Trip Start Oct 17, 2007
64Trip End Ongoing
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Leaving from the Bay of Islands, you first pass Kerikeri, which we drove straight through leaving it for the following day. After a handful of kilometers, we turned off the highway to detour to Whangaroa, a small settlement on the shores of its eponymous harbour. The road down leads past a small growth of mangroves before getting to the peaceful harbour and surrounding settlement. (The peace may have been a product of timing-we visited the Monday of a long weekend, when thousands of Kiwis were clogging the roads back into Auckland and Wellington.) Whangaroa looks like a pleasant place to do some fishing or kayaking or other waterbound activities; we pushed on after a brief look
Back on the highway, you next hit the broad stretch of Doubtless Bay, heralded by the popular small town of Mangonui. The main drag of town runs along the waterfront, past the usual galleries and cafes. Mangonui was our lunch stop, at a popular fish and chips shop right on the water, where they batter and fry the fresh fish to order. The tasty food was complemented by lunchtime company: as all tables were occupied, a friendly woman and her (also friendly) mother offered up the two extra seats at their table. The mother was born and raised on Stewart Island, New Zealand's third, small island off the southern tip of the South Island. Stewart Island is a remote but beautiful place with only some several hundred inhabitants. Her daughter was born there, but the family soon moved to the other extreme of New Zealand, to the historic and lovely town of Russell on the Bay of Islands. They recalled days of riding horses and swimming in the bays. After ten years there, they spent an equal amount of time in Auckland, and then the mother moved even farther north to Houhora, which is the northernmost town of any size (and there's not much size even then) in all of New Zealand. The daughter now lives in Kerikeri, near the Bay of Islands. It was great to talk to people who have lived their lives in some of the most iconic parts of the country.
After lunch, it was time to push onward to the true far north of New Zealand. Northland on the whole is a relatively narrow peninsula, about 60-70 kilometers wide. For the topmost 100 kilometers, it further narrows to a spit of land little more than 10 kilometers wide, with a single paved road running up to the tip. Well, a mostly-paved road; the top 20 kilometers are gravel (this on national highway 1 no less, the mother road running the length of the country all the way down to Invercargill on the southern tip of the south island). On this narrow top portion there are almost no towns of any size. The map marks the 'northernmost tavern in New Zealand' in Houhora halfway to the top, as a warning to traveling drunkards. Mobile phones stop working a bit north of that. By the top you're on a narrow road winding through grazing sheep, in a landscape quite reminiscent of Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco.
And then after rumbling along the gravel road for some time, you come to a parking lot and continue another several hundred meters on foot to the cape itself. This area is a point where (in the Maori religion) spirits of the deceased take off from land into the spirit world, and it's easy to see why this point was chosen: vibrant green bluffs surrounded by endless ocean and huge blue sky, it just feels like the end of the island
The immediate cape area is stunning, and a place I hope to spend some more time in the future. A side road leads down to a small bay with a golden-sand beach and a campground right on the shore. As it was, we arrived late in the day and didn't have time to do too much exploring. We instead headed back south, with a turnoff to the west in Hourora to head to Ninety Mile Beach, a wide and continuous strip of sand marking the western shore of the narrow part of the peninsula. While actually only 60-some miles long (the namers thought it felt longer walking it), it's an impressive strip of sand. It's even marked as a road on the map, and our plain-Jane rental car had no problem negotiating the small portion that we drove on. We took one of the several dirt roads leading from main highway to ninety mile beach and encountered a herd of beautiful wild horses in the pine forest we were driving through.
The sun soon set after our beach excursion, and we drove straight back save for a dinner stop back in Monganui. We ate at a lovely cafe on the waterfront road known as The Galley, which was much better than the image evoked by the name. We started with an entrée of scallops served on a bed of greens with slices of pear and avocado. They were flavors I wouldn't have expected to go together, but it all worked beautifully and was a highlight. We shared the fish of the day for a main, which was a fish I can't remember that was likened to Sea Bass, served on a risotto with capers and vegetables, and was quite nice. Dessert was a competent if not stunning crème brulée. The decor was pleasant and the service friendly, and it was entirely recommendable.