Now, I am a planner!! I enjoy nothing better than researching trips, pulling together spreadsheets of options and costs – I feel no shame about my need to plan lol. Unfortunately, sometimes the best laid plans do not pan out and you just need to roll with it – this was one of those trips 🥴. After last year’s birthday trip took us through the snowy mountains to the West Coast of the South Island (remember the snow chain debacle 🤦🏻♀️), this year we headed north in the hope of some winter sun …
Most people (including me), consider Auckland as ‘the north’ of New Zealand, but in fact there is another 400+km (5-6 hours driving) north of the city. On this trip we were heading in to Northland, going about 3 hours north of Auckland to Paihia in the beautiful Bay of Islands.
Often considered the birthplace of modern New Zealand, the Bay of Islands is where the first European settlers arrived and is home to Waitangi, the site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (more about that later). And as the name suggests, there are 144 islands in the bay and the sub-tropical climate makes it a popular holiday destination.
It was a beautiful crisp morning for our departure from Christchurch, making for a beautiful flight with perfect photo opportunities. In stark contrast, Auckland was hidden in fog, which delayed our landing by about 10 minutes but we were soon down, bags in hand and picked up by Snap rentals to get our car and hit the road.
Despite being a Saturday morning, there was so much traffic driving through the city 🤦🏻♀️. Thankfully we were driving north out of the city where the traffic was not so bad, but I just can’t understand why so many people where driving into the city on a Saturday morning????
Our Paihia Airbnb host had given us some tips and had recommended taking a short detour along the scenic, coastal route north, taking us through the small town of Orewa where we took a quick pit stop to grab a coffee and admire the moody but beautiful beach.
Back on the northern part of the Hibiscus Coast Highway (the same road I took last year from Auckland west to Thames), it was not long before we arrived at Otuihau Whangarei Falls, just outside of Whangarei. The falls are 26.3 metres high, falling over basalt cliffs and there is a beautiful easy walk around the falls.
Much to my partners annoyance (lol) I was determined to have one more stop on our drive north, at the small quirky town of Kawakawa to see the public toilets. Yes, you read that right, I wanted to stop to see the public toilets!
The Hundertwasser Toilets are the most photographed toilets in New Zealand and are considered to be an international work of art (one of the few toilet blocks with that honour – not surprising I guess). The toilets were designed by Austrian architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser who lived in the area. They were built in 1999 using recycled materials from the community and even including a living tree. It would have been rude not to use the facilities whilst I checked them out lol.
Finally we arrived in Paihia – our destination for this trip. Our Airbnb apartment was lovely. A short walk to town and a great view out to the sea. We arrived late in the afternoon so we walked down in to town for some dinner and drinks. It was a beautiful night with a full moon and the wharf and lights looking lovely.
After a quick early morning sunrise run/walk along the water front, it was not without trepidation we set off for our boat cruise to the famous Hole in the Rock. It was already pretty windy and the sea looked a little choppy, even in the harbour, but we had bought discounted tickets earlier in the week and this day was the only option.
The trepidation was well founded – we boarded the boat which was already bouncing around in the protected harbour – and the first announcement they made was …. “It’s going to be really rough out there and we probably won’t make it to the Hole in the Rock!! Get off now if you are not up for that!” So we got off and thankfully received a full refund. Instead of the boat trip, we decided to walk the 30 minutes along the waterfront to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bay of Islands is considered the birth place of modern New Zealand. Firstly due to the fact that this is where the earliest European settlers settled and because it is where the Te Tiriti o Waitangi (or Treaty of Waitangi) was signed in 1840 – for that reason, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is one of the most symbolically important places in New Zealand.
The site was home to the first British government representative, James Busby, but prior to the European settlers arriving, it was an important seasonal gathering site for the local Ngāpuhi iwi. In fact, in one of the earliest recorded land agreements between Māori and the settlers, they allowed the Church Missonary Society to hold 50 acres of the current Waitangi site.
Not surprisingly, the Treaty was as controversial at the time as it has been in more recent years and ‘vigorous discussion’ took place at the Treaty grounds prior to signing by the local Māori leaders. It was eventually signed and taken around the country for other leaders to sign, making New Zealand the first Pacific island nation to be under European control.
In 1990, Queen Elizabeth the II said of the Treaty ” Today, we are strong enough and honest enough to admit that the Treaty has been imperfectly observed. Look upon it as a legacy of promise. It can be a guide to … all those whose collective sense of justice, fairness and tolerance will shape the future.”
Today, it is the site of the annual Treaty of Waitangi anniversary events, and is a popular tourist attraction. It has a great museum which explains the history of the early settlers, both Māori and European, as well as shedding some light on the complexities of the Treaty itself.
From here, you can spend hours wandering around the beautiful grounds, exploring Treaty House (which was the original residence of the Busby family) and the Te Whare Runanga, the beautifully carved meeting house. If you time it right you can enjoy a performance from the local Kapa Haka group – unfortunately we did not time it right as a performance was already part way through.
The flagstaff on the large lawn, looking out to sea, marks the spot where the Treaty was fist signed on 6 February 1840. The current flagstaff was erected in 1934 and flies the 3 official flags that New Zealand has had since 1834 – the flag of the United Tribes of New Zealand (the first flag), the Union Jack (the national flag from 1840) and today’s New Zealand flag which dates back to 1902.
Don’t miss the walk down to the small beach to see Ngātokimatawhaorua, the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe. The 35m canoe and it 76 paddlers is launched each year on Waitangi Day as part of the days events.
It was lovely walk back to Paihia, this time along the beach as the tide was out (when the tide is in, the water is right up against the sea wall) and we headed to one of the many great food options in town – CBK (Craft Bar Kitchen) right on the water front was our choice for lunch before a relaxing afternoon – we are on holiday after all lol.
After a night of rain, the sunrise the next morning was beautiful and hazy – it really felt and looked like the tropics and I often struggle to believe that this is even New Zealand? I made the most of it by heading out for another morning walk /run. Despite feeling so energised first thing in the morning, it did not last long and so decided to take it easy for the rest of the day. We took a relaxing walk to town and caught the ferry, the 15 minutes across the bay to Russell.
Russell stared life as a small coastal seasonal Māori village, with a number of important Pas on the surrounding hills guarding the approach. When the Europeans arrived, the used the area as a shore station for shipping.
As the town grew, it was nicknamed the “Hell hole of the Pacific” due to the nature of it’s settlers – an unsavoury mixture of deserting sailors, escaped convicts, prostitutes and grog sellers. Captain Cook had spread the word about the “most noble anchorage” and it became a popular hub for whalers stopping in for suppliers from the local Māori and European settlers. Many of the buildings in the town still date back to the early 1800s. For European buildings in New Zealand, that is pretty much as old as it gets. One of the most famous buildings is the Duke of Marlborough pub whose tag line is “refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827” (though the building has burnt down and has been rebuilt twice since then).
Russell was considered of such importance, it was named the first capital of New Zealand in 1840. In 1841 the capital was moved to Auckland but even today, the sleepy little town it still retains it glory as the first capital lol.
The weather was not great and it was raining on and off so we did not stay long before heading back across the bay to Paihia for the rest of the afternoon. Thankfully it was not cold – not sure it gets cold in this far north (I may need to consider a move lol).
On what was supposed to be our final full day in Paihia, our plans started to completely unravel! As I was still not feeling well we decided to leave Paihia a day early so we did not have to make the drive early the following morning. But, before heading to Auckland we took a quick detour to the town of Kerikeri (the largest town in Northland), where there were a number of things I wanted to see.
First stop was Rainbow Falls or Waianiwaniwa, a 27 metre single drop waterfall. It is only a short walk from the car park to the viewing platform and not surprisingly, it is well known for it’s rainbows in the spray from the water, and yes, there was a rainbow. Our next stop was a medical centre, as I was feeling even worse by this stage!! Unfortunately, they could not see me and told us to go to Whangarei Hospital – 1 hour away!! Thankfully it was on the way to Auckland so we skipped all the other sites and headed south
I was seen quickly at the very efficient hospital and the strong painkillers they gave me helped me survived the rest of the drive to Auckland and home to Christchurch – I was disappointed that we did not get to do all that was planned … but in hindsight it was lucky we got away at all! (Thankfully there were a lot of rainbows and a lovely sunset on the journey to keep my spirits up.)
(Footnote: They day after we got home I was admitted to hospital and ended staying there for a week (though I am fully recovered now). So not only were we lucky we got away, but perhaps even more so, lucky we got home!!!)