Discover the best places to stay the night (or spend the day) as you travel between Auckland the the Bay of Islands.
Though the drive from Auckland to the Bay of Islands only takes 3 to 4 hours (depending on traffic), some travellers like to break the journey by spending a night or two along the way.
Others travel from the Coromandel to the Bay of Islands. As this drive takes approximately 6 hours, we recommend spending the night somewhere in between… and the suggestions in this article are just the ticket.
Whether you choose to spend the night at one of these wonderful spots, or you treat it as a visit while passing through, you’re sure to enjoy your visit.
Where to stay between Auckland and Paihia
We’ve organised each of our favourite little towns and cities in south to north order… heading from Auckland to Paihia.
These can be visited from the Bay of Islands down to Auckland, of course – you’ll just want to start from the bottom of the list, working your way back up.
Auckland is the gateway to your northern adventure and it’s much more than a bustling metropolis.
It’s where vibrant city life meets stunning natural landscapes.
Here, you can scale the Sky Tower for panoramic views or wander through peaceful parklands at the Domain.
Check out our world-class waterfront restaurants or enjoy a coffee in one of my many trendy suburbs – Ponsonby, Parnell or Mission Bay, for starters.
Auckland is also much-loved by sailors and island hoppers, with frequent ferries making exploration of the Hauraki Gulf easy for everyone.
Wondering why we included Auckland on this list? Though we’re only covering Auckland to Paihia on this list, many readers will begin this journey south of Auckland, so they may want to visit the City of Sails before moving on.
Located just an hour’s drive north of Auckland, Matakana is an idyllic little village that is worth a visit – whether you choose to stay the night or swing by is up to you.
With its picturesque landscapes, charming countryside and abundance of things to see and do, Matakana is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Auckland City.
The Matakana farmers’ market is held on Saturdays from 8 am until 1 pm – it is one of the main attractions of this normally-quiet town.
As you stroll through the stalls filled with fresh produce, locally made artisanal goods, and delicious treats, you’ll see why locals and travellers alike consider this one of their favourite Auckland markets.
Matakana is also home to some memorable wineries and a sculpture garden (Sculptureum), making it a great choice for those who enjoy the finer things in life.
What’s more, you’ll pass through Matakana on the way to Tāwharanui Regional Park, Omaha, Leigh/Goat Island and Pakiri, so it can easily be made into a quick stop as you explore one of these nearby locations.
Tāwharanui Regional Park
Less than 20 minutes from Matakana, you’ll find Tāwharanui Regional Park. With pristine beaches, rolling pastures, and native bush that sings with the sound of native wildlife, this is a real gem!
The beach here is stunning, so you’ll want to ensure you pack your togs (swimsuit).
Or, if you prefer land over sea, the walking trails offer breathtaking views and the chance to spot some of New Zealand’s unique birdlife.
While there, you have a good chance of seeing takahē (once thought long-extinct), the elusive tīeke (saddleback), and most excitingly – kiwi!
It’s possible to camp in a tent, campervan/motorhome or caravan at Tāwharanui Regional Park, and we highly recommend it (if you’re the camping type).
By staying overnight you’ll be treated to a night sky free of light pollution (perfect for astrophotography). This is also the best time to see kiwi, as our national bird is nocturnal by nature.
Omaha is known for its stunning white sand beach and chilled atmosphere. A short drive from Auckland, it’s the perfect spot to unwind before continuing your journey north to Paihia.
This tucked-away paradise is known mostly to Kiwi, but if you love the sound of a relaxed coastal getaway, we have no doubt you’ll love it there too.
If you’d like to stay overnight here, we recommend hiring a bach (holiday home) and enjoying Omaha like the locals do.
Leigh & Goat Island
Leigh is a favourite Auckland day trip, offering a serene escape with its picturesque coastal charm.
The standout attraction near this quaint town is Goat Island – New Zealand’s first marine reserve. A haven for snorkelers and divers, the water here is home to a variety of local marine life.
Glass-bottom boat tours and kayaks are also available if you’d like to check out Goat Island without getting wet.
Above water, the scenic walks around Leigh treat visitors to panoramic views of the Pacific.
If you have a little more time to spare, we also recommend driving through to Pakiri for some family-friendly surf and ice creams!
Whether you choose to stay in the region, or just pass through, we recommend water babies check out Leigh and its surrounding locations.
🐟 Many of our consultation clients and group are excited to snorkel in New Zealand. Snorkelling here can be good, but our waters are cold so you shouldn’t expect the bright and colourful fish the Pacific Islands and Caribbean are known for. Instead, you’re more likely to see schools of snapper and crayfish.
Mangawhai, nestled halfway between Auckland and Paihia, is that perfect blend of coastal beauty and small-town charm.
Though it’s a little detour off State Highway 1, we think it’s totally worthwhile.
There, you’ll find stunning beaches with long stretches of golden sand – perfect for beach strolls or a game of frisbee… and for sandboarding down the dunes too!
Choose from the sheltered estuary or the surf beach at Mangawhai Heads – both great places to cool off on a warm day.
The Mangawhai Cliffs Walkway is a popular attraction too. This free walking track offers incredible coastal views, taking 2 – 3 hours return – and we think it’s a must-do when in town.
Just be aware, the walk returns along the beach and this part is only accessible near low tide. If that won’t work for your schedule, you can always return back along the cliff track.
Pro tip: The cliff walk is a loop track that can be undertaken in either direction. We recommend starting with the beach section if possible though.
Though we think it’s worth visiting Mangawhai at any time of year, it’s particularly popular when the weather warms up.
Several times each year it plays host to outdoor music festivals and events, and you’ve got the famous-in-New-Zealand Mangawhai Walking Weekend. This is a community event that showcases the best of the area’s natural beauty… and there’s plenty of that!
As if you need any more reason to visit this favourite coastal community, the fishing is great, it is home to some great local art galleries and it has an 18-hole golf course.
We told you Mangawhai was worth the detour!
Did you know? I spent a great deal of time in Mangawhai in my younger years. If you have any questions about one of my favourite Kiwi holiday destinations, I’d love to help over in our Facebook group.
Uretiti Beach is a coastal treasure that’s hard to miss as you drive along SH1… you’ll drive right past it. With its wide expanse of soft, white sand it invites you to unroll your towel, relax and listen to the symphony of the waves.
If you’re after a bit of solitude, you can walk along the shore and find a private spot just for yourself… just be mindful of where you wander as Uretiti Beach is known as a ‘clothing optional’ beach.
The beach stretches far and wide, ensuring there’s space for everyone. And if you like your beach days with a bit of adventure, the wind here makes for excellent kite-surfing conditions.
Though it’s possible to swim there, we recommend continuing over to Ruakākā (next on our list), where they have active surf patrols to keep you safe.
However, if you enjoy cheap and cheerful camping in a stunning location, be sure to stay put at Uretiti Beach.
The local DOC campground is a stone’s throw from the water, offering a prime spot for setting up camp under the stars.
We’ve stayed there before, and can say with confidence that it’s hard to beat… particularly around sunrise.
Another quintessential slice of Kiwi paradise, Ruakākā tucked away on the journey towards Paihia. This is where the river meets the sea and where locals greet you with a smile as broad as the beach itself.
If you’ve got one handy, we recommend you set up your umbrella and bask in the unspoiled splendour of Ruakākā’s beach. The sand here is fine and white, and the waves are gentle – plus, as we mentioned, the beach is patrolled by lifeguards.
Visit Ruakākā, even if just for a few hours, and you’ll carry the essence of its tranquil beaches with you all the way north.
Or, if you choose to spend the night here, be sure to book a bach or a campsite – and stay like the locals do.
Pro tip: If you decide to stay the night in Ruakākā, or you have more time to spend in the area, pop over to nearby One Tree Point for some more beach time and check out Marsden Point from a distance – New Zealand’s only oil refinery.
Whāngarei & Whāngarei Heads
Whāngarei is the largest city between Auckland and Paihia – and it is also the northernmost.
Though we wouldn’t consider it one of the most scenic spots on this list, it has all the appeal of a larger centre – shopping centres, restaurants and eateries, art galleries (for example, the quirky Hundertwasser Art Centre) and more.
It’s also home to plenty of natural beauty, including the Whāngarei Falls and
A. H. Reed Memorial Kauri Park.
Plus, just a stone’s throw away, you’ll find Whāngarei Heads.
With turquoise-coloured bays, perfect for a family-friendly swim (check out Smugglers Bay, for example), you’ll wonder how such beauty can exist right on the boundary of a major city.
And did we mention the area’s breathtaking panoramic views after a rewarding hike? Mount Manaia, with its impressive summit, treats hikers to striking views of the harbour and beyond.
If you have the time and energy, it’s a real must-do!
Did you know? Whāngarei is the last stop on this list that doesn’t require a detour. In fact, you’ll pass right through the city as you travel north on SH1.
Tutukaka is another detour from State Highway 1, but if you love the ocean, it’s a stop you’ll want to know about…. plus this coastal road makes for a stunning drive.
This small town is renowned for its pristine waters and boat access to the world-class Poor Knights Islands marine reserve. For underwater enthusiasts, it’s nothing short of a dream with some of the best diving in Aotearoa New Zealand.
For those who prefer to stay above water, the fishing here is superb. Cast a line and wait for the bite that promises a fresh feed straight from the Pacific.
Or, if you’re simply looking to unwind, the beaches offer a perfect setting to lay back, sunbathe or take a leisurely stroll.
Pro tip: The sun in New Zealand is much stronger than most people are used to. For that reason, we don’t actually recommend sunbathing. If you want to though, try to stay out of the sun during the middle of the day and use a quality sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses too.
If you’re after brunch, a delicious dinner or supplies while in town, head along to the Tutukaka Marina – it’s the place to be if you’re not at the beach or on the ocean.
Following the coastal road around from Tutakaka, you’ll find Matapouri and the laid-back beach life you’ve been craving.
Its horseshoe bay cradles a pristine beach where the white sand meets clear, sheltered waters – perfect for swimming, kayaking and simply soaking up the sun (but remember, never enjoy the sun too much in New Zealand!).
While there, we suggest walking over to Whale Bay. This is another pōhutukawa-framed beach that’s perfect for swimming.
Lucky last on our list, and only 1 hour and 20 minutes from Paihia in the Bay of Islands, Matapouri is a coastal jewel that invites you to pause and enjoy the simple pleasures of sea, sand and serenity.
And doesn’t that sound fabulous?
Continuing on along SH1 you’ll arrive at Paihia, the perfect base to explore Waitangi [promo code NZTT to get discounted tickets to the treaty grounds], Russell, Kerikeri and the rest of the Bay of Islands.
What will you do once you’ve arrived in this northern coastal paradise?
Pssst: If you’ve been to any of these spots, we’d love you to share your photos in NZTT! 📸