Exploring the Northland: Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach

Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach

I’m not gonna lie: some parts of my visit to the Northland region of New Zealand are…well, a bit fuzzy.

I mean, this was my very first weekend in NZ — in other words, my very first weekend as a solo traveler in a foreign country. I probably still had jet-lag, not to mention I left a blizzard in Minnesota and arrived to the bright sun of incoming summer. Everything was kind of a mess.

That said, fuzzy state or no, about one thing I am certain: this trip from Paihia to Cape Reinga in the Northland was a great introduction to New Zealand and everything it has to offer — naturally, culturally, and historically.

View of the Tasman Sea from Cape Reinga, New Zealand

Foggy view of the Tasman Sea from Cape Reinga in New Zealand's Northland

This trip started and ended in Paihia, a very small coastal town about 230 kilometers north of Auckland. Home to just under 2000 residents, Paihia is the main town of the Bay of Islands, and a great base for exploring the Northland in general.

Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua (generally just referred to as “Cape Reinga”) is located another 210 kilometers north of Paihia. Cape Reinga isn’t actually the northernmost bit of New Zealand, but many people seem to think it’s close enough to call it that, anyway.

It’s a very significant spot for the Māori, who say it’s where spirits depart from the living world to the underworld (which is called “reinga” in the Māori language). It’s also considered the “mixing point” of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean.

The fog hung pretty thick around the cape the morning of my visit, adding a certain romance and moodiness to the experience. I imagine it would also be quite spectacular on a clear day, when you can see for miles out across the sea.

Lighthouse at Cape Reinga in New Zealand

Foggy sea views from Cape Reinga, at the top of New Zealand's North Island

Foggy view from Cape Reinga, New Zealand

The Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea at Cape Reinga, New Zealand

After the cape, we headed southwest to Ninety Mile Beach — which, in keeping with the theme of misleading people about geographical places, is actually 88 kilometers, or just 55 miles. I guess someone decided Ninety Kilometer Beach didn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Low tide on Ninety Mile Beach, New Zealand

Ninety Mile Beach -- an official beach highway in New Zealand's Northland region

Ninety Mile Beach is an official highway of New Zealand, but I wouldn’t try to drive it with just any old rental car. You run the risk of getting stuck in the sand, which is an easy way to lose a lot of time and money (and quite possibly the car). According to our driver, this is not an uncommon problem for tourists, so I recommend you check with your rental company beforehand (or just hop on a bus like I did).

Speaking of sand: at Ninety Mile Beach, you can also do this.

Sandboarding the dunes at Ninety Mile Beach

Sandboarding, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Climbing up the huge sand dune was a bit more of a workout than I was after, but it was a fun ride down.

Sandboarding the dunes at Ninety Mile Beach

We finished off the day with a stop in Mangonui, a small settlement known for its “world famous” fish and chips.

Now, if you’ve ever visited New Zealand, you’ll know all about its fondness for labeling its attractions “world famous in New Zealand” and putting giant sculptures of them somewhere in the town/city of origin. Like L&P, short for Lemon and Paeroa (a “world famous” soft drink), or…well, see for yourself.

So I don’t know about world famous, but the fish and chips in Mangonui were pretty good. Of course, as an American who hails from pretty much as far from the sea as you can get, I’m not exactly an authority, so take that with a grain of salt (and a splash of vinegar).

The location wasn’t too bad, either.

Fish and chip shop in Mangonui, New Zealand

Boats on the water in Mangonui, New Zealand

Visiting Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach: This is a great option for a day trip from Paihia (spanning about 430 kilometers altogether). I took the trip as part of my Stray bus pass, which I paid for altogether, so I can’t tell you how much it would have cost on its own. However, there are quite a few options for similar trips in this part of NZ, and a bit of googling shows the prices can range anywhere from $55 to $150 (NZD).

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