Branching off of the Twin Coast Discovery Highway (an 800km circular touring route taking in both coasts of the Far North) is the rather innocuously named ‘Tourist Drive’. This approximately one-hour loop drive is so good that surely it deserves a much cooler name than that.
The Tourist Drive branches off of SH10, around 20 minutes north of Kerikeri and passes stunning bays such as Matauri, Piapia, Mahinepua and Tauranga – and the majestic Whangaroa Harbour. Our recommendation though is to start the drive from the northern end (turn off just past Kaeo) as this allows you to take in the spectacular panoramic views from the myriad of pull-ins on the left hand side of the road.
Starting from the northern end of the loop, the first sight that greets you is the imposing monolith of Ohakiri (St Paul’s Rock), which dominates the skyline for miles around. There’s a great walk that leads to the top, with the last section accessed using chains embedded in the rock to give you a helping hand – it’s well worth the climb though as the views from the top are truly breathtaking.
We won’t go into much more detail about the Whangaroa Harbour here as we previously wrote a separate article all about this magical place which you can check out here.
Next stop on this awesome drive is Tauranga Bay, around 12 minutes from Whangaroa. There’s a lovely reserve right on the beach here with plenty of parking and there’s also toilets and a children’s play area. The beach here is beautiful with a sweeping pink/white sand beach enclosed by headlands at both ends.
At the southern end is a pretty estuary where a winding river finally finds its way to the sea. It’s a breeding ground for many seabirds so is a great place for a spot of birdwatching with nice sheltered waters safe for swimming.
At the northern end is a cool rock archway leading to the secret (or not so secret) Butterfly Bay, which can only be accessed at low tide. Named after the colony of Monarch butterflies that flock here to winter over and breed in the trees on the hills around the beach, it’s a lovely secluded haven – just don’t stay too long or you may have to swim back around to Tauranga Bay.
There’s also a great campground right on the beachfront which is owned and operated by rugby sevens legend Eric Rush’s family. We’ve stayed here many times and it’s one of the best that we’ve stayed at. They do great off season long stay rates too so it’s a really cool spot to winter over in the winterless north.
Another 15 minutes down the road is the little-known Mahinepua Bay. Blink and you’ll miss the turn off as it’s not well signposted, then follow the short gravel road around to the stunning sheltered bay.
It’s an awesome spot to go for a kayak, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore out along the rocky headland. If you’re feeling adventurous though, then carry on past the end of the peninsula to Motuekaiti, a tiny island with a gorgeous beach to pull up on.
There’s also a truly stunning walk that goes out over the peninsula to a trig point at the far end. It’s around an hour each way and is steep in places as the track drops up and down to a few beaches before climbing up to the trig. The views are incredible though, with breathtaking 360-degree vistas to feast your eyes on.
From Mahinepua, the road then passes a number of other lovely beaches on the way, such as Wainui, Piapia and Te Ngaere, before it cuts inland and climbs to a lookout with expansive views down to Matauri Bay and across to the Cavalli Islands.
There’s a café and dairy at the top of the hill to grab a coffee or some supplies at before the road drops steeply down to the car park by the beach. It’s then just a short walk through the dunes to reach the beach and it’s a really beautiful spot with the prominent headland, Pukepika, at the northern end dominating the view. If you look really closely you can make out the memorial for the Rainbow Warrior on the top of the hill.
Sitting at the base of the headland is another great campground, which also does great winter rates for those looking for somewhere to chill out over the colder months.
The Rainbow Warrior
On 10th July 1985, operatives from the French Intelligence services planted two bombs on the Rainbow Warrior which exploded, sinking the ship as it sat in the harbour at Auckland – killing one of the crew members. The Rainbow Warrior was the flagship of Greenpeace’s fleet and had been on the way to protest against a planned French nuclear test at the Moruroa Atoll.
It caused international outcry at the time and, in the end, only two of the operatives were caught and each sentenced to 10 years – only serving two of those before they were released by the French government.
The ship was re-floated and towed to the Cavalli Islands, just off of the coast from Matauri Bay where it was sunk as an artificial reef. It’s now a haven for sea life and the many divers who come here to dive on this famous wreck.
On top of the headland at Matauri Bay is a memorial to the Rainbow Warrior with the ship’s propeller as the centrepiece. It’s a short, sharp climb to get to the top but it’s worth it for the views alone which are incredible.
Staying on the road a little longer? Check out Karikari – the paradise peninsula.