On the north-western coast of the North Island, historic Hokianga is often referred to as the birthplace of Aotearoa New Zealand.
It’s estimated in about 925AD, the legendary Polynesian explorer Kupe led his people to the Hokianga. Recognising what a jewel they’d found, the tribe put down roots, naming the area Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe – “the place of Kupe’s great return”. Today, this gloriously unspoiled region is home to beautiful landscapes, creative locals and a mighty sense of spirit that infuses this vast spectacular expanse.
A great sense of history
Arriving from Hawaiki by waka (canoe), Kupe’s people quickly established themselves in this region, and flourished thanks to the kind climate and abundant food sources. To get to grips with Māori and colonial history, visit the Hokianga Museum and Archives Centre, or stop in at Dargaville Museum, an impressive window into local heritage and culture. Historic Clendon House in Rawene is another star attraction, where local hosts share their broad knowledge of pre- and post-colonial history. Visit the ancient kauri trees of Waipoua Forest, with Tāne Mahuta the lord of them all. Enchanting twilight Footprints tours are run by local Māori who share tales of the area’s spiritual significance.
At three hours’ drive from Auckland, you’ll want a car to best explore this region. Hokianga Museum is open for limited hours so check opening times before you visit, ditto Clendon House. In comparison, Dargaville Museum is a 364-day-a-year affair (closed Christmas Day). Bookings are advised for Footprints tours in Waipoua Forest, although you can explore the trees independently. Stunning year round, the Hokianga is less crowded in the cooler months, so if you can avoid the high season, you’ll find the pace more relaxing.
Abundant natural wonders
If you’ve a penchant for geology, the boulders at Koutu are sure to impress. These vast oddities – balls of rock roughly 3m in diameter – can be found on the windswept beach between Koutu and Kauwhare. Try sandboarding, another natural delight, where visitors ride down towering dunes on “sand-boards” and, when the tide is high, skim all the way into the water. Or, if the Waipoua Forest merely whetted your appetite for woodlands, follow the Ancient Kauri Trail. On it, you’ll discover Trounson Kauri Park, a less well-known forestry treasure, featuring majestic trees and flourishing birdlife.
The Koutu Boulders are 7km from Opononi, admired by taking an easy walk on an uncrowded beach. For sand-dune surfing, join Hokianga Express Charters, whose boats leave from Opononi Wharf, with sand-boards and all training provided. Bookings essential. Trounson Kauri Park is 40km north of Dargaville and the main loop walk takes just 40 minutes.
The creative kind
The Hokianga arts trail is crammed with creative people doing clever things in paradise. The Hokianga Art Gallery and Number 1 Parnell are both in Rawene, both full of local treasures. The elegant Village Arts, over the water in Kohukohu, a short ferry trip away, focuses on ceramics, jewellery and weaving as well as contemporary and traditional Māori arts. Many local artists open their studios by arrangement, with one of the quirkier stops belonging to Allan Gale, a carver of wood and bone. And do keep your eyes peeled for various second-hand stores, because the smaller towns boast some pretty big treasures.
‘Bigger’ galleries are open most days, while individual artists will need a bit of warning so call ahead before dropping in. Be advised, the only thing that’s truly big in this place is the landscape.
Where to refuel
With so much to see and do, you’re sure to work up an appetite. Built on stilts over the harbour, Boatshed Café in Rawene is renowned for great food and coffee as well as arts and crafts. In Opononi, The Landing Bar and Kitchen is where you’ll find healthy food and lovely views. Morrells Café in Waimamaku is perfect for powering up before exploring Waipoua Forest. Or, if it’s fresh seafood you’re after, order from Opononi Beach Takeaways and eat your fish and chips overlooking the water. They do great ice-creams too, but watch out for hungry seagulls.
You’re never far from good food in The Hokianga, with many establishments focusing on fresh and locally sourced ingredients, whether you’re after a picnic for the road or quality sit-down fare. Coffee is good virtually everywhere, and small general stores know what visitors need when they’re on the road.
Busy days, cosy nights
For a resort experience, book your stay at Copthorne Hotel and Resort in Omapere. For laidback accommodation with water views, Opononi Hotel is hard to beat, and conveniently located next to the local pub. If it’s luxury you’re after, The Heads, opening soon in Omapere, sets a new standard for the region. For a taste of history, spend a night at the picturesque Horeke Hotel, handily located at one end of the Twin Coast Cycle Trail. Or rest your head at romantic, eco-friendly Kokohuia Lodge, where birdsong is the soundtrack for your dramatic views of the Hokianga Harbour.
If you’re travelling in the summer high season, book your accommodation ahead of time as rooms fill quickly. Of course visiting Hokianga in winter, spring or autumn means less crowds and more space. Also known as the “sub-tropical north”, you can swim year-round (if you’re hardy and have a wetsuit) and enjoy the great outdoors with some of the more exclusive lodgings offering special deals in the quieter months.