Whangarei & Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Once more back in Auckland, it was time to pick up my rental car and head to Northland (the peninsula just north of Auckland). It’s not raved about like other parts of New Zealand, but I have the time to spare and a penchant for going off-road, especially to underrated and gorgeous places.

I walked from the ferry building over to Britomart, a hip part of Auckland full of restaurants and cafes. It was on the way to the car place, and I wanted to grab a coffee and update my blog. I popped into La Petite Fourchette for a cappuccino, but if you have a bit of time Britomart is a good place to grab lunch or dinner.

Time to pick up the car. Over at Omega, the dude behind the counter hooked me up with a sweet whip, a little silver Mazda that will be my best friend for the next couple months. I was slightly anxious to drive on the left hand side of the road, but it turns out it’s pretty easy after ten minutes.

And I was off! My first stop was Whangarei, a town with a lot of free stuff for backpackers, including hikes and waterfalls. It’s pronounced like “Fawn-ga-ray,” as in Māori a “Wh” sound is pronounced like an F.

The travel times in NZ are usually only 1-2 hours between larger towns and cities (not bad compared to the US), but the roads are incredibly winding and travel times can take longer than expected. As I got out of Auckland, the countryside became more beautiful, and I remembered how much I love road trips. Especially solo ones.

After listening to a podcast featuring Jemaine Clemens and Taika Watiti to get in the NZ mood (I know, I know), I arrived at my hostel in Whangarei. It´s named The Cell Block, owned by a great Kiwi dude named Ryan who bought an old jail and revamped it as a hostel. Immediately, I was smitten with this place.

I made friends with Filippa (Sweden), Stine (Germany) and Magda (Poland), all sitting in the dining area of the hostel. We talked about different walks around the area before I got super hungry and chose to walk down the block to find some grub. Whangarei is pretty small, so you don’t have to walk far if you’re staying in the town center.

I finally settled on Turmeric, an Indian place with positive Google reviews (I rely heavily on these when traveling, as I’m pretty serious about finding good cuisine if I can).

I noticed the girl next to me was also sitting alone, so I asked if she wanted to join me. Her name is Charlotte, and it turns out she’s traveling across NZ on holiday from Australia for five weeks. She also started in Auckland and wandered up to Northland. I automatically felt we’d become pretty good buds.

A few people back at the hostel were heading to The Butter Factory, a back alley outdoor music venue. I walked over with Filippa, Stine, Chris (an American dude living in Portland) and Maarten, a Dutch gentleman who’s been cycling around the world for the last year and a half. No big.

We ordered beer and (sort of) danced to tunes by a Māori musician. All was right with the world.

The next morning, Charlotte and I headed to Whangarei Falls just a bit outside of town. It’s a pretty easy trek to the falls, with walking paths around the area. We chatted about how I’m going to visit her in Melbourne and discussed general differences between American and Aussie customs. You’ll see this is a common conversation topic.

On the way back to the car we ran into Portland Chris, who accompanied us to brunch at the marina. We ate a proper egg breakfast at the Riverside Cafe, with eggs, toast, pumpkin salad and a latte for about $20 NZ.

Whangarei also has a little farmer’s market with local art and lots of honey products, but having one bag for a year limits my souvenir purchases to basically nothing. It’s the memories that count, right?

After lunch, Charlotte and Chris headed up to Paihia together (where I was going the next day), but I still had another night here. I drove over to Mount Manaia, a two-hour roundtrip hike up a relatively large mountain. I lathered on my sunscreen and strapped in for a challenge.

Though some parts of the Mount Manaia climb were fairly strenuous and felt a bit like I was on a Stairmaster machine, I’d recommend it for the view. There’s a reason I spent a year getting into mad shape so that I could say yes to opportunities like giant, hot climbs up random mountains. By the end of the day I had climbed 128 floors, according to my phone’s health app.

Back at the hostel, I ran into Maarten and we grabbed dinner at Mean’s Vietnamese, which has a solid bowl of pork pho. Maarten enjoys making jokes at America’s expense, and I had quite the time explaining to him the concept of white guilt, among other American idiosyncrasies. He’d just spent a few months cycling from New Orleans to California, so he knows a fair bit about our country for better or worse.

We grabbed ****ice cream**** from a parlor called Bocky Boo, which has gelato as absurdly good as its name. We both ordered a flavor called Black Hawaii. Something like coconut, or heaven.

We spent the rest of the night walking around the marina, grabbing beer at a random pizza joint and having some good life talk. It’s hard to convey the sentiments of particular conversations, but the night left me thinking about the Japanese concept of ichi-go ichi-e, translated as “one time, one meeting.” For this moment only. It’s easy to make connections with people and hard to let these moments go. It’s one of the lessons of traveling that I’ll have to continue to learn.

The next morning I headed out to Paihia, a main tourist hub for the famous Bay of Islands. Before departing, I wandered to Pak N Save (a big box grocery store) to get some raspberries before grabbing a quick coffee at Dickens Inn, a sunny little cafe/bar in the city center.

The drive to Paihia was increasingly more beautiful, and I dropped off my bags at the Paihia YHA hostel before finding a cafe to catch up on my journal entries from the past few days.

El Cafe serves a mean veggie breakfast burrito and, per usual for NZ, stellar coffee. A strong WiFi connection seals the deal.

I met up again with Charlotte, who was staying in my same hostel room. We walked down the main Paihia boulevard along the beach to catch our Bay of Islands boat tour, three hours of floating amongst the many islands in the area.

Lyn and Blue were our fearless tour guides, giving us the lowdown on the Bay of Islands starting with Motuarohia Island. We stopped for twenty minutes to climb a hill, with a gorgeous view of the bay.

We then spent an hour on Urupukapuka Island, snorkeling, paddle boarding and eating a raw sea urchin which I was VERY INTO. Lin took a knife and cut the little urchin right open. I felt no remorse, as stepping on sea urchins scares the shit out of me.

Back in town, Charlotte and I ate dinner at Jimmy Jack’s, a rib and burger shack with surprisingly good food, despite the large amount of tourists that had flocked to the city via a gigantic cruise ship.

We grabbed some red wine at the corner liquor store, heading back for a chill night at the hostel. We met Vroni (Austria), Lidia (Switzerland) and Nathan (aka Nae from Panguru, a small town in Northland), drinking on the balcony. Lidia taught us a card game called Pablo and I immediately forgot all the rules, because I was spent from being in the sun all day.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Charlotte (again) and Chris, who were heading back to Auckland while I stayed another day in Paihia. I met a group of college kids from Lagrange, Georgia, on a sort of immersion trip into Polynesian culture. It was great to see such a progressive program coming out of a university in the States.

I wanted to drive to Elliot Bay, an apparently gorgeous beach recommended by my good friend Bridget, but I ended up feeling sleepy and my car was getting low on petrol. Which is another word for gas, ya crazy Americans. Instead I drove to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the first accord between the British and Māori people was signed. I assume it’s a great museum, but it costs $50 NZ and I’m a gal on a budget.

Instead, I walked to the museum cafe and ordered a long black and a piece of coconut cake, after which I rose out of my sleepy stupor.

Back at the hostel, I talked to Amy, a smart girl in the Lagrange, Georgia group. She was day drinking wine, I was day drinking wine, and all was right with the world.

Thirty30, a bar down the main road of hostels, has a happy hour special from 5-7pm for a $6 burger and fries. I was determined to snag this.

I was joined by Nae, Lidia, Vroni and another new friend Jacky, from Germany. We took tequila shots and bonded.

Nae, Lidia and I drove to the beach and drank rosé wine while talking about friendships, and the loss of good friendships as people change. It was a moving conversation, and I felt a love for these humans I’d only gotten to know in one day. Such is my experience in Northland. I looked out over the dark sea and the waning moon. Because poetry.

The next morning I woke up early for a run along the beach, clearing some of the alcohol from my system. From the hostel to Waitangi it was almost exactly 3 miles out and back, and a beautiful run to boot.

I packed my bags and headed back to El Cafe with Lidia, Vroni and Nae for yet another breakfast burrito and a coffee. I can’t get enough. It’s also sooooo convenient and cheap-ish at only $15 NZ.

We sat outside at the hostel for the next couple hours, Jacky joining us for some last-minute champagne and a game of King’s Cup because Vroni is 19 and loves to encourage us oldies to play drinking games.

Finally it was time to say goodbye. Vroni caught a bus to Whananaki, and I was driving to a Workaway site in Rawene. We took one last group pic, channeling Lilo and Stitch: Ohana means family.

It was an incredible four days on the east coast of Northland, but now it’s time to head westward to little Rawene. More grand adventures ahead.

4 thoughts on “Whangarei & Bay of Islands, New Zealand

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