New Zealand’s most northern part is often called ‘the winterless north’ thanks to its sub-tropical climate which gives long, hot summers and mild winters making it a perfect all-year-round destination. The Far North is typified by small settlements, sleepy towns full of character and an almost endless choice of stunning beaches. The further north you go the more the land narrows so you have the pick of rugged west coast ocean or calm, safe east coast waters – even both in one day if you can’t decide.
1) Te Paki Giant Dunes – Sand Surfing I have to confess I had a moment of hesitation before I launched myself and my body-board in a kamikaze leap of faith over the edge of what appeared to be a sheer, ridiculously high drop. Seconds later though, as I whizzed downwards (admittedly not fully in control), the thrill factor kicked in and the bottom arrived all too soon. Getting back up to the top again isn’t so much fun – these dunes are enormous. The view of the desert-like landscape from here is otherworldly and the climb is worth it for that alone – even if you don’t fancy launching yourself into the air for a spot of sand surfing. There are some smaller dunes for the less adventurous too.
2) Kawakawa Hundertwasser Toilets It can’t be very often that public toilets feature on a must-visit list but these aren’t just any toilets. Before these toilets, designed by Austrian architect Frederick Hundertwasser, were opened in the late 1990s most visitors to New Zealand would have been completely unaware of the existence of this small sleepy township. Now it is part of every tour bus route and visitors arrive in their thousands every year, including TV documentary teams from around the world. The toilets are impossible to describe but full of colour, glass and represent a wow factor work of art. Even if you don’t need to spend a penny then make sure you call in here.
3) Gumdiggers Park This is one of those attractions from which you come away awed, entertained and very glad you went. The gum-field workings, which have been in existence for over 100 years, sprung up in order to extract the fossilised resin (sometimes called New Zealand amber and kauri gold) from the 150,000 year old buried kauri forest here.
Recreated shelters form part of a gum-digger village to show how life used to be for the original workers complete with artefacts and relics. You can also wander around the buried forest, marvelling at the sheer size of it all (kauri trees can live to be 2000 years old and are only second in size to the giant sequoias).
Crafts made from both gum and wood are on sale here and there are also flora and fauna trails with picnic areas.
4) Ecovalley Kiwis and Glow Worm Tours If you fancy an evening nature walk with a good dose of New Zealand native bush thrown in then the Ecovalley near Kaitaia could be just the thing. You can explore parts of the 44 acres of sub-tropical rainforest here with a knowledgeable guide – your pathways lit by glow worms. New Zealand brown kiwi, weta, freshwater crayfish and a host of bird life are the main attractions here.
5) Cape Reinga Although not technically as far north as you can go in New Zealand, it isn’t far off. This is the point where the Pacific Ocean dramatically meets the Tasman Sea and the meeting of these two bodies of water can be fascinating to watch particularly on a stormy day. This place has enormous spiritual significance to New Zealand Maori who believe this is the point where the spirits of the dead depart from the island to return to the underworld. The Maori name is Te Rerenga Wairua meaning ‘leaping place of the spirits’.
6) Swim with Wild Dolphins – Mangonui Little seaside Mangonui is pretty and they serve pretty decent fish and chips here too but that isn’t why I came originally. ‘Dolphin Rendezvous’ operate from here and offer visitors the chance to swim with wild Bottlenose dolphins. In my opinion, this dolphin swim operator is one of the two best, on both New Zealand islands (and believe me I’ve tried all of them at least once!)
The dolphins love to bow ride the catamaran and for the several hours of my trip there was always at least 5 dolphins with us – often many more. The swim was magical and in the clearest waters I have ever been in which means at times you can see dolphins all around you. Describing it is impossible – doing it is something you will remember forever.
7) Ninety Mile Beach This long, straight, seemingly endless beach is not in fact 90 miles long – it’s 55 miles. Officially Ninety Mile Beach is a road and is marked on maps as such however it isn’t suitable for all vehicles as many have found out to their cost. Hire vehicles are prohibited from driving on the beach and the rusted out car wrecks which can be found at regular intervals are reminders of the many which got stuck and couldn’t be rescued before the tide came in. If you would like to drive up Ninety Mile Beach there are many tour operators which offer this service in a range of vehicles.
8) Kayak the Coast It doesn’t matter whether you are a total beginner or an experienced kayaker – there is something on offer for all ages, ability levels and interests. The coast of New Zealand with its coves, sea caves, and rocky islets is perfect for safe kayaking and the Far North is no exception. Among other choices you can opt for a night kayak around tranquil bays with a canopy of stars blazing overhead or select a tour with a Maori guide who will regale you with ancient stories and explain places of historical and spiritual significance as you paddle. Tours and rentals range from an hour to several day long packages. Local i-SITES will have details of everything on offer and can also make bookings for you if you want.
9) Wagener/Subritzky Historic Homestead Set in park-like extensive grounds, this 150 year old building was once the headquarters of a huge estate. It is recognised as a place of particular historical significance, in part because unlike so many of the other early pioneer houses it is especially large – 15 rooms. The house has been fully restored with a sympathetic eye to retaining its original charm and features and today visitors can enjoy daily tours and learn about the lifestyle of New Zealand’s earliest European settlers.
10) Doubtless Bay When Captain Cook arrived here in 1769 his (rather obvious) statement that it was ‘doubtless a bay’ gave the area its name. Today its 70 km of rocky coves, sandy beaches and blue blue waters are playgrounds for swimming, snorkelling, fishing and general lazing about. Beaches are typically safe and there are always quiet uncrowded corners to be found even in high summer when the red splashes of the pohutakawa trees give this area especial beauty.
If beach life isn’t enough for you then this area also has a wealth of attractions for culture vultures, wine buffs and adventure seekers. I-SITES carry free copies of a Doubtless Bay tourist brochure which details all the things to do here.
The Bay of Islands, which is part of the Far North isn’t included here. It is a destination within itself and so has its very own Top 10 article which you can see on this site.
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