Our first stop, after picking up some coffee and our rental car that we’ve fondly dubbed The Cherry, was far north in the Bay of Islands. This far flung string of islands goes around in a curve on the northwestern side of Northern New Zealand and makes for a very scenic four hour drive from the airport in Auckland.
We weren’t originally going to go this far north, but we got lucky and a family friend offered us the use of their lovely vacation home in Russell, so we took it (duh). We took the drive from Russell to Auckland and back and stopped many times along the way. Here are a few our highlights and favorite discoveries we made.
The Gallery & Cafe Helena Bay Hill
We pulled over at this gallery & cafe because we were driving through what we thought was the middle of nowhere and were just surprised and intrigued enough to stop. Once we got out of the car, we were really glad we did.
This little treasure is located along Old Russell Road and is featured in The Lonely Planet. Upon getting out of the car, we were greeted by both a stunning view over the hills to the sea and two giant newfoundlands. Having just left home and Brandy, my family’s newf, this was a crazy amazing thing to see.
We got to meet the owner, who told us a little about the place and how it started, and walk through the amazing sculpture garden he’s created outside the gallery. The art inside the gallery itself is also beautiful. Lucky for us, and our wallets, it was a little out of price and size range for us. I simply settled on a little, silver lily ring (as a birthday present to myself, of course).
Our desire to walk to Russell from where we were staying a little further north died about a mile into our trip. This wasn’t before we managed to find a tiny foot track next to the main road which was called Jim’s Walkway. It’s a riverside trail that’s inhabited by a surprising number of kiwis, the elusive national bird of New Zealand. We didn’t see any on this walk, since they’re nocturnal, but it was fun just knowing they were around.
This town is, in a word, charming. It’s a small, oceanside town that reminded me a bit of a town in the Hamptons (New Yorkers, you know what I’m talking about). It’s mostly a summer attraction, so since we were there in winter there were many places that were still closed, but that didn’t take anything away from it.
We visited the main dock, which is old and beautiful, walked along the beach and got some of the best crab sticks we’ve ever eaten from a place called Crusty Crab. We also got to explore the oldest church in New Zealand: Christ Church. It, like the town, is both small and beautiful.
Strolling into an intriguing woodworking shop had me trying to play the guitar again, for the first time in a long time, and MJ dying to buy everything in sight. She didn’t, but only because we’re a tad pressed for space in our bags.
We got lucky with perfect weather the whole time we were there and got to watch two spectacular sunsets over the bay. The best part? As we were headed out of our home around 8 a.m. to head back to Auckland, we caught a 10 second view of a kiwi crossing the road into Jim’s Walkway. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a picture, you’ll just have to take our word on it!
The Mermaid Pools, Matapouri
THIS was incredible. I mean absolutely stunning. We didn’t even know about the mermaid pools until the day before we left Russell. We found them while looking up things to do along the drive back to Auckland and decided we had to check them out.
This drive along the coast took us through some beautiful bays and beaches which were hard to resist stopping for. But once we got there, we were glad we hadn’t.
To get there, you have to drive to beach at Matapouri Bay, which is beautiful in and of itself. Bring good walking shoes because the pathway to get to the pools is steep and rocky. We’re talking literal ropes strung along trees so you can pull yourself up. But once you’re over the hill, it’s a sight to see.
These shallow pools are an incredible turquoise color, which contrasted against the dark blue ocean and the clear blue sky we had was amazing. It was COLD and we didn’t bring our swimsuits (why?!), but we couldn’t resist. After our first, seriously COLD, skinny dip of this trip (amazingly timed between 3 groups of people coming and going) we hiked back to the beach and set out again.
Whangarei Falls, Whangarei
This was our second stop on the way from Russell to Auckland. These famous falls are beautiful and there are many ways to view them.
You can view them from the top, from a bridge that’s perfectly placed a little ways back from the falls, or from right at the base. I think you could even swim, if you really wanted to. We opted out since we were still cold from the mermaid pools.
There’s a longer track that you can take that goes back along the river away from the falls. MJ had seen it before on a previous trip to New Zealand and we were both itching to get in to town, so we skipped out.
If you ever find yourself flying in or out of Auckland, consider making the trip up north to the Northland. A place we hadn’t even considered visiting turned out to have some of the most beautiful places we’ve gotten to see so far.