Outdoor fun and sightseeing in and around Whangarei
Stay a while in Whangarei and you'll discover a massive range of free outdoor adventures that ensure you'll have plenty of travel budget left for restaurants and shopping. Pick up a rental car from the airport, visit the local i-site information centre in the Town Basin for a summary of things to see in Whangarei, then launch yourself into the glories of nature.
Outdoor fun close to the city
Top of the 'places to go in Whangarei' list is the Town Basin, where locals and travellers gather to enjoy a hearty breakfast alongside the city's marina. While you're sipping a coffee, consider the local walks that are immediately on hand.
For starters, there's the Hatea Loop (Huarahi o Te Whai), a walkway that lets you discover artists' studios, a sculpture trail and the Whangarei Art Museum. Along the way, heritage panels tell the Māori history of Whangarei.
Next there's a choice of three tracks leading up to the Mount Parihaka Lookout and Memorial. An eroded volcanic cone, this mountain has a pā (fort) site that once housed more than two thousand people.
AH Reed Memorial Park is also a gorgeous place for wandering. It has a canopy walkway that lets you explore the native forest without damaging tree root systems. Some of the kauri trees here are more than 500 years old.
Abbey Caves is another free walking adventure close to Whangarei City. There are three caves here – Organ Cave, Ivy Cave and Middle Cave – and the limestone landscape dates back millions of years. An extra treat is the Rock Forest, where you'll see huge boulders intertwined with ancient puriri trees.
Last but not least is Whangarei Falls, a splendid horseshoe-shaped waterfall that's just over an hour's walk from the Town Basin (or you can drive there in 15 minutes). There's a loop walk at the falls, as well as lush native forest that's home to kereru (native wood pigeons), tui and fantails.
The hike up Mt Manaia will certainly get your heart rate up, but the effort is richly rewarded with spectacular summit views.
The drive to Whangarei Heads
Close to the Town Basin is Riverside Drive, the start of a glorious 33km coastal drive to Whangarei Heads. While the drive would only take you 40 minutes if you didn't stop, pausing along the way is absolutely essential.
At Onerahi there's a 6km biking and walking route that connects to the Hatea Loop walk at the Town Basin. Next is Tamaterau, a harbourside picnic spot with excellent fishing off the rocks at high tide. And slightly further on is the Pines Golf Club, where visitors are always welcome.
When you get to Parua Bay you'll find a local tavern and a choice of eating places. McLeods Bay is the next beauty spot to appreciate, where you can't help but notice Mt Aubrey and Mt Manaia - two ancient volcanoes with fascinating rock formations. The hike up Mt Manaia will certainly get your heart rate up, but the exertion is richly rewarded with spectacular summit views.
When you get to the Urquharts Bay carpark, which marks the end of the coastal drive, you'll find the Busby Head walking track leading to exquisite Smugglers Bay. In the 1860s, trading ship crews used to bury crates of New Caledonian whisky in the sand here, to dodge paying duty.
It's easy to add an Ocean Beach extension to this coastal journey; just find Ocean Beach Road and keep driving until you see the waves.
Exploring the Tutukaka Coast
Whangarei is the gateway to the Tutukaka Coast, an exquisite piece of Northland that's much loved by divers, fishermen and surfers. The first seaside village you get to on this driving route is Ngunguru, a lovely spot for breakfast o a between-meals ice cream, or you can keep driving to Tutukaka for a wider choice of restaurants.
Tutukaka's main claim to fame is its marina and proximity to the Poor Knights Marine Reserve, which Jacques Cousteau named in his personal Top 10 of dive sites. Every day numerous boat trips depart Tutukaka for snorkeling, diving and kayaking experiences around the Poor Knights Islands.
The beach town of Matapouri should be your next stop. Highlights include a sheltered bay for swimming and a beautiful forested walkway to Whale Bay. If you have a few days to spare, it's easy enough to find holiday homes for rent at Matapouri.
Sandy Bay is the last beach to discover before the road heads inland. There will usually be a few (or many) surfers bobbing in the waves here; it's one of New Zealand's top surfing locations.