Whangarei - Beaches, Bush Walks and Sightseeing
by Mara Schneider
When I first arrived in New Zealand I started working as an Au Pair on a dairy farm just north of a city called Whangarei. With around 40,000 people Whangarei is one of the smaller cities in the North Island. While the provincial character might not sound very appealing to some, I have come to love the tranquility, the closeness to countless beaches and the fact that, should I ever need a bit more adventure, metropolitan Auckland is only a 2-hour drive away.
Things to do in Whangarei
Whangarei is in the heart of the winterless north and with 2000 hours of sunshine per year the warmest city in New Zealand. This calls for outdoor activities all year round, though winter can be quite wet. In fact, there is not a lot to do inside. But why would you, when there is so much to explore!
Whangarei has an extensive network of walks through its many parks and scenic reserves. If you enjoy nature as much as I do, you will fall in love with the city. I regularly visit the beautiful Quarry Gardens with their extensive display of plants and succulents, hike along the Hatea River or head out to the coast for a walk on the beach. Here are some of my favorites:
- AH Reed Memorial Park – canopy walkway and ancient Kauri trees
- Mount Aubrey, Manaia and Parihaka – panoramic views over Whangarei
- Coronation Scenic Reserve – Quarry Gardens and Arts Centre, Whau Valley Dam (good trout fishing!)
- Bream Head Scenic Reserve – coastal forest and white beaches at Smugglers Bay and Peach Cove
- Abbey Caves – limestone formations, sinkholes and glow worms in the dark
If you want to get a different perspective of Whangarei I highly recommend hiking up Mount Parihaka. There are several walkways that lead to the top. Some are more strenuous than others, but it is so worth the effort! Each track is between 1.5 and 2km and it takes up to an hour to reach the top. Sure, you can drive almost to the top, and most locals do exactly that. But they are actually missing out on some beautiful scenery and panoramic views as well as native flora and fauna. The whole reserve has been internationally recognized with the Green Flag Award, so it’s definitely worth checking it out!
Apparently, Whangarei Falls are the most photographed falls in New Zealand. They are more than 26 Meters high and offer 2 viewing platforms. A 15 minute round trip takes you to the bottom of the falls where picnic tables and grass areas invite you to stay and relax. The Whangarei Falls are close to the only hostel in town so you can actually just stroll down and explore. If you have more time and feel like you need a rest from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, head to the bottom of the falls and continue walking along the Hatea River. This walk takes you straight into the heart of Whangarei.
A popular spot for old and young is the Whangarei Town Basin. The Clapham Clock Museum is worth a visit if you want to go on a journey through time. Otherwise, grab a cuppa in one of the many cafes by the waterfront, go souvenir shopping or enjoy an ice cream or a frappuccino at the Chocolate Fudge Factory. When you’ve had enough you can walk the 5km loop around the marina and admire some very interesting and spectacular sculptures before crossing Te Matau a Pohe. The bridge was only built in 2013 but has won several international awards and was even featured in a car commercial on TV. It’s quite a stunner!
Must see beaches in Whangarei
I can’t believe how spoilt we are in Whangarei when it comes to beaches. No matter in which direction you go, you are never more than half an hour away from the ocean. There is a multitude of pristine white sand beaches to choose from, rocky shores to explore or you can simply grab a board and enjoy the surf. If you’re lucky you might even spot some dolphins or orcas that regularly visit Whangarei Harbour! New Zealand is working hard on keeping its green image, so please take only memories when you visit these beaches and leave nothing behind but footprints.
This stretch of coastline is only a 20-minute drive away from Whangarei and consists of some of the most stunning beaches in the country. Some are accessible by car, others you will have to walk around the rocks when the tide is right. The Tutukaka Coast is popular for swimming, kayaking and surfing as well as bushwalking, snorkeling and scuba diving.
Best for swimming: Matapouri, Whale Bay and Whangaumu
Best for surfing: Sandy Bay, Ngunguru Bar
If you follow the signs for Whangarei airport you will eventually end up on Whangarei Heads Road which leads you to some of the more remote beaches in the area. Most of them are covered in white sand and calm enough to swim safely. The last and most popular one is Ocean Beach. It’s got a good swell for surfing and huge sand dunes that are great for rolling downhill.
Best for swimming: Pataua South/North, McGregor’s, Ocean Beach, Smugglers Bay
Best for surfing: Ocean Beach
Across the harbor from Whangarei Heads are the townships of Ruakaka and Waipu. Not only will you find 2 of the longest beaches in the area here, but dolphins also visit quite regularly and are such a wonderful sight to be seen! Ruakaka has a popular holiday park for campers and Waipu Cove a campground, some cozy cafes, restaurants and a dairy with fresh ice cream right opposite the beach. If you feel up to it walk along the beach at Waipu to the end of the estuary. It’s a 2-hour return walk which takes you along a bird sanctuary and breeding colony.
Best places to eat in Whangarei
The most delicious food, if a bit more expensive, is found in the town basin. My favorite restaurant there is No. 8 (Asian) which is always good for a surprise. If you’re on a budget, but looking for a special experience, try Fat Camel (Israeli) right in the center of town, then head across the road for unforgettable desserts at Amici (Italian).
On a budget
These pubs or restaurants offer anything from bar food to more elaborate meals and won’t empty your wallet.
- Brauhaus Frings – check out Karaoke night
- McMorrissey’s Irish Pub – great live music
- Dickens Inn – Quiz night
In the mood for something more special? Try these places. Great food, but a bit more pricey.
- Gengy’s – Mongolian BBQ buffet
- Indian Aroma – best Indian restaurant in town
- Suk Jai Thai – great selection and good prices
Places to stay in Whangarei
Unfortunately, when it comes to accommodation, Whangarei doesn’t have a lot to offer for the budget traveler. Most backpackers I have met either opted for Couchsurfing or the only hostel in town, the Whangarei Falls Holiday Park and YHA. So far I have only heard good things about the YHA. However, I just learned that there is another hostel in the center of town called The Cell Backpackers. Might be worthwhile to check it out? Though the name sounds rather daunting…