We stare at a map unfolded on the car rental counter, trying to absorb the options appearing as penned circles, courtesy of an enthusiastic rental facilitator.
"This is the most direct route to Bay of Islands," he tells us with a deft sweep of the pen. "Gorgeous scenery, craft villages, plenty of stop-offs along the way – you'll love it.
"But if you have the time, this left fork [cue pen stroke] leads to the west coast beaches, it's wild and rugged – really different. Two coasts, two completely different drives. Up to you."
The Twin Coast Discovery Route through the Northland region is just one of many driving itineraries in New Zealand's North Island gaining traction with Australian visitors.
And with good reason: this is the ideal road-tripping destination, with few traffic snarls, no "wrong-side-of-the-road" issues, short distances to cover, scenic variety and incredible lodgings. There's also the lure of the short international flight across the pond, affordability and familiarity – making it an easy, fuss-free option for a short break.
In a classic case of sibling rivalry, New Zealand's serene North Island is often overlooked in favour of its more dramatic, luminous counterpart in the south; and while it might not have the star power of the snow-capped mountains made famous by Lord of the Rings, the North is an equally alluring destination, but with a more gentle approach to its scenic wonders.
Forged by volcanic activity, this is a youthful landscape – green, fresh and dazzling, yet complex enough to always keep you guessing. There are bubbling geysers and thermal pools, magnificent lakes, deserted black and white-sand beaches, hip wine regions and quirky towns; it also features some amazing off-shore islands, including White Island, an active volcano still being shaped by the forces of nature.
With limited time, however, my daughter and I are heading north of Auckland to the Bay of Islands, a marine wonderland dotted with more than 140 subtropical islands. As well as being incredibly beautiful, this region is rich in culture and history, the birthplace of modern New Zealand where Maori and early European settlers first made contact.
As mentioned by our friendly car-hire guy, there are two routes from Auckland to the Bay of Islands: the "long way" via the west coast, with a side trip to Cape Reinga – the northernmost tip of the island where, in Maori lore, it's said that the spirits of the departed leap into the afterlife; or the "short way", directly along the eastern shore.
Although we choose the latter, our intention is to take our time, to explore the coast in detail and to really savour this delightful part of the world.
DAY 1 AUCKLAND TO MATAKANA
Our first destination is just an hour's drive north of Auckland – the craft and foodie haven of Matakana. Best known for its popular farmers' market – held on Saturday mornings in a rustic riverside square surrounded by boutiques, galleries and cafes – Matakana is a little sleepier midweek, but still an atmospheric stop-off for a coffee or a spot of shopping for local artisan goods.
The farmers' market has recently been usurped as the town's top tourist attraction, however, by a quirky art gallery and sculpture garden called Sculptureum. Located adjacent to a 4.5-hectare vineyard, the complex consists of three sculpture gardens, six indoor galleries, a restaurant and a bar.
The collection, privately owned by Auckland lawyer Anthony Grant, is eclectic, to say the least. There are some gobsmacking pieces by famous artists – Picasso, Rodin and Chagall, for instance; but Grant also unashamedly displays giant rocks alongside cheap garden statues, all part of his philosophy that art should be about what you like, not how much it costs.
There are giant pink snails, rooms full of blown glass (including Grant's personal favourite, a giant chandelier by American Dale Chihuly), a life-size hessian rhinoceros and whimsical human-animal creations by Gillie and Marc. It all adds up to a child-friendly collection that introduces fun into art appreciation.
After indulging in a glass of Sculptureum's homegrown wine, we head to our accommodation for the night, Takatu Lodge, a luxurious bed and breakfast located on a working vineyard with sparkling views of the Pacific Ocean. Manager Sharon Green is not only a genial hostess, but also a masterchef; and our dinner – a shared antipasti plate made from locally-sourced ingredients matched with regional wines – is superb, raising the bar for our journey ahead.
DAY 2 MATAKANA TO PAIHIA
We wake to a bleak, "four-seasons-in-one-day'' morning; and braving rain squalls, we detour to the Tawharanui Regional Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, located on a promontory flanked by a deserted white-sand beach. Although tempted to hike through this stunning, pohutukawa-strewn landscape, we make do with a photo opportunity before retreating to our weatherproof car.
However, as we approach Whangarei – gateway city to the Bay of Islands – the clouds miraculously part; and by the time we arrive in the commercial hub of Paihia, it's a brilliant, bluebird afternoon – perfect conditions for a half-day Discover the Bay tour with Explore, just one of the many cruise companies based at Paihia's lively wharf.
After bobbing offshore the historic town of Russell – the former capital of New Zealand, located just across the harbour from Paihia – to hear tales of its rowdy past as the "hellhole of the Pacific", we round the peninsula and meet our first cetacean escorts for the day, a pod of playful bottlenose dolphins. We then head to the Bay's most famous feature, Hole in the Rock, which is – you guessed it – a big hole in a big rock.
The thrill here is to surf the breakers through the claustrophobic entranceway, the inevitable near-miss of the cave walls all part of the good-humoured drama. Our talented skipper then backtracks to the largest island in the bay, Urupukapuka – a recreational reserve managed by the Northland Department of Conservation – where we stop for a buffet lunch, with free time to chill, hike, swim or explore its many archaeological sites before our return back to Paihia.
DAY 3 PAIHIA TO PURERUA PENINSULA
We're out on the water again first thing, but this time paddling under our own steam on a guided kayak tour with Coastal Kayakers. The weather has been kind to us, and Te Ti Bay is mirror-calm as we paddle south under Paihia Wharf, informed and entertained by our guide Josh's amusing banter.
Also adding to the levity is the addition of water pistols, squirted whenever a co-pilot mis-steers, lags on the job or just seems in need of a good soaking – the resulting squeals of laughter and waterfights a welcome break from the arm-workout.
Steering us away from the mainland, we circumnavigate several of the Bay's islands as Josh identifies bird and marine-life sharing the crystal-clear waters, and giving a Maori perspective via myths and legends. At Motumaire Island, we haul our kayaks onto the beach and explore on foot, keeping an eye out for Maori middens and picking up stray pieces of glass and plastic in a bid to keep the archaeological site litter-free.
Our final destination in the Bay of Islands is The Landing, one of New Zealand's most exclusive lodges. Driving north through Kerikeri, we twist our way along the emerald Purerua Peninsula on a secluded rural road, searching for the unsigned entrance to this truly imposing, 400-hectare waterfront property.
Later, on a buzz around the bay on The Landing's private charter boat, we learn that this was where New Zealand, as we know it today, was born, with the arrival of the first European missionaries in the early 1800s. By forging a relationship based on trade and tolerance with Maori chiefs from the neighbouring village of Te Puna – described in the day as "the capital of the country" – the way was paved to the signing of the Waitangi Treaty in 1840, officially declaring New Zealand a colony of Britain.
Though these ties may linger, this historically-weighty, naturally-blessed and jaw-droppingly beautiful part of the world remains quintessentially Kiwi; and that in itself is worth celebrating.
Air New Zealand has multiple flights daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au
A one night stay in a Deluxe suite at Takatu Lodge in Matakana, including a three-course candlelit dinner for two and breakfast, starts from $NZ860 per couple, see takatulodge.co.nz. Accommodation at The Waterfront Suites in Paihia starts from $NZ279, see heritagehotels.co.nz/the-waterfront-suites. Accommodation at The Landing starts from $NZ3500 a night, see thelandingnz.com
Entry to Sculptureum in Matakana costs $NZ39 for adults, $NZ16 for children (see sculptureum.nz); a 4.5-hour Discover the Bay cruise with Explore costs $NZ152 for adults, $NZ90 children (see exploregroup.co.nz); a 3.5-hour guided Coastal Discovery Tour with Coastal Kayakers costs $NZ75 (see coastalkayakers.co.nz).
Julie Miller was a guest of Tourism NZ.