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19 April, 2020 - Updated Last updated on
03 April, 2022

Posted by Spaceships Crew

When planning a New Zealand road trip, lots of travellers add Bay of Islands to their itinerary. Of course… There is so much to do and see there. The same goes for the drive from Auckland to Bay of Islands. Check out how to get there quickly and still see heaps.

A wise person once said that it’s not about the destination but about the trip itself. To be honest, in this case, it definitely is about the destination. Bay of Islands is amazing. Go for a sailing trip to see the marine wildlife and visit various islands, go reef diving or enjoy a cruise to the famous Hole In The Rock, to name a few of the awesome activities.

Check out our list with the most amazing things to do in Bay of Islands for more reasons why Bay of Islands should be on your NZ road trip to-visit list! However, don't rush the drive from Auckland to Bay of Islands. Take is slowly as the trip is also something you should enjoy. There are plenty of fun things to do & see along the way.

Warkworth & Kawau Island

As soon as you leave Auckland behind and you’re driving across the famous Auckland Harbour Bridge, you will leave the hustle and the bustle of the city behind. When driving in the late afternoon you should really make a quick stop in the Birkenhead Wharf area to enjoy the sun setting over the skyline of Auckland. A great way to say farewell to the city of Auckland. Bring some snacks or use the free barbecue spots at some of the recreational areas to cook an easy yet tasty dinner.

After 45 minutes on State Highway 1 (SH1) you’ll reach the quaint town of Warkworth. Perfect place for a stop-over to spend the night at a motel or B&Bs, for example, Warkworth Lodge with its colourful rooms.

Then you can go for a day trip to Kawau Island the next day. This island in the Hauraki Gulf is the perfect addition to your road trip for wildlife (birds) and nature lovers. On this trip, you will hear and see Tuis, Fantails, Wood Pigeons, Kingfishers, Silver-Eyes, Grey Warblers, Weka and various sea birds.

This video will show you why you should add Kawau Island to your road trip from Auckland to Bay of Islands.

The various walking tracks on Kawau Island range from a short stroll (10 – 20 minutes) to a 2-hour loop track to the Coppermine and back (with various sightseeing stops along the way). Copper on the island was discovered by accident around 1840. The ruins of the underground seashore copper mine, a pumping engine house and a small smelter can be seen and visited on your day trip to Kawau Island.

From Warkworth, it’s just 60 minutes to the next stop so take your time to enjoy Kawau Island.

Uretiti Beach DOC Campsite

If you want to take it easy on this drive from Auckland to Bay of Island, the next great place to spend the night (or a day or 2), is the Uretiti Beach DOC Campsite. This DOC campsite is next to the beach, so perfect for a quick swim the morning. Or start your day with an early beach and enjoy the sunrise.

Uretiti Beach DOC Campsite has plenty of space (300 non-powered sites for campervans or tents) so you won’t have to arrive super early to secure a spot. Simply book online and make sure to be there before the ranger closes the gate.

Uretiti Beach walking on cloudy day

Even on a cloudy day, Uretiti Beach is a great place for a walk

See glow worms for free

Uretiti Beach campsite is a great spot to spend a few days. There’s lots to do and see in the area. You definitely should check out the free glow worms of Waipu Caves. From the campsite, it’s a 15-minute drive to the start of the track (off Waipu Caves Road).

The entrance to the caves can be found directly across the Whangarei District Council reserve before the track starts, so don’t miss it.

The track itself passes through the Waipu Caves Scenic Reserve. After walking among karst limestone formations (karst is a type of topography that is formed over limestone, dolomite or gypsum by solution of the rock and is characterised by closed depressions or sinkholes, caves and underground drainage). It then climbs up steeply, across areas of open grass and regenerating bush. The track ends on the ridgeline where you will be rewarded with panoramic views right across the Whangārei Harbour to Bream Head and out to the Hen and Chicken Islands.

Before heading off to the free glow worms at Waipu Caves or the fantastic walking track, please be aware of the following tips & advice from the Department of Conservation:

  • “The caves are wet and slippery inside. The inner cave area is suitable for experienced cavers only. A torch and suitable footwear are necessary.
  • Sinkholes are a common feature of karst landscapes.
  • Stay on the track and closely supervise small children.
  • Although classed as a Walking Track, the track is not always well-formed.
  • The track is wet, muddy and slippery at times. 
  • It is suitable for people of most ages and fitness levels.”

Marsden Point vs Whangarei Heads

The next stop on the road trip from Auckland to Bay of Islands is a tale of two worlds. Marsden Point, which forms the south-eastern tip of the entrance to the Whangarei Harbour, is interesting to visit if you are into industrial and business points of interest.

Refining NZ aka the Marsden Point Oil Refinery is New Zealand’s only oil refinery. The refinery has a visitor centre which is like a museum that shows the history of the refinery and how petrol and the various by-products are created from crude oil. Entrance is free so even if you make a quick stop it’ll be worth it. It’s really interesting to learn more about the refinery and how it operates.

It may look like that Marsden Point doesn’t have the look & feel of that amazing New Zealand scenery you were expecting to find but once you continue your road trip you will find what you were looking for at Whangarei Heads.

Whangarei Heads is opposite of Marsden Point, across the water, a drive that will take you about an hour. The peninsula covers 6000 hectares and is home to bountiful coastal bays sitting against a backdrop of towering volcanic peaks. Its white-sand beaches will give you that feel of a tropical paradise (Bounty bar anyone?).

Whangarei Heads white sand beach

Beach life at Whangarei Heads: white sand and blue water. Paradise!

Whether you want to relax and enjoy the beach life or want to be active and go for a hike, Whangarei Heads is the place to be. Various short walks and longer hikes can be done there. The shortest just being a 40-minute easy walk (Smugglers Bay) to the longest, a 4-hours hike (return) for those with a great level of fitness as lots of steps need to be conquered, but it will reward you with stunning 360 degrees panoramic views of the area.

Spending the night at Whangarei Heads

As soon as you arrive in the Whangarei Heads area you want to stay there for the night. Imagine seeing that amazing scenery at night. Imagine the amazing sunset. Luckily you can spend the night at Whangarei Heads. There a various paid and free campsite to choose from, for example:

  • Manaia Walkway Carpark – free campsite for vehicles (non-self-contained as well) as long as you stay 1-night max.
  • Blue Heron Holiday Park – a paid campground with free wifi, free BBQ and lots of other facilities.
  • Reotahi – free campsite for all vehicles (non-self-contained as well) as long as you stay for 1-night max.
  • Parua Bay – free campsite, for non-self-contained campervans as well, 1-night max.
  • Treasure Island Trailer Park – a paid campground close to two golden sand beaches.

All these campsites and more can be found by using the free camping & travel app from Spaceships. The app is suitable for travellers with either an Android or iPhone, so suitable for everyone. It lists all budget and free campsites in New Zealand that are suitable for non-self-contained campervans.

A quick visit to Whangarei

Even though the goal of this road trip from Auckland to Bay of Islands isn’t Whangarei, it does make sense to make a stop in the city. Visit Whangarei Falls (easy to reach by campervan) and go for a short walk there.

Or enjoy the vibrant arts community of Whangarei. Enjoy the sunshine quayside, a popular place to relax and watch the boats. Pick one of the many cafes or bars for a tasty lunch or get your caffeine shot there in the morning.

The drive to the next stop, the destination of this road trip, Paihia (the perfect base to explore Bay of Islands from) will only take an hour so there’s plenty of time to enjoy Whangarei.

Arriving in Paihia: time to enjoy Bay of Islands

Today is the day you have been looking forward to: Bay of Islands. You’ve read the article about the most amazing things to do in Bay of Islands. Now is the time to enjoy this amazing part of the Northern part of New Zealand’s North Island. Take your time here, enjoy this part of your trip to the fullest.

Bay of Islands scenery

The drive from Auckland to Bay of Islands ends here. Time to enjoy this amazing area!

Continue or drive back to Auckland?

From Bay of Islands, it's less than 3 hours to drive to the most northern point of the North Island, Cape Reinga. So you might as well continue to see that area as well. But if you are short on time and need to go back to Auckland, that's just as easy.

Cape Reinga awesome views

Top of the North Island: Cape Reinga - amazing views & great area to camp & hike

As the distance between Auckland and Bay of Islands is only 228 kilometres (a 3-hour drive) you can spend lots of time in the Bay of Islands area and drive back to Auckland in one go. Or if you have a bit more time, you can take the long way back via State Highway 12 (SH12) and explore the west coast of the North Island. There’s so much to do and see on NZ’s North Island.

Itinerary: from Auckland to Bay of Islands

Need more road trip inspiration?

The trip from Auckland to Bay of Islands is amazing, not just because of the must-see destination aka Bay of Island, but because it's a relaxed and fun route. It's also part of the best road trips in New Zealand so after ticking off this route, you'll have a few more amazing road trips to do to be able to say that you've seen it all!

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