lazy sailing, you'll find it hard to drag yourself back to dry land.
85km northwest of Whangarei, Hokianga is an area famous for its forests and seaside settlements. It's also where, outside the Mangungu Mission House, the second signing of the Treaty of Waitangi took place in 1840.
Waipoua Forest, just outside the historic harbour area, is home to a magnificent collection of kauri trees, including the largest one in the world, Tane Mahuta ("God of the Forest"). Further along in the town of Rawene, you can visit Clendon House, home of New Zealand's first US Consul, James Reddy Clendon. On the south shore of Hokianga harbour, the settlement of Opononi is the site of some huge, white sand dunes that really have to be seen to be believed.
Famous as the final resting place of the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior (now a popular diving spot), Whangaroa Harbour is where the legendary Maori warrior, Hongi Hika died. More secluded beaches, and interesting mangrove swamps reveal yet more of New Zealand's natural treasures.
The regional capital of Northland, Whangarei has many chic cafes and quayside restaurants to enjoy, as well as museums, good shops and art galleries. From here, you can climb Mount Parihaka to survey the countryside below, or visit Limestone Island (Matakohe), which lies in the harbour. Six kilometres north, the waterfalls at Tikipunga are a jaw-dropping 26 metres high. Take your waterproofs!
The diving capital of Northland, Tutukaka is a marine-lover's paradise. You can snorkel, swim and sail – yachts can be chartered to take you to the wildlife reserve at Poor Knights Island or the dive boats at Riko Riko; the largest sea cave in the world.
There are regular flights from Auckland to Kerikeri, Kaitaia and Whangarei, although most visitors get there by car to make the most of the scenic journey. Bus and coach operators provide numerous services to the area, including day trips from Auckland city.
The Twin Coast Discovery Highway is an ideal way for motorists to pack in as much as possible. The route is circular, ensuring you're unlikely to miss a thing!