Around 50km north of central Auckland the city’s influence begins to wane, heralding the Matakana Coast (w matakanacoast.com), a 30km stretch of shallow harbours, beach-strung peninsulas and small islands. Its individual character becomes apparent once you pass pretty Warkworth and head out either to Kawau Island, or up the coast to the village of Matakana and the snorkelling and diving nirvana of Goat Island.
The journey from Auckland to Warkworth has been made quicker, though less scenic, by the introduction of a 7km stretch of toll road ($2.20/car). Sadly, confusing signage means people miss toll pay areas (see Northern Gateway Toll Road) on the way north and south, as well as the great views on the alternative route, via Orewa on the Hibiscus Coast Highway.
Other than the excellent wood carving on display at Te Hana, there’s little to detain you on SH1 between Warkworth and Waipu as it passes the road junction at Brynderwyn, where SH12 loops off to Dargaville, the Waipoua kauri forest and the Hokianga Harbour. If you’re heading north and want a scenic route, it’s better to stay on the coast and follow Bream Bay, named by Cook when he visited in 1770 and his crew hauled in tarakihi, which they mistook for bream. There are no sizeable towns here, only the small beach communities of Mangawhai Heads and Waipu Cove, looking out to the Hen and Chicken Islands, refuges for rare birds such as the wattled saddleback.