48 hours in Northland

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The Far North is a beautiful part of New Zealand with lots on offer within a relatively short driving space. Earlier this year, before the world went a bit wonky, I managed to squeeze in a 48-hour family trip that took us from Auckland to Kerikeri, Waitangi, Paihia and Russell.

Friday – Kerikeri

Our plan was to base ourselves in Russell for two nights and explore Waitangi and Paihia, with a stop in Kerikeri on the way.

Having left the Auckland traffic behind us on a warm Friday morning in late February, we arrived in Kerikeri at about 1pm. Kerikeri is well known for its abundance of citrus orchards, boutique shopping, and weekend markets. It is also where you’ll find New Zealand’s oldest building, Kemp House, built in 1820 as a mission house. The house has been kept true to its Georgian era and is open for tours. Next door is the Stone Store. This heritage building was established in 1832 as a Missionary Society warehouse and is today a museum and gift shop.

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Kerikeri’s Stone Store (left) and Kemp House (right)

A short drive from the Stone Store, and a great spot for a picnic, is the Rainbow Falls Scenic Reserve. As the name suggests, the reserve is home to the Rainbow Falls waterfall, and a very impressive one at that. But the 27-metre cascade is just one highlight, and one of five waterfalls, within a network of walking tracks in Kerikeri. The reserve has a large parking area, and there’s also an NZMCA campground for those who want to stay a while.

For those with a sweet tooth, Makana Confections is a must-do. Located on Kerikeri Road (the main road into Kerikeri from the south), this divine diversion is hard to miss. More than just a store, Makana is a boutique chocolate factory where they create their own hand-made goodies. And they are so good. We left the store with a box of mouthwatering Macadamia Butter Toffee Crunch that barely lasted until the next day. The shop also has a cafe on site with even more tempting goodies, lunches, and good coffee.


Our next stop was Paihia, where we had booked tickets on the vehicle ferry to take us to Russell (Kororāreka). Paihia is often referred to as the Heart of the Bay of Islands. It’s one of those quintessential little New Zealand towns that city dwellers dream of moving to.

From dolphin cruises to scenic walks, and a main road brimming with boutique stores and cute cafes, Paihia has that friendly, relaxed holiday vibe at any time of year.

There are some great campsites in Paihia, including the Bay of Islands Holiday Park, the Paihia Top 10, the Falls Motel & Waterfront Campground, and the Bay of Islands Campervan Park. For this trip, we stayed at the Russell Top 10, which is a 10-minute ferry ride across the harbour from Paihia.

We arrived just in time to pick up our tickets before the ferry office closed, but with the ferry running every 15 minutes until 10pm, we decided to make the most of the sunny February weather and enjoy fish and chips on the beach for dinner. There are plenty of great fish and chipperies to choose from, and I can recommend Paihia Fish and Chips on Williams Avenue. The fish was fresh and the chips were plentiful.
We sat ourselves on the waterfront, enjoyed our meal and agreed that right there and then, we couldn’t imagine being anywhere better. A word to the wise though, don’t be tempted to offer a chip to the seagulls. Unless you really love seagulls. In their hundreds.

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Russell Top 10 campground is just 10 minutes by ferry to Paihia

Dinner done, it was time to head across to Russell. To board the vehicle ferry, it’s about a 10-minute drive to Opua Wharf from the centre of Paihia. Then it’s just a matter of driving onto the ferry and enjoying the short ride over. You can also leave your vehicle in Paihia if you want to head over for a day visit on foot by boarding a passenger ferry at Paihia Wharf (in the township).

We pulled into the Russell Top 10 at about 7.45pm, just in time to pour a glass of wine, watch the sun go down and enjoy another ‘nowhere I’d rather be moment’.

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The expansive Treaty grounds are a lovely spot to stroll or throw down a picnic blanket

Saturday – Waitangi

Early the next morning, we caught the vehicle ferry back across to Paihia and drove six minutes down the road to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

I’ve never visited before, but having heard so much about this special place, it had been on my ‘to-do’ list for many years.

As most people will know, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is where the Declaration of Independence, He Whakaputanga, was signed. And soon after, in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi, Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

To make the most of our time, we decided to take a guided tour of the grounds. I’m not usually a fan of guided tours, but I knew my hubby and teenager – who have Māori heritage – would appreciate being able to ask questions of someone with some qualified knowledge. It was a good plan; our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and made the experience that much more special. Guided tours depart regularly throughout the day; just check in with the front desk to get yourself on board.

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The Waitangi museums are well worth a visit

Our first stop was Te Kōngahu, one of two museums on site. Te Kōngahu was opened in 2016 and features two galleries: Ko Waitangi Tēnei (This is Waitangi) on the ground floor, and a gallery for temporary exhibitions on the first floor. I found myself completely transfixed by an interactive table that shares the stories of the dealings between Māori and European settlers in the early days of their arrival.

The second museum, Te Rau Aroha, had only been open a matter of weeks when we visited. This immersive, interactive museum is divided into three galleries. The first includes exhibitions on the New Zealand Wars and the Boer War, the second is dedicated to the 28 Māori Battalions – many of whom were from Northland – and the third gallery is a contemplative Whare Maumahara (house of memories).

It would be easy to spend half a day immersed in the stories and history within the museums. They are truly special places and I’d encourage all New Zealanders to visit, even those – like myself – who didn’t think they really had much of a connection to the Treaty of Waitangi. You’ll come away feeling quite differently.

Next on our tour was the Treaty House, where James Busby and his family lived. Busby was New Zealand’s first British resident and presented the 1835 Declaration of Independence to the northern chiefs. The house has a fascinating history and is open to the public to wander through. There are several themed rooms that tell the story of the Busby family, who owned the house until 1882.

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A traditional wero (challenge)at Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Next to the Treaty House is Te Whare Rūnanga (the House of Assembly), a carved meeting house that has been beautifully designed in traditional Māori form. Here, visitors can witness a Māori cultural performance.

The Treaty House and Te Whare Rūnanga are set on the upper grounds of Waitangi and together symbolise the partnership between Māori and the British Crown. The grounds are quite beautiful with expansive gardens, tall trees and views over the harbour. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a picnic, but if you’d prefer to dine in the onsite cafe, Whare Waka has a great menu to choose from. Their burgers are delicious, and the coffee is good too.

Plan a full day for your visit to the Treaty grounds. It truly is a special place and it’s worth taking the time to absorb the fascinating history that has shaped our country.

Exploring Russell

Back in Russell that afternoon, after a long day at the Treaty Grounds, we were pretty hot and tired. Fortunately, Russell has an amazing beach just a few minutes’ drive from the Top 10, or around 20 minutes’ walk from the main shopping centre. Oneroa Bay (Long Bay) is a gorgeous, golden-sand beach that stretches for about a kilometre. There’s plenty of roadside parking, and a nice green verge of grass with trees to sit under. The beach is calm and shallow, a great spot for families.

Russell may be small, but it’s got all the holiday essentials including a Four Square, a handful of boutique gift shops, some decent eateries, and an ice cream shop.

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The beach at Russell

There are also some great walks in the area, including the Flagstaff Hill Loop Track which starts at the northern end of The Strand in the township and winds its way along the beach, through coastal forest and up to the summit of Flagstaff Hill, where you’ll be rewarded with incredible 360-degree views of the Bay of Islands. It’s also an historic site – the Union Jack was flown here in for the first time in 1840 but was chopped down numerous times over the next few years in defiance of British rule.

For dinner that night, we headed to the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, which sits right on the waterfront. Book a table on the deck and you’ll be treated to unbeatable views – especially if you’re there in time for sunset. The Duke is a handsome building, established in 1827 as ‘Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop’ after its then-owner, who was an ex-convict. Johnny eventually changed the name to the Duke of Marlborough because, at the time, the Duke of Marlborough was the world’s richest man and Johnny figured the name would bring respect and opulence to the area. It was a wise move, and ‘The Duke of Marlborough’ does befit the grandeur of the building. The food and service are equally impressive. 

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The Duke of Marlborough is an iconic part of Russell’s history

Sunday – Cruising the Bays 

Another experience that has been on my ‘to do’ list since the first time I visited Paihia as a child is the Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise. And on our final day, I ticked it off the list. We were up bright and early to board the cruise from Russell wharf (passengers can also board from Paihia).

The cruise takes around four hours in total and heads out into the Bay of Islands and along the Rakaumangamanga Peninsula to Cape Brett and to Piercy Island/Motu Kōkako, or as it is popularly known the ‘Hole in the Rock’.

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Motu Kōkako or, as it is popularly known, the ‘Hole in the Rock’

According to Māori legend, local warriors would paddle through the Hole in the Rock before departing for battle. Drops of water from the cave roof above were thought to be a good omen.

On a calm day, the skipper of the cruise will guide the ship through the hole. But not this day. The water was pretty choppy. I was quite relieved to hear that the skipper decided against it (as were many others on the boat – some of whom were looking just a tad green). 

On most occasions, you’ll spot dolphins and even whales out on the cruise. Unfortunately, the marine life was a bit shy on our visit, but the cruise itself was pretty spectacular and a not a bad way to see more of this beautiful part of New Zealand.

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Charlotte’s Kitchen in Paihia has great food and views

Having ferried back to Paihia after the cruise, our last stop of the day was lunch at Charlotte’s Kitchen in the town. Built in 2015, the cafe/restaurant has a funky, contemporary vibe with super-friendly staff and some unbeatable views. They also do a very decent woodfired pizza and a sticky date pudding to die for.

We managed to pack quite a bit into our 48 hours, but we’ve also drawn up a decent ‘to do’ list for next time we’re in the area. If you haven’t been, or it’s been a while, I can recommend a visit soon. Might see you there!

More information 

Paihia-Russell Vehicle Ferry

The ferry departs every 10 minutes during the day, and every 20 minutes early morning and late evening.

Costs (one way):

  • Cars / 2-berth campervan: $13.50 
  • 2-berth campervan with shower and toilet $21
  • 4-6 berth motorhome $21 
  • Car with caravan: $27 - $34.50 

Find out more at dolphincruises.co.nz/ferries/ferrytimetable#vehicle-ferry

Kemp House and the Stone Store

246 Kerikeri Road, Kerikeri

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Costs vary depending on which experiences you’d like to see and do. A good option is the Waitangi Experience Pass, which give you full access to everything including the museums, cultural performance, and guided tours. $25 for New Zealand residents. Children up to 18 years free. Find out more at waitangi.org.nz

Hole in the Rock Cruise

The cruise takes between three and four hours and departs from Paihia and Russell every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Refreshments are available on board. Find out more at dolphincruises.co.nz



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