The drive from Auckland to Paihia (or Auckland to the Bay of Islands) is one of the most popular road trips for visitors to New Zealand during the summer. One of the reasons is that Paihia is a coastal paradise with loads of stunning beaches, casual restaurants, and fun things to do. So it’s no wonder people flock here for some relaxation away from bustling Auckland.
But it’s not only a summer destination. Paihia is, after all, located on the north of New Zealand, meaning much warmer weather than the south. In fact, I love making this scenic road trip in the winter or spring when Paihia is quieter!
The drive from Auckland to Paihia is 230 kilometers/124 miles and will take approximately 3 hours and 15 minutes without stops, but I recommend allowing at least 6 hours to see all the awesome stops along the way.
It’s worth noting that it’s a relatively easy, straightforward drive that follows along SH1. However, the section of the road called the Brynderwyns can be challenging in bad weather.
In this blog, I list 12 of the best places to stop between Auckland and Paihia. This blog also works in reverse, if you’re driving from Paihia to Auckland (or the Bay of Islands to Auckland.)
Best places to stop between Auckland and Paihia
Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and where most international tourists start their New Zealand trip. As you can imagine, for a city of this size (1.6 million people live here) there are loads of fun things to do in Auckland! So much so that you could easily spend two weeks in Auckland and still not see/do everything on offer!
One of the most popular things to do in the ‘city of sails’ (the city’s nickname) is to get out on the water on a boat trip to Waiheke Island, which is just a 40-minute ferry ride away from the CBD. On the island, you can book a wine tour, relax at one of the picturesque beaches, or simply indulge in some great food at one of the many restaurants dotted throughout the island.
In the city itself, the famed Sky Tower standing tall at 300 meters can’t be missed. For a great view of the city, head to the Observation Deck, where you can walk across a glass walkway and watch the city below (not for those afraid of heights!). If you’re feeling even more adventurous, why not consider a SkyJump – similar to a bungee jump and a gravity-defying 192-meter jump over the city!
To stretch your legs, head out to Mount Eden and climb to the top of this dormant volcano, which offers the best views of Auckland, especially at sunset – it’s only 30 minutes to the top, and this walk is suitable for the whole family.
Some other awesome things to do in Auckland include Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland Zoo, and exploring the Botanic Gardens.
There are also plenty of amazing hotels in Auckland to stay in before you set off on your road trip!
2. Northern Beaches
From Auckland CBD, it’s an easy 20-minute drive to some of the nicest beaches on the North Island. Mairangi Bay Beach is the first one you’ll come across and has epic views of the offshore islands like Rangitoto and Rakini. There’s also a lovely 5 km/3.1 mile walking path that takes you to Campbells Bay. It’s best to do this walk at low tide so that you can walk along the beaches on the way.
Just a few minutes’ drive away is Browns Bay Beach Reserve (pictured above). It’s a nice wide beach that also has a large playground for the kids and a lovely picnic area. There are also several cafes and restaurants a short walk from the beach. It’s a popular local swimming spot and again has excellent views across to Rangitoto Island.
Further along, be sure to stop at the kilometer-long Long Bay Beach. Here, you’ll find a large green area that runs the length of the beach, which is ideal for a picnic or for a game of frisbee or soccer. There’s a nice walking track from here that takes you up along the cliffs and has excellent views across the Hauraki Gulf, as well as the opportunity to see WWII gun emplacements.
Under a 30 minute drive from Auckland CBD is a great family-friendly stop on your drive to Paihia – Snowplanet is the only indoor snow park in the country and has over 8,000 square meters of snow. You can try skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing here!
If you need a refresher in skiing or simply want to learn how to ski, you can book an instructor. For the more experienced on the snow, there’s a terrain park where you can try out jumps and other fun features. There’s also a restaurant on-site for those who don’t fancy the snow!
There’s a ‘Winter Wonderland’ section for the kids, which comes complete with snow-capped trees and is built to replicate a traditional Alpine Village. There’s a tobogganing area here as well as a large open snow space to throw snowballs, build snowmen and have some all-around fun in the snow.
Worth noting is that Snowplanet is a cold -5 Celsius (23 Fahrenheit) at all times, so wrap up warm in snow clothing! Tickets for Winter Wonderland, including snow tubing, costs $35 NZD per adult!
Approximately 45 minutes from Auckland is the family-friendly Sheepworld, the best place in the country to see hundreds of sheep and learn about how wool is produced.
From Thursday to Sunday, they hold live sheep shows where you can watch the sheep get rounded up by the sheepdogs and then shorn – it’s a great insight into typical Kiwi farm life! You will also learn all about the different types of sheep on the farm at the show and how the wool is sorted and then sold.
After the show, take a walk around the working farm and see the many other animals here like miniature horses, pigs, emu, alpacas, cows, and deer. You may even get the chance to feed a baby lamb! There’s a short walk on-site too, which takes you through native bush and offers the opportunity to see some birdlife like the tui.
There’s also an on-site cafe and a Gift Store selling lots of wool products like knitwear, sheepskin footwear, and rugs – a great, unique souvenir to take home with you!
I recommend allowing 3-4 hours here. Tickets cost $22.50 NZD per adult and include entry to the live show.
Related Read: You can also see a sheep shearing demonstration at Mt Nicholas Station, one of the best things to do in Queenstown, NZ!
5. Brynderwyns Scenic Lookout
Locals know the Brynderwyns as one of the steepest and windiest stretches of road on the North Island, so take care when driving on this scenic route.
After the small town of Wellsford, the State Highway One (SH1) starts to climb steeply (up to 450 meters above sea level), and you will notice the scenery change to bright green rolling hills, reminiscent of the Welsh countryside, which is where the area got its unique name. Brynderwyns means ‘windy hill’ in the Welsh language, and it was given its name by a Welshman, William Wright in the 1800s.
Several small viewpoints are dotted along this 4.9 km/3 mile-long stretch of road, so pull in safely and take some photos of the lush countryside. Worth noting is this is just a quick stop, and most tourists typically spend just 15 minutes admiring the view before continuing on.
6. Waipu Gorge Scenic Reserve / Piroa Falls
The very picturesque Piroa Falls is located within the Waipu Scenic Reserve, a short drive from the Brynderwyns. These falls are 20 meters in height and are especially photogenic after rainfall. This is definitely one of my personal favorites places to stop when driving from Auckland to Paihia.
The short 200-meter walking track to the falls starts from the car park at Waipu Gorge Road. It should take just 5 minutes (one-way) to reach the falls and it’s a nice easy walking track that follows along the Ahuroa River.
Piroa Falls is a very popular spot for people to go swimming during the summer months, and there are several swimming holes along the walking track. As well as that, you will likely see many people jumping from the rocks surrounding the falls into the pool below it. But you should be careful if you choose to brave this as the rocks can be slippery.
7. Waipu caves
If you’ve ever wanted to see Glowworms then you simply must stop at Waipu Caves on the drive from Auckland to the Bay of Islands/Paihia. These caves are completely free to visit and super easy to access, starting only a few minutes from the car park.
Getting to Waipu Caves is a bit of a detour from the highway. From SH1, turn left onto Waipu Caves Road and drive for about 15 minutes. But believe me, this is a stop that’s well worth the slight detour! Once inside of the caves you’ll see thousands of Glowworms!
Once at the car park, walk through the field towards the large cave entrance – about a 5 minutes walk. Enter the cave and continue further into it, in some cases wading through knee-high water. Bring a flashlight as well as shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. You need to go far enough into the caves so that it’s dark to see the Glowworms.
You can also walk a track in this area, but it really isn’t anything special in my opinion. I suggest just visiting the caves and then continuing on your road trip.
Note: during really rainy weather the caves might fill with too much water to enter. Be careful and enter at your own risk.
Whangarei is the capital of Northland and is a tourist destination in its own right, with lots of hotels, restaurants, and fun activities on offer in this large coastal city. It’s a popular boating destination, thanks to the huge marina here that’s also home to several restaurants. You can go on a boat tour from here to popular nearby destinations like Tutukaka and Paihia.
Kiwi North is a popular attraction within the city and is set on 25 hectares. It is home to Northland’s only kiwi sanctuary as well as Whangarei Museum, which holds more than 80,000 artifacts detailing the city’s unique history. Whangarei Art Museum on Dent Street is another popular attraction in the city.
One of the best things to do outside of Whangarei is to visit the popular Whangarei Falls, which stands tall at 26 meters and are just a 10-minute drive from the center of town. There are viewing platforms at the top and bottom of the falls, which are the best spots to photograph the falls from. As well as that, there’s a lovely walking track at the base of the falls, which is a great spot to watch the sunset from.
Another fun activity here is The Adventure Forest, home to 12 treetop challenges, including some fast ziplines through the trees, a flying fox, and tightrope walks! There’s a challenge for everyone here, and it’s suitable for kids over 6 years of age too!
9. Twin Coast Discovery Highway (Tutukaka Coast, Whale Bay, Sandy Bay, etc)
This is a detour, a scenic drive off the most direct highway from Whangerei to Paihia. The Twin Coast Discovery Highway travels along the Tutukaka Coast where you can see some of the most pristine beaches imaginable.
About 30-minutes from Whangarei you will reach the tiny town of Tutukaka. Here, check out a couple of the remote beaches or wander the Tutukaka Marina, this is a great place to enjoy lunch with a view. If you want, you can also opt to stay a night here at one of the hotels or campgrounds nearby.
An easy 10-minute drive further will have you reaching the beachside town of Matapouri. Here, you can fuel up, grab a bite to eat, or even book a hotel or campsite for a couple of nights. Trust me when I say you’ll want more time in this area – it’s so beautiful!
A few minutes further down the road from Matapouri will bring you to the car park to access Whale Bay. This beach is nothing short of breathtaking. It is a short walk to get there (about 15-minutes each way), so only bring what you need as walking back up the hill with a ton of gear will be tiring. It’s also important to note that the car park for Whale Bay is often full, so visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon for your best chance at getting a parking space.
Continue a couple minutes further down the Twin Coast Discovery Drive and you will reach two of the best beaches on the North Island, Woolleys Bay and Sandy Bay. Woolleys Bay is a lovely white sand beach that is popular for swimming and bodyboarding, thanks to the calm waves here. The beach is especially pretty in December when the pohutukawa trees that line the beach are in full bloom!
The beach next door is Sandy Bay, one of the most popular surf beaches in Northland. The consistent waves here attract surfers from across the country, and the waves tend to be best at high tide. However, the rips can be pretty dangerous, so I only recommend experienced surfers try out the waves here. You can also book a horse riding tour along the beach with Sandy Bay Horses!
Note: Twin Coast Discovery Drive will add about an extra hour (without stops) to your drive from Auckland to Paihia. For this reason, I recommend booking a night or two in Matapouri and turning this road trip into a multi-day adventure! If you;re short on time, skip this stop completely and head directly to Waiomio Glowworm Caves (next on this blog.)
Where to Stay on the Tutukaka Coast:
Let’s face it, you’re going to want to spend a couple of nights to properly explore this area. Choose one of the holiday parks in either Tutukaka or Matapouri for a budget friendly stay. For something a little nice, check out Quality Hotels Oceans Tutukaka for a room right next to the beach in Tutukaka.
If you’re after pure luxury, you can’t pass up the opportunity to stay at Pacific Rendezvous Resort. Here, you can enjoy an apartment with a stunning ocean view – just imagine the sunsets! Also, enjoy the outdoor pool and BBQ.
10. Waiomio Glowworm Caves
Would you believe there’s a second glowworm cave on the drive from Auckland to Paihia? The Waiomio Glow Worm Caves (also known as the Kawiti Caves) are located in the Waiomio Valley. In my opinion, they are slightly more impressive than the Waipu Caves, thanks to the thousands of luminous glow worms that light up the cave.
There’s a section called the ‘milky way’ within the cave where the glow worms are so close that you will feel as though you can touch them. As a result, it’s a very popular activity in Northland.
You can also explore the narrow chambers of the cave and see stalactites and stalagmites up close. Worth noting the 656-foot long caves can only be explored on a guided 45-minute tour, that’s because the Kawiti family privately owns the caves.
Waiomio Caves are located just outside the town of Kawakawa. Entrance to the caves includes a guided tour and costs from $40 NZD per adult and $20 per child.
Fun fact – one of the most famous visitors to the Waiomio Caves was Bill Gates, who visited back in 2007.
Just a few minutes from Paihia is the tiny town of Opua, also known as the gateway to the Bay of Islands. From here, hundreds of tourists and locals catch the ferry across to Russell every day. It’s just a short 10-minute ferry crossing and is much more appealing than driving the long and winding road to Russell.
As you can imagine, it’s a busy port as a result and attracts close to 500 international yachts every year (some of which are very luxurious!) At the marina, there are a few small restaurants, cafes as well as the historic Opua Store.
You have reached your destination, and I think I’ve saved the best for last as Paihia is one of my favorite towns to visit in New Zealand. Of course, it’s a popular summer vacation spot thanks to the many awesome beaches within a short drive from the town, but there are also lots of other fun things to do in the Bay of Islands from Paihia. Like joining a dolphin-watching cruise, where you’re likely to see lots of bottlenose and common dolphins – there are thousands of dolphins living in the warm waters here, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to see some on your tour.
One of my favorite things to do in Paihia is to get out on a boat tour to see the famed ‘hole in the rock’ which is an island in the middle of the ocean with a large hole through it. Your boat can squeeze through the hole, which is pretty cool.
One of the most important historic sites in New Zealand is located right here in Paihia – the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. The country’s founding document between Maori and Europeans was signed here back in 1840. There’s a fascinating museum here that gives an insight into Maori customs and traditions, and you will even be treated to a traditional tribal dance (most famously known as the haka) on your tour.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go skydiving over the Bay of Islands. The highest jump you can do here is a whopping 20,000 feet which equals over 85 seconds of freefall!
Where to Stay in Paihia
There are many beautiful hotels to choose from in Paihia. In fact, there are so many that making a decision can be difficult. Some of my favorite hotels, that all come highly rated in Paihia include:
Bounty Motel – $
Bounty Motel is the best hotel for those who are looking for a place to stay in Paihia on a tight budget. The location is ideal, only 100 meters from the beach and also close to town. Their king studio rooms cost less than $100 USD and include a kitchenette as well as a balcony. One-bedroom apartments are also available as well as family rooms.
Kingsgate Hotel Autolodge Paihia – $$
Kingsgate Hotel Autolodge Paihia is the perfect stay for those who want a beautiful stay without spending a fortune. This hotel is located only 100 meters from the beach and features ocean views. In fact, from the outdoor pool or onsite restaurant, you can enjoy the ocean views and beautiful sunsets. Rooms all feature air conditioning as well as small refrigerators. Some rooms feature ocean views and kitchenettes.
Paihia Beach Resort & Spa Hotel – $$$
Looking for luxury? Look no further than Paihia Beach Resort & Spa Hotel. All rooms here feature ocean views and the hotel is only steps from Te Tii Beach. On the property, you’ll find an outdoor saltwater swimming pool as well as warm plunge pools. Enjoy a night in at the onsite restaurant and bar, then relax in your room complete with air conditioning. There is also a highly rated day spa onsite.
Renting a Car, Campervan, or Motorhome in New Zealand
Let’s face it, you’re going to need wheels to get around New Zealand. Although a small country, buses between destinations are infrequent and expensive. Plus, some of the best experiences you can have in NZ are on road trips!
You have three options when it comes to getting wheels in New Zealand; a car, a campervan, or a motorhome. Here’s what you need to know about each and where to get them:
- Car – A normal car is the cheapest rental vehicle you can get in New Zealand. It’ll get you around to all of the best destinations with ease. The only downside to a car is that you will need to stay in hotels or Airbnbs during your travels (no camping.) The easiest place to book a car in New Zealand is on Discover Cars where you can compare cars, companies, prices, features, and more very easily.
- Campervan – A Campervan is a large van that has a bed and a small kitchen in the back. It is what most budget backpackers get for traveling around New Zealand since it allows you to camp comfortably and for free (most) nights. Campervans are best for couples or solo travelers who are happy to live in a small space. You should also love the outdoors and camping! You can easily compare campervans, prices, and book on the website Motorhome Republic. We also have a 5% discount code (DTRAVEL5) with Mad Campers, which you can use at checkout.
- Motorhome – A motorhome is larger and more comfortable than a campervan. Many motorhomes will comfortably sleep 6 or more people – perfect for a family visiting New Zealand. Motorhomes are the most expensive option, but with one, you won’t ever need to stay in a hotel and you’ll save money that way. Motorhome Republic is my suggested website for booking a motorhome in New Zealand simply because they are a reliable company and the website is super easy to use! We are also partnered with Kiwi Motorhomes, which is well known as the top motorhome rental company in New Zealand. You can get 5% off using the code Queen5. For more detailed info, read my complete guide to renting a motorhome in New Zealand!
Thanks for reading!
And there you have it. 12 of the best stops on the relatively short drive from Auckland to Paihia. As you can see, there’s so much to do! I hope this blog post has helped you plan your road trip through this stunning part of New Zealand!
Be sure to check out some of my related blogs including: