You'll be best served on a trip to Northland by taking in inspiring views from winding coastal roads or reading on a quiet beach with some fruit from owner-operated shops. This isn't the place for good coffee or fancy food—those desires are best left for the cities—but you can relax at a luxury lodge or comfortable motel.
Northland is a contradiction. The high unemployment rate, particularly among the area's Māori population, contrasts with the area's lodges, and scenery that goes from rugged to pastoral in a matter of kilometers.
You will notice the change about an hour after leaving the sometimes-confusing jumble (both charm and scourge) that makes up Auckland. Once over the hill, either by taking the free road around the coast or the toll motorway with its viaducts over streams, and with the seaside sprawl of Orewa and Waiwera behind you, the air starts to clear and you can see what some call the Northland light. The smaller Northland population means less pollution, and may account for the fact that it seems brighter the farther north you go, even on overcast days.
The Tasman Sea on the west and the Pacific Ocean on the east meet at the top of North Island at Cape Reinga. No matter what route you take, you'll pass farms and forests, marvelous beaches, and great open spaces. The East Coast, up to the Bay of Islands, is Northland's most densely populated, often with refugees from bigger cities—looking for a more relaxed life—clustered around breathtaking beaches.
The first decision on the drive north comes at the foot of the Brynderwyn Hills. Turning left will take you up the West Coast through areas once covered with forests and now used for either agricultural or horticulture.
Driving over "the Brynderwyns," as they are known, takes you to Whangarei, the only city in Northland. If you're in the mood for a diversion, you can slip to the beautiful coastline and take in Waipu Cove, an area settled by Scots, and Laings Beach, where million-dollar homes sit next to small Kiwi beach houses.
An hour's drive farther north is the Bay of Islands, known all over the world for its beauty. There you will find lush forests, splendid beaches, and shimmering harbors. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed here in 1840 between Māori and the British Crown, establishing the basis for the modern New Zealand state. Every year on February 6, the extremely beautiful Waitangi Treaty Ground (the name means weeping waters) is the sight of a celebration of the treaty and protests by Māori unhappy with it.
Continuing north on the East Coast, the agricultural backbone of the region is even more evident and a series of winding loop roads off the main highway will take you to beaches that are both beautiful and isolated where you can swim, dive, picnic, or just laze.
The West Coast is even less populated, and the coastline is rugged and windswept. In the Waipoua Forest, you will find some of New Zealand's oldest and largest kauri trees; the winding road will also take you past mangrove swamps.
Crowning the region is the spiritually significant Cape Reinga, the headland at the top of the vast stretch of 90 Mile Beach, where it's believed Māori souls depart after death. Today Māori make up roughly a quarter of the area's population (compared with the national average of about 15%). The legendary Māori navigator Kupe was said to have landed on the shores of Hokianga Harbour, where the first arrivals made their home. Many different iwi (tribes) lived throughout Northland, including Ngapuhi (the largest), Te Roroa, Ngati Wai, Ngati Kuri, Te Aupouri, Ngaitakoto, Ngati Kahu, and Te Rarawa. Many Māori here can trace their ancestry to the earliest inhabitants.