Twin Coast Discovery Highway

Traveller Stories

This is the story of a journey along this scenic drive aboard a rental car, as experienced by blogger Heather Hapeta.

My finger traces the map, following Northland's Twin Coast Discovery route. It’s been fun planning this trip to the ‘far north’ and now, behind the wheel of my rental, I’m off - first stop the coastal village of Tutukaka.

Checking into the quietly elegant hotel I’m soon relaxing on my room’s balcony which overlooks the marina. Tomorrow I’ll be off on one of those boats to explore the waters around the Poor Knights Island, a 25-year old marine reserve that has warm currents from the Coral Sea and the world’s largest sea cave.

Sleeping with the curtains open, I wake to the sunrise, have a relaxing breakfast in the hotel then wander around the waterfront. By mid-morning I’m checking into A Perfect Day, next door to the fabulous restaurant I’d eaten at the night before, and soon I’m on board with snorkel, fins and wetsuit. People from around the world, including a young family, are doing the same, all of us anticipating a great day. The sun is shining, the sea calm and before long we are anchoring at the islands, helping zip each other’s wetsuits, then slipping into the water off the platform on the back of the boat.

I gasp as I hit the water, but the views above and below the water are breathtaking. I ooh and ahh as schools of fish divide as they pass me, briefly merging me into their school before moving on. Others carry on feeding on the food they have trapped up against the islands volcanic cliffs which continue straight down to the floor of the Pacific Ocean. I even watch fish over lunch via the ‘fish-cam’ while others are canoeing or watching the birdlife.

Once we’re all checked back on board and wetsuits rinsed, we explore the huge and beautiful sea-cave Riko Riko and other islands which are part of the reserve. Watching the gannets diving for food helped make this, for me, a ‘perfect day’ just as the company is called.

Back on the road I’m soon in the Bay of Islands and checking into the hotel where I have a panoramic view over the bay that will feature over the next few days. First though, I visit the birthplace of New Zealand – the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It’s not only historic and beautiful but also set in lush native bush and has guided tours and cultural performances night and day – I took advantage of the entry ticket being valid for two days to ensure I saw it all.

Next I challenge my fear of heights by soaring skywards with the Flying Kiwi’s parasail: New Zealand’s’ highest.  Adrenaline was flowing before we left Paihia dock! The website said the take-off and landing was smooth and gentle and that's true – I just hadn’t factored in the height in the middle and I was flying single, not tandem or triple. It was not long before I was at the height of Auckland’s Sky Tower above the water. Although fearful, during the ten minutes I did take some photos of the fantastic scenery and the boat pulling me. It seemed like a little dot, sometimes going in a different direction to me and the colourful parachute that floated above.  This is a must-do for fabulous views of the bay and some of its 144 islands.  Adventurers, and wimps like me, love to say “I did New Zealand's highest parasail”.

Still in the bay, I went dolphin watching. As we searched in and around the islands and bays I realised why the first European to visit the area, Captain James Cook, named it The Bay of Islands.  Unusually there were no dolphins on my trip (another trip is offered when this happens) but we did see a pod of Orca, killer whales, feeding - no wonder the dolphins where hiding. However, it seems their genetic warning system about this top-of-the-food-chain mammal, has not caught up with the fact that, in New Zealand, orcas prefer sting-rays.

This was the first area settled by Europeans. Whalers had arrived at the end of the 18th century, while missionaries arrived in 1814, and Russell is the centre of this history.   Going there by one of the little ferries that leave Paihia wharf regularly and soon I’m enjoying a delicious lunch at ‘The Duke’. As I eat, I’m planning on sleeping in one of the rooms in this elegantly restored hotel next time I visit: they say they’ve been ‘refreshing rascals and reprobates’ for years and I’m sure I’d fit in!  Granted the first liquor licence in New Zealand, it’s certainly grown from ‘Johnny Johnsons Grog Shop’ and the drunken sailors that Darwin hated, to this stylish Duke of Marlborough Hotel.  

My days fly and with a I-must-come-back- and-do list, I set my GPS for Kerikeri where I stay in eco-cottages nestled in the award-winning Wharepuke Subtropical Gardens.  As well as visiting more historical sites here, I also had lunch and dinner at Wharepuke – I see why they have just received ‘The Best Cafe in Northland 2011’ award.

The ‘winterless north’ is the cradle of New Zealand history, and my next stop is no different.

Mangonui advertises itself not only for its historical walk but for the ‘worlds’ best fish shop’ so check that out and judge for yourself!  This whole area has picturesque, mostly white sand beaches and the views from any hill top are magical. Doubtless Bay was a perfect place to enjoy this area and also handy to be able enjoy the country’s most northern vineyard and cellar door on Karikari peninsula.

My trip to Cape Reinga was up 90 Mile Beach by bus. Car rental companies do not insure their vehicles on this official ‘road’. Each year personal vehicles come to a sticky end here and I didn't want to be one of them.  For most Kiwis, Cape Reinga, called Te Rerenga Wairua in Maori, is a special place, culturally and ecologically, and many visitors from around the world reduce their carbon footprint by planting a native tree there.

Heading back down the well-signposted twin-coast highway my next stop was at a Hokianga hotel (and the hub of local social life too) which is right on the waterfront and within sight of the heads that the great Polynesian explorer, Kupe, sailed through many generations ago. If the Bay of Islands is the cradle of European history, this whole area is the cradle of Maori history; in particular the nine main local iwi (tribes).

Two of the activities I did here celebrated both nature and Maori culture.  Footprints Waipoua’s Twilight Encounter was very special and even Lonely Planet have rated it highly (Code Green Experience of a Lifetime).  One evening I joined one of Kupe’s  descendants, and six other travellers,  on a guided walk to the two largest kauri trees in the world. Being in the forest at night was very special for sounds and sights.  .

The next day I another of Kupe's descendants stood with me on top of the giant sand dunes on the opposite side of the Hokianga Harbour regaling me with stories of the past with its intrigues, wars, deception and fun.  Interestingly, one of my guide’s ancestors, Atama Paparangi, had his portrait painted seven times by C F Goldie. One of the other great things about this trip, in a dune buggy, is that it’s pretty exclusive – after all, only three people can do it at a time.

Further south on State Highway 12 is the Kauri Museum.  This had been given such great press by travellers I’d met along the way that it had a lot to live up to. While in the Waipoua Forest a Canadian told me she thought it rivalled the Smithsonian – a tall order.

One of the amazing things I find about this world-class, award winning, museum is that it is administered by a charitable trust. Showcasing the very best of the Kauri Coast, it not only has amazing pieces of Kauri gum arts and crafts but also magnificent antique furniture and working machinery.

Better than the Smithsonian?  I don't know: what I do know is, whatever your interests, social history, art, nature, science, furniture, jewellery, machinery, culture, the Kauri Museum and its history of the beautiful golden amber gum will keep you occupied for hours. Tell them I sent you!

Northland Journeys Twin Coast Discovery Highway

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