According to the Maori tribes of Northland, the legendary Polynesian explorer Kupe first landed his waka in New Zealand on the shores of the Hokianga Harbour. When Kupe left to return to Hawaiki he is said to have set off from here, leading to its full name: Te Hokianga-Nui-O-Kupe, the great returning place of Kupe.

The stunning views over the harbour have changed little since early days. No gaudy houses line the shores. Waka still traverse the waters for Waitangi Day celebrations and waka ama tournaments. There are also the boats of game fishing enthusiasts, historical harbour cruises and a water taxi, ferrying the adventurous over for a thrilling sand toboggan ride down the huge 180m golden sand dunes.

Near the southern head of the harbour, the seaside village of Opononi was made famous in the 1950s by Opo the dolphin, who played and swam with children here. Opononi and Omapere are a great base to discover the Waipoua Forest, New Zealand’s largest kauri rainforest.

There are beautiful walks into the forest to marvel at ancient kauri such as Tane Mahuta, 1400 years old, and Te Matua Ngahere, 2000 years old. These giant trees are survivors of the kauri timber boom, that along with gum digging and the flax industry, brought trade to the Hokianga in the early nineteenth century. Early missionary activity was also important to the culture and history of the area.

Driving north, picturesque Rawene is the first stop on a journey into Hokianga’s art scene. There are art galleries at No.1 Parnell and the Hokianga Art Gallery at 2 Parnell St. Stop for sustenance at The Boatshed Cafe, one of several buildings set on wooden piles over the water. The Boatshed gets lots of praise for the views, great food and coffee - sit on the deck and watch the ferry crossing.

Wander round peaceful Rawene village and discover its history on the heritage trail. Visit Clendon House, built in the 1860s, or stroll the boardwalk through the mangroves. The local 1960s Post Office stands as a fine example of retro historic New Zealand public architecture. Visitors can take the 15 minute car-ferry ride across to Kohukohu on the northern shore.

Kohukohu was once home to the largest timber mill in the southern hemisphere. Now it’s a tranquil and photogenic spot, with a heritage trail round its colonial wooden buildings. The Village Arts Gallery on Kohukohu’s main road shows work from local artists, and is part of Te Ara Manawa: The Heart Trail and Northland Art Trail.

Horeke township sits near the top of the harbour. It was the site of NZ’s first, though short-lived, commercial shipyard, from 1826. All those boat builders must have been thirsty - Horeke Tavern on the waterfront has been serving beer since 1826, making it arguably New Zealand’s oldest pub. Have a meal here and a chat to the owner about the history of the town and building.

There are more pretty buildings over water here - houses were once built like this because of the price of land. Horeke will soon have more thirsty visitors: the Pou Herenga Tai/Twin Coast Cycle Trail which will connect the Hokianga and the Bay of Islands starts here.

While in Horeke, visit Wairere Boulders, a valley full of great basalt rocks, eroded into fluted forms, and forming a chaotic, cascading flow down the valley. The owners have created trails with bridges and stairs, taking walkers over, under and around the boulders, up through the valley, with native forest, young kauri trees, and a platform at the top, with views down over the boulders towards the Hokianga Harbour.

Māngungu Mission lies 3km from Horeke on Motukiore Rd. Māngungu was established as a Wesleyan mission station in 1828. The mission house was built in 1838-39. It was the site of the largest signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, with more than 70 chiefs signing here. The house was moved to Onehunga, then returned to its first site in the 1970s. There is also a Celtic cross, and a little church here.

Where to stay

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What to do

  • Marvel at Tane Mahuta, a 1400-year-old kauri tree, in the Waipoua Forest

  • Admire the sea views from the lookout at Omapere

  • Go tobogganing down the sand dunes

  • Take the ferry from Rawene to Kohukohu

  • Walk amongst the Wairere Boulders