Travelling from Auckland to Bay of Islands

by | Dec 10, 2022 | Travellers tips

We first penned this article back in 2012!  Since then, the roads have changed, favourite cafes have opened and closed and many guests have also told us how useful this article has been.  So we’ve revisited, updated and added a map at the end. Enjoy!

Most of our guests choose to drive up the Bay of Islands from Auckland, you’ll find this a delightful trip at just over three hours plus breaks. There are plenty of interesting spots on the journey to rest, enjoy a relaxing walk, or something to eat. We’re pleased to share a few favourites. These places are actually on the main Highway, or only a few minutes from the roadside. Planning to make a day of the trip to arrive late afternoon could be a very enjoyable way to start your holiday in the Bay of Islands! After each location, we’ve indicated the approximate travel time from Auckland.

Leaving Auckland, and on the far side of the Johnstone Tunnels …Warkworth

Around mid 2023 a new bypass road on SH1 was opened that avoids the busy intersection through the Warkworth township.  You can still take the turn off to visit this charming town, which is benefiting from having less traffic!

Still bearing a close resemblance to the town when it was first established in 1853, Warkworth (45 minutes) sits peacefully on the edge of the Mahurangi River – once a main transport route for steamboats between Auckland. A great place for a break; buy a snack, and stroll along the riverside walkway. There are also public toilets and an i-site (tourist information) located here.  Taking the turn-off to Warkworth will add about 10 minutes to your journey.

The Brynderwyn Hills is one of the most striking geographical features on the trip from Auckland to the Bay of Islands. There are several towns on the approach where it’s worth taking a break. Wellsford (1 hour) has a number of nice cafes, but maybe hold out a little longer, and try one of the funky cafes a little further north in Kaiwaka, (1 hour 15 mins). The eccentric Eutopia Café languished for a few years, but more recently has been renovated and is well worth a visit just to view it’s sublime and very arty interior (1hour 20 mins). It’s at the foot of the Brynderwyns; a good place to take a break and ensure­­ your driving concentration is up to the upcoming drive over the mountains.

Waipu

State Highway One now feels as if it’s almost travelling along the beach, and it’s worth taking a detour off the main road to a little town full of contradictions. Host to the Waipu Highland Games every new year, Waipu (1hour 35 mins) has a strong Gaelic connection, and also lays claim to having the biggest little museum in New Zealand.

top whangarei falls

Whangarei & Whangarei Falls

The Whangarei i-Site with public toilets is located on the main highway just before your reach the town centre. A by-pass road takes drivers around Northland’s only city, Whangarei (2 hours). If you avoid peak hour between 8-10am and 4-6pm a detour into the centre shouldn’t add more than 15 minutes to your travel time.

Hundertwasser art centre

Hundertwasser Art Centre

The Whangarei town basin area (follow the signs), located on the Hatea River has a relaxing ambience, and the Hundertwasser Art Centre is definitely worth a visit if time permits. Hundertwasser lived in the Bay of Islands and his works are visible everywhere when you reach Kawakawa, however in 1993, the Mayor of Whangarei invited Hundertwasser  to design an art gallery, and 30 years later, it was finally realised.

Nearby is the Claphams National Clock museum, art shops and nice restaurants if you’re in the mood for a sit down lunch.

If you prefer to avoid the main centre, consider stopping by the 26m Whangareri Falls. They are not quite as high as Kerikeri’s spectacular and well known Rainbow Falls, but only 5 minutes from the Highway. You can either view the falls from the top, or enjoy the easy walk down to view from the foot of the falls.

Waro Lake Reserve

Waro Limestone Lake Reserve, Hikurangi

This part of Northland was once home to a bustling coal industry, but most of the surrounding towns have been swallowed up by the ever-expanding Whangarei suburbs. But Hikurangi, (2 hours 20 mins) is a little town where time has stood still. Don’t expect a polished tourist town: its sleepy little streets and old wooden villas are its charm. If you pack a lunch, head to the Waro limestone scenic reserve on the highway at the edge of town – literally limestone caves and formations that have erupted to the surface. Take time out to take the 15 minute walk around the park.

Ruapekapeka entrance

Ruapekapeka Pa

Whilst Towai (2 hrs 30 mins) seemingly hosts only a cafe and the historic Towai Hotel (definitely worth a pit stop); nearby Ruapekapeka (Maori for ‘bats nest’) is a hidden treasure – the remains of one of the final and most bitterly fought confrontations between Maori and Europeans during early settlement. The British were so impressed by the techniques employed by Maori chief Kawiti that a model of the pa (fortress) was presented to British parliament and is credited to developing trench warfare used in WW1.

Follow the sign from the highway, and take the turn off on the right just after Towai. Allow an extra 15 minutes for the detour, and up to an hour to walk through the site itself. Highly recommended and free!

Kawiti Glow Worm Caves

If you have limited time in New Zealand for your holiday, and missed out on the famous Waitomo caves south of Auckland, don’t fret! Whilst not as well known, the Kawiti Glow Worm Caves at Waiomio (2hrs 40 mins) are well worth the stop, and less crowded. Many of our guests have commented they found these far more intimate and less commercial than Waitomo.

Allow 30 to 40 mins for the tour which departs up to every half hour depending on the season. The stroll back through the forests to the car park is also very enjoyable.

Hundertwasser toilets

Kawakawa & Hundertwasser Toilets

Kawakawa (2 hrs 45 mins) is the gateway to the Bay of Islands, and a funky little town in its own right. And YES – the colourfully tiled Hundertwasser toilets are worth a stop to visit. And whilst you’re there, check out the recently opened, Hundertwasser inspired community centre ‘Te Hononga‘. Take a break at one of the many cafes and soak up the quiet/lively street life that is Kawakawa. On the weekends and summer holidays you may be lucky enough to see the old steam train Gabriel running down the middle of the main street – a sight to see indeed!

Welcome to Kerikeri

Kerikeri is home to New Zealand’s earliest European settlements at Rangihoua Heritage and Kororipo Heritage parks, and is often described as the ‘Cradle of the Nation’.

The official travel time to Kerikeri in the heart of the Bay of Islands is 3 hours and 5 minutes. Any of the above stops will add to your travel time. Overseas visitors should remember that New Zealand roads are rarely straight and often up and down hills, so it’s doubly important to ensure you don’t travel when tired. So use this guide to plan your breaks!

Kerikeri_basin_web

Interactive map

Click a pin below to read about the stops mentioned in the post above.

Moon Gate Villa

Kerikeri, Bay of Islands Northland

Auckland CBD

Waipu

Beach and cove

Whangarei Falls

Waro Limestone Scenic Reserve Walk

Ruapekapeka Pa

Kawakawa

Hundertwasser Toilets

Hundertwasser Art Centre

Check your dates

Update for Summer 2024

Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency have announced that they may close State Highway 1 through the Brynderwyn Hills during Feb-March in 2024 to make further repairs to the damage caused by cyclone Gabrielle in early 2023.

In this event, northbound light traffic will be rerouted through the delightful coastline around Mangawhai Heads and Waipu to rejoin the state highway just before Whangarei possibly adding 20 minutes to your total journey.  Bookmark this page and we will keep this notice up to date with details if this is confirmed.