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Bay of Islands

Northland or Coromandel

A problem with visiting New Zealand is having to make some tough choices to make your trip fit the time available.

The North Island - or the South Island?

Fly between main centres to save time - or drive to take in the scenery and cut one of the cities from the itinerary?

And one of the most common dilemmas is whether to head north or south from Auckland for a few days break.

If you've got three or four days to spare, here's how you can weigh up your options.

North to Northland

If you're prepared to clock up about 600kms in a mini-road trip, you can head north through the Bay of Islands and to the Far North and the Aupouri Peninsula.

First, head over the harbour bridge and get out of the city. After 45 minutes, you'll see warning of a toll road and a small fee to use it. You'll save 10 minutes if you take the toll but you'll miss out of a lovely coastal road from Orewa and past Hatfields Beach and Waiwera. Use the toll road on the way back.

Whangarei is less than a couple of hours from Auckland and the harbour basin (clearly signposted) is a good spot for a meal break and a quick wander.

Resume your journey north and head for Pahia, a coastal town that acts as a launching pad for tourists who want to take boat trips around the Bay of Islands (see pictures) and has plenty of accommodation. Or you can catch either the passenger or car ferry across the bay to Russell, the first capital of New Zealand, which is also ideal for an overnight stay.

Visit nearby Waitangi, the national marae that hosts the country's annual Waitangi Day celebrations (February 6).

Next day, head to Kerikeri, at the centre of the region's fruit-growing industry, and then to the Far North where you'll be spoiled for choice if you enjoy long, clean and usually-empty beaches.

Mangonui is a charming fishing village with a world famous fish and chip shop. A delightful place to stay overnight but in peak season (November - March) you should book ahead.

Follow route 10 and head back to Auckland via Kaitaia and Kawakawa (worth a stop to check out the local railway and the work-of-art Hundertwasser toilets).

An advantage of this trip is that if you tire of it and decide you want to head back to Auckland, you can easily point the vehicle towards the big city and be there within a few hours.

South to the Coromandel

Heading to the Coromandel Peninsula is a mini-road trip of more than 400kms and you'll be mostly surrounded by unspoilt green hills, often with stunning views of the ocean as it reaches across to Auckland or out to the Tasman.

The Coromandel is known for its hippy-eco-friendly-natural image and the fact it's used by many Aucklanders as their weekend escape, with many owning seaside cottages (known in New Zealand as baches).

The drive south will take about an hour and a half before you get to Thames, a former goldmining town and worthy of a mealstop.

Prepare next for a leisurely hour-long drive along the coastal road to the township of Coromandel - plus allow for plenty of photo opportunities.

At Coromandel you need to make a crucial decision - to turn left towards Colville or continue on Highway 25 in a loop that'll keep you on decent roads and deliver you to the picture postcardish town of Whitianga.

Those who head to Colville and further along the peninsula will face long stretches on gravel roads but will be rewarded with outstanding views and the chance to camp at sites far away from built up areas. In the summer, these camps will be fairly full.

From Whitianga you can take the car ferry across to explore Cook's Beach, a haven for Auckland getaways.

Check your map and call into Hahei, followed by Hot Water Beach where you can rent a spade and dig into sand to find naturally hot water. Dig out your own spa and relax.

Further stops at Tarua and Pauanui (if you still have enough time) and then head to Whangamata, famous for being one of New Zealand's favourite holiday haunts.

Then it's back up SH25 to return to Auckland.

In peak season, you'll need to plan your trip around the available accommodation but outside of those summer months, you should be able to pick and choose.

Making a decision

The good news is you can't make a bad decision - you'll enjoy either trip as have many thousands of other visitors.

The bad news is you can't do both trips in such a short timeframe. But the solution to that is to plan another trip to New Zealand!

See Also

Best beaches in New Zealand

Whangamata tops holiday home rankings