The Far North is one of my favourite parts of New Zealand, so I tend to make the trip a few times a year. So far, my goal has always been to get north as quickly as possible. But this time, I decided to take the long way to Russell to explore the east coast, and I’m glad I did.
I was surprised to discover an unspoiled, authentic, and incredibly beautiful part of New Zealand that few tourists ever visit, and even many Kiwis have never really paid much attention to.
After leaving Whangarei, I followed State Highway 1 for about 20km before turning right towards Helena Bay and Oakura. As you come down the hill towards Helena Bay, The Gallery and Café are worth a visit.
I admit I’m not usually drawn towards galleries and museums (I’m more of a nature person) and it’s possible that the sign on the road promoting one of my favourite coffee brands had something to do with my decision to stop, but I’m glad I did. The gallery offered beautiful art, excellent coffee, and outstanding views.
After this little stop, I made my way down to Helena Bay where I spent the night parked right by the beach. Whangarei District is very supportive of responsible freedom campers and allows people in certified self-contained vehicles to park up for the night anywhere that is not restricted—another good reason to visit the area. But a quick tip, if you’re considering spending the night at the Helena Bay carpark, bring levellers or be prepared to sleep on an angle.
The next morning, I set out to explore Mimiwhangata Coastal Park—a place I’d never heard of until I saw the road signs. The warnings about a long and windy gravel road made me curious (everyone knows the best places are at the end of gravel roads), but also a bit nervous.
It turned out to be fine for my 5.5m Ford Transit but, if you’re visiting the area with a larger motorhome, you might have to give this one a miss, especially during the busier summer months, as much of the road is very narrow with steep cliffs on one side so passing oncoming traffic could be tricky. And if you’re towing, leave the caravan behind. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to stay in the park anyway so no point risking the drive with a trailer.
What you find on the other end, however, is worth the slow and tricky 25-minute drive. Mimiwhangata is an unspoiled paradise of white sandy beaches and green rolling hills. I can highly recommend the Peninsular Loop Walk which offers stunning views across the park and the neighbouring bays (between 60-90 minutes with some hills but overall easy walking).
After a beautiful day in this little paradise, I made my way back and stayed the night in Oakura—again parked up right on the beach and without another motorhome in sight. The next morning I explored the bay on my stand-up paddleboard, which brings me to another tip for those planning to visit the area.
If you have a way to explore the bays from the water, whether it’s kayaking, on a boat, or paddle boarding like me, definitely take it. The scenery and coastline is even more stunning from the water and you can discover many hidden little beaches and coves.
After my morning paddleboard mission, I continued north towards Russell. The drive is windy and slow but incredibly beautiful. I decided to take the long way along the coast via Parekura Bay. It’s only 10km longer than the inland road, which appears to be gravel all the way and would probably not have the stunning coastal views, so I’m glad I made that choice.
I had planned to stay the night somewhere around Russell but I was at the point where I need a proper campground with a washing machine and liked the look of the Paihia Top 10 on the other side of the bay (accessible by car ferry)—mainly because it’s right on the water and offered free Wi-Fi, which helped with the work I needed to do.
I’m really glad that after countless rushed drive-bys, I finally took the time to explore this beautiful part of New Zealand. Having spent much of my time recently in Auckland and other busy places such as Waihi Beach and Mangawhai, I enjoyed being in a remote and quiet part of the world.
At a time when everything seems to get busier and more crowded, I find it comforting to know that places like these still exist in New Zealand. We just have to take the long way around to find them.
- Mimiwhangata Coastal Park
- Exploring the bays on my paddleboard
- The Gallery and Café in Helena Bay
- The views from Flagstaff Hill in Russell
- Taking the car ferry from Okiato to Opua
To read more about Lisa’s adventures, visit lifedonedifferently.com.