Exploring Northland, New Zealand: 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 in New Zealand are 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’d left a blizzard in Minnesota and arrived to incoming summer. Everything was kind of a mess.

That said, fuzzy or no, about one thing I am certain: this road trip from Paihia to Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach 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

I started and ended this trip 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 region.

Cape Reinga/Te Rerenga Wairua (generally just referred to as “Cape Reinga”) is located another 210 kilometers north of Paihia. Cape Reinga isn’t technically 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 regard it as the place where spirits depart from the living world to the underworld (which is called “reinga” in the Māori language). It’s also the mixing point of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean.

The morning of my visit, the fog hung pretty thick around the cape, 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 you can’t drive on it with just any old rental car — in fact, most car rental companies in New Zealand explicitly prohibit it. 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 make sure you have a suitable vehicle first (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 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.

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

paihia to cape reinga + ninety mile beach

This trip spans 430 km (267 miles) in total, so while it’s a bit full-on, it’s totally doable as a day trip from Paihia. If you’re coming from Auckland, you’ll probably want to do at least an overnight, if not longer. (See below for a distance breakdown.)

The tour was included in my Stray bus pass, which I paid for altogether, so I can’t tell you how much this specific part cost me. However, Stray also offers it as a standalone day trip, as do several other bus companies; the typical fare seems to be around $130 to $150 per adult.

If you don’t want to take a bus tour, you can of course drive yourself; however, as I said before, most rental companies in New Zealand won’t allow you to take their vehicles onto Ninety Mile Beach. If that’s something you really want to do, the bus may be your best bet.

Paihia to Cape Reinga: 212 km (132 miles)
Cape Reinga to Ninety Mile Beach: 49 km (30 miles)
Ninety Mile Beach to Paihia: 169 km (105 miles)

Auckland to Paihia: 227 km (141 miles)

• • •

A road trip through New Zealand's Northland region, perfect for a day out from Paihia. See the Pacific Ocean meet the Tasman Sea at Cape Reinga, sandboard the dunes on Ninety Mile Beach, and eat world-famous fish and chips in Mangonui. | #NewZealand

A road trip through New Zealand's Northland region, perfect for a day out from Paihia. See the Pacific Ocean meet the Tasman Sea at Cape Reinga, sandboard the dunes on Ninety Mile Beach, and eat world-famous fish and chips in Mangonui. | #NewZealand

A road trip through New Zealand's Northland region, perfect for a day out from Paihia. See the Pacific Ocean meet the Tasman Sea at Cape Reinga, sandboard the dunes on Ninety Mile Beach, and eat world-famous fish and chips in Mangonui. | #NewZealand

A road trip through New Zealand's Northland region, perfect for a day out from Paihia. See the Pacific Ocean meet the Tasman Sea at Cape Reinga, sandboard the dunes on Ninety Mile Beach, and eat world-famous fish and chips in Mangonui. | #NewZealand

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