Whangarei - Guide for Backpackers© NZPocketGuide.com
Whangarei - Guide for Backpackers

Whangarei – Guide for Backpackers

© NZPocketGuide.com

Caves to Coastal Adventures

New Zealand’s northernmost thus warmest city, Whangarei, is a great place to base yourself for coastal exploration and watersports. Not only does the Northland city have all the essential conveniences in its centre, but it also has super close proximity to forest walks, mountain climbs and cave crawls. Being a harbour city, Whangarei is one of the best places to start a trip out to the world-class diving spot, Poor Knights Island. You’re also never too far from sandy beaches with surf, fishing and kayaking at Bream Bay and the Tutukaka Coast.

Inland, Whangarei thrives from farming and horticulture, so if you are looking for seasonal picking work, Whangarei is a good place to find it!

So whether you’re just passing through on some of the scenic coastal highways, or stopping for a while in Whangarei to take advantage of all those little epic day trips in the area, just take a look at our guide below for things to do in Whangarei and its surrounds!

Things You Can’t Miss in Whangarei…

  • Take the Hatea Walkway to explore the city and town basin
  • Marvel at the huge Whangarei Falls
  • Delve into the glowworm-filled Waipu Caves
  • Hike up Mt Manaia for the best views in the area
  • Dive at the world-class Poor Knights Islands
  • Kayak, surf and swim from a huge selection of beaches on the Tutukaka Coast.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Whangarei Central

The city ofWhangareisits on a marina in an area that is known by locals as the Town Basin. Like any city on Planet Earth, the centre has all the shops, services and eateries you could hope for. If you really need to stock up on supplies, check out the Okara Shopping Centre in between Okara Drive and Port Road.

Want to get cultured? Whangarei prides itself on a variety of museums, including:

  • Claphams National Clock Museum – Think you know clocks? Think again! This museum has the largest collection of time-keepers in the Southern Hemisphere. Guided tours are free. (Location: Dent Street, Town Basin).
  • Kiwi North – This is not just an opportunity to see real-life kiwi bird and tuatara, but the museum teaches about the region’s Maori history. (Location: Maunu along State Highway 14).
  • Whangarei Art Museum – From heritage to contemporary, see some New Zealand art. (Location: Dent Street, Town Basin).

For more art, there are literally heaps of galleries scattered throughout the city centre. To name a few, there is the Reyburn House Art Gallery, The Quarry Arts Centre and The Papermill. Your dose of open-air art pieces can be found by taking the Hatea Walkway (1-hour loop) around the marina with Maori stone sculptures and more.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Inner City Parks, Mountains and Caves

Whangarei Falls

We’ll start with the most popular natural attraction in Whangarei city, Whangarei Falls. The 26-metre (85-foot) high waterfall can be admired from all angles, as you take the 5-minute walk from the top of the falls, down the side and to the pool below. Basalt columns, native forest and wildlife like birds and eels make it hard to believe this is all so close to the city centre, just 5km (3 miles) up the Tutukaka Coast Highway.

Parks in Whangarei

Combine your trip to Whangarei Falls with a walk along the riverside to AH Reed Kauri Park where you can get up close the giants of New Zealand’s native forest on a treetop walk (25-minute loop). Either walk on the tracks continuing downstream or drive to the Parihaka Reserves and Mair Park. Explore this beautifully preserved forest area along the river or up to the summit of Mt Parihaka. This ancient volcano is a prominent feature of the Whangarei skyline and was once a pa site (a Maori fortified village). A war memorial at the summit lights up the sky at night.


Nature brought to you by man, or what we like to call “gardens”, are free to walk around at your own leisure. Check out Botanica, Cafler Park and the Quarry Gardens for more picnic spots in pretty places.

Abbey Caves

The final event on our inner-city tour of Whangarei’s natural experiences is the most adventurous of them all, Abbey Caves. Delve into an underworld of stalagmites and stalactites, with the delicate glistening of the glowworms hanging from the ceiling. Wear sturdy shoes and take a torch to these caves, (which are totally free by the way). The caves are 4km (2.5 miles) from the city. Take Riverside Drive, then left on Memorial Drive, right on Old Parua Bay Road then onto Abbey Caves Road.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Bream Bay

This huge bay just south of Whangarei City is an absolute must-visit not just if you are a beach bum, where surf, swimming and romantic strolls on the beach are your thing, but for the inland forests, waterfall and the amazing Waipu Caves.

Let’s start with all those inland beauties worth visiting:

  • Piroa Falls – You can’t miss the signs from State Highway 1 just south of Waipu for the Piroa Falls turn off. Take the 10-minute track to a pretty waterfall with swimming holes.
  • Brynderwyn Hills Walkway [CLOSED] – [Update: This track is closed due to kauri dieback] Still south of Waipu, the 12km (7 miles) Brynderwyn Hills Walkway gives you great views from atop a mountain range. The western entrance nearest to Piroa Falls starts from the summit of the Brynderwyn Hills, in a car park opposite the old cafe off State Highway 1.
  • Waipu Caves – Explore these limestone caves with stalagmites, stalactites and glowworms! To go deep in the caves, which extends 175 metres (574 feet) long, you’ll be paddling in water so have footwear suitable for that. Plus, you will need a torch. There is also the 2km (1.2 miles) Waipu Walkway to check out too. Access Waipu caves from Mountfield Road off State Highway 1, then take the Waipu Caves Road.

Meanwhile on the seashore, of course, you have a choice of scenic beaches. Although you can swim at almost every beach along the bay, your best surf beaches are Ruakaka, Uretiti, Waipu Cove and Langs Beach. One Tree Point offers a sheltered swimming spot with picture-perfect views of Mt Manaia across the water on Whangarei Heads.

For more activities in the area, check out the 10 Brilliant Things to Do in Waipu & Bream Bay.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Whangarei Heads

The most scenic coastal drive in the area awaits on the Whangarei Heads Road. Wind your way through bays fringed with pohutukawa trees, otherwise known as New Zealand Christmas trees because they bloom red flowers around Christmastime.

Whangarei Heads Road

Of course, on your Whangarei Road Trip, there will be plenty of reasons to pull the car over. Starting from the Whangarei Central, the first sign to look out for along the Whangarei Heads Road is the Waimahanga Walkway. This easy 45-minute walk will take you through a mangrove forest. Back on the road, stop off at Tamaterau for swimming, sailing and windsurfing. The point of the beach is also a good place for fishing off the rocks. Find out more about Fishing in New Zealand in our guide.

Next up, you’ll reach an intersection, with all roads leading to great things: Pataua South Road, Taiharuru Road or continue on Whangarei Heads Road. If you continue you on Whangarei Heads Road, you’ll arrive in McLeod Bay, with another great beach and BBQ area. Go fishing on the floating wharf or start a coastal walking track from here to the neighbouring Reotahi Beach. Or just drive to Reotahi Beach, just after climbing Mt Manaia. Needless to say, this 1-hour walk up the 460-metre (1,509-foot) mountain provides great views of the whole area.

Back down the mountain, after passing or stopping off at a few more bays, you’ll reach Urquharts Bay. From the car park, there are numerous walking tracks in the Bream Head Scenic Reserve. The longest of which is the 6-hour one-way hike through coastal forest which is used as a refuge for native wildlife, including kiwi. You can take a detour to the beautiful Peach Cove (3 hours one way) where there is a Department of Conservation hut to stay in overnight. For shorter walks from Urquharts Bay car park, do the 1-hour loop to Busby Head and Smugglers Bay, giving you the chance to see World War Two gun emplacements. Or, walk straight to Smugglers Bay on a 20-minute track. Finally, at the end of Whangarei Heads Road is Ocean Beach for powerful surf, walks, sand dunes and awesome views.

Pataua South Road

So what about those other roads on the intersection that were promised to lead toward great things? Well, Pataua South road takes you to the cool coastal community of Pataua situated next to an estuary and surf beach. Take a surf lesson from Pataua North or go camping and hike Pataua Mountain in Pataua South. The footbridge that joins it all together is not only a means of getting over the estuary, but it makes a good fishing spot too.

Taiharau Road

Venture up Taiharau Road and the Taiharuru Estuary is home to a mangrove forest, which you can kayak through to explore the unique wildlife. It’s also worth stopping off at McGregors Bay if you are into snorkelling.

NZPocketGuide.com© NZPocketGuide.com

Tutukaka Coast Poor Knights Islands

When taking your trip further north from Whangarei and Whangarei Heads, check out the sand, sea, surf and sea life of the Tutukaka Coast!

Perhaps the biggest drawcard to the Tutukaka Coast is Poor Knights Islands, one of the world’s top 10 scuba diving destinations. The marine and nature reserve is jam-packed with wildlife, from the dry land species like the tuatara, New Zealand’s “living dinosaur”, and the world’s largest insect, the weta, to more than 125 species of fish, soft corals, sponges, anemones, kelp forests, stingrays and more living in the islands’ surrounding waters. The top dive destination also features Rikoriko Cave, the largest sea cave in the world. So large, in fact, that the cave is believed to have hidden a Japanese submarine in World War Two. Book your Poor Knights Islands scuba dive on Viator or Tripadvisor.

Both Whangarei Central and the Tutukaka Marina hold several launching points for diving, snorkelling and eco-tours out to the islands.

Poor Knights Islands is not all the diving that is to be had along the Tutukaka Coast. Dive trips from Tutukaka can also take you to the Twin Wreck Dives, two large navy vessels now teeming with marine life.

Find out more at 11 Places to Scuba Dive in New Zealand.

Whangarei - Guide for Backpackers© NZPocketGuide.com

Tutukaka Coast Swim, Surf, Explore

Moving on with the coastal areas of the Tutukaka Coast, you are spoiled for choice for the insanely beautiful beaches, campsites and watersport activities to be had in this area. We’ve picked out some of the best spots for you.


At the southern end of the Tutukaka Coast, on the Tutukaka Coast Highway, Ngunguru is a great place to hire a kayak and explore the estuary or hire a surfboard to surf at Ngunguru Bay. The small seaside settlement has all your essential amenities, including ice cream! At low tide, we recommend taking the Ngunguru to Whangaumu Bay Walkway, which is a 40-minute return through rocky shores, bays and bush of the estuary.

Swimming and Surf Beaches

Although you have a lot to choose from, Sandy Bay has the biggest reputation amongst surfers in New Zealand. However, Bland Bay at the very north of the Tutukaka Coast has both a sheltered and non-sheltered part of the coast great for surfing and camping. Woolleys Bay is popular for bodyboarding. For something a bit more relaxed, try Te Maika Headland with its sheltered harbour beaches. Finally, Matapouri Bay is ideal for swimming, but don’t miss the Mermaid Rock Pools to swim in at low tide.

Coastal Walks

Stretching your legs and admiring the views is best done from the Tutukaka Head Walkway. This 1-hour return track has views stretching to Poor Knights Islands and across the coast. If you want to walk out to the lighthouse, the walk is best done at low tide. Access is via Tutukaka Reserve Road. Additionally, for more epic coastal views, walk along the Whananaki Coast Walkway (2 hours one way) from McAuslin Road at Sandy Bay to Whananaki South. If you head further, you can walk all the way to Whananaki on the Southern Hemisphere’s longest footbridge.

Waro Limestone Reserve

Get that final dose of weird and wonderful limestone formations in Whangarei at the Waro Limestone Reserve. The bizarre boulders are believed to be 40 million years old. Check out the craggy limestone outcrops around a lake near Hikurangi, just off State Highway 1.

For further exploration of the region, check out Northland – Guide for Backpackers.

If You Have More Time in Whangarei…

  • Play a round of golf in Whangarei City out of a selection of seven courses to choose from
  • Experience the Scottish heritage of Waipu by checking out the Waipu in Tartan (July) or Caledonian Highland Games (New Year’s Day). Plus, the Waipu Museum gives a good insight too
  • Look out for intriguing shorebirds on the Ruakaka and Waipu estuaries at Beam Bay
  • Cross the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere in Whananaki, stretching 395 metres (1,296 feet) across an estuary. Whananaki and its beaches and campsites are at the end of Whananaki North Road on the Tutukaka Coast off State Highway 1
  • See farm animals, rare bird species, sand dunes, wetlands and bush all in the Mimiwhangata Coastal Park on the Tutukaka Coast. We recommend camping on the secluded Waikahoa Bay.


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor in chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in New Zealand over 10 years ago and with a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to travel New Zealand. She knows Aotearoa inside-out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience New Zealand’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also editor of several other South Pacific travel guides and is the co-host of NZ Pocket Guide’s live New Zealand travel Q&As on YouTube.

Was this article useful?