The Bridges of Whangarei

The 62 nm passage between Cape Brett, on the south side of the Bay of Islands, and Bream Head, the promontory marking the entrance to Whangarei Harbor, took us past the scenic east coast of North Island. It’s possible to make the entire passage in one, very long, day. But we chose to break it up by stopping for the night at Tutukaka Harbor.Tutukaka Harbor is a small harbor that is entered by a narrow channel between rock reefs. We were advised that the entrance can be dangerous when an easterly wind is blowing as this creates high breakers at the entrance. But the wind had been light to non-existent all day, and the entrance was flat and calm as we slowly motored through.

Entrance to Tutukaka Harbor is to the left of the rocks in the middle. The entrance is smaller than it appears in this photo.

Looking back at the entrance to Tutukaka Harbor, from Velic’s deck. There is a low rock shelf extending out from the south point, making the navigable channel quite narrow.

The Tutukaka Coast, rated as “one of the top coastal destinations on the planet,” per the tourist literature, is popular with people on holiday. You can go diving, kayaking, race Polynesian-style canoes, sport fish, and surf. Oh, and hike. New Zealanders seem to love playing outside.

Tutukaka Harbor anchorage on North Island's east cost between Bay of Islands and Whangarei

Tutukaka Harbor. Anchoring in this shallow bay was easy. There are several privately owned moorings in place, several with sport fishing boats on them, but there was plenty of open space for a handful of transient yachts as well.

We left Tutukaka Harbor the next morning, again with very light wind, and covered the 21 nm to Bream Head in four short hours under motor. Bream Head is at the tip of the Whangarei Heads peninsula. There’s a big natural preserve on the peninsula at Bream Head that we would like to visit by land, sometime this summer (remember: It’s summer time here in New Zealand). Bream Head itself is all that remains of a prehistoric volcano.

Bream Heads at north entrance to Bream Bay, into which the Hatea River debouches. It looks bigger in real life than in this photo.

Bream Head, marking the entrance to Bream Bay. The Hatea River flows through Whangarei and into this bay. It is difficult to capture the ruggedness of this headland in a photo. Five kilometers across the bay is Marsden Point.

Marsden Point oil refinery, opposite Bream Heads.

Marsden Point oil refinery, opposite Bream Head. This is the only oil refinery in New Zealand. Despite an abundance of renewable energy sources (mostly hydroelectric and geothermal) and its relatively small population, New Zealand gets about 60% of its energy from non-renewable sources, mostly oil and gas imported from Asia.

Rounding Bream Head, we continued up the bay to enter the Hatea River, which would take us to Whangarei. The Hatea is not a long river, and it is shallow. Really more of an estuary. The navigation channel is regularly dredged and must be carefully followed to avoid going aground, but it is clearly marked.


Petroleum port at Marsden Point.

Just below the city of Whangarei is a visually striking bascule bridge, built in 2013. The center span has a 25m lifting section designed to resemble a Maori fish hook, and this span must be lifted to allow sailboats to pass underneath. We had a bit of confusion about which VHF channel to use for contacting the bridge tender (it had recently changed), but another sailboat coming downriver called for an opening and we passed through afterward.

Hatea River Loop walkway - Te Matau a Pohee bascule bridge.

Hatea River lifting bridge, Te Matau a Pohee, in its closed position.

Our destination was the Whangarei Town Basin, where the city’s marina is located. The Town Basin is in the older part of the city, and is where most of the galleries, restaurants, museums, and the weekly craft fair are found, as well as the picturesque marina with its restored buildings. The pedestrian Canopy Bridge defines the upstream limit of the Town Basin and the Hatea River Loop walkway.

An arts and crafts fair is held on the pedestrian only Canopy Bridge each Saturday.

An arts and crafts fair is held on the pedestrian only Canopy Bridge each Saturday.

Curved glass wind screen shields walkers from the prevailing wind.

Curved glass wind screen shields walkers from the prevailing wind.


Looking downriver over the marina from the canopied pedestrian bridge, which crosses the Hatea River just above the marina. The marina office can be seen in the mid-distance, on the right.

The marina has docks with slips on both sides of the river. Below the slips is additional boat moorage, where boats are secured between pilings rather than tied alongside a dock. We tied up to the temporary guest dock, checked in, and then warped Velic to her longer-term berth, just a few feet away. In the photo below you can see Sharron – marina staff – helping us warp Velic to the spot we are currently occupying below the marina office. It’s a little public, but you can’t beat the convenience!

Sharon, of harbor master's team, assisting Velic to her new berth. Harbor master's office seen on right.

Sharron, of harbor master’s team, assisting Velic to her new berth. Harbor master’s office seen on right.

Velic in the city basin marina, for the duration.

Velic in her new spot, where she is likely to remain until late next spring. Whangarei is popular with tourists, foreign as well as national. The marina adds color and interest to many vacation photos.

We are living aboard and, while the location is a bit public, it is also extremely convenient. Marine services of all kinds, a hardware store and a lumberyard are within walking distance. Two major grocery stores, a shopping center, a sporting goods store, and numerous smaller stores useful to cruisers are also nearby. And many trails start at the waterfront, for those times when we want a break from boat projects and everyday chores and to get out into nature.

Inside Pack 'n' Save. Think: Costco, but no membership required.

Inside Pack ‘n’ Save, one of two nearby grocery stores. It’s much like Costco, but no membership required.


We found a bit of Oregon at Rasheed’s Indian Market. Rasheed’s has a largest selection of bulk spices we have seen. Ruth had to go back.

A loop walkway follows along both banks of the Hatea River, with pedestrian bridges crossing the river to link the two sides. We walked the Hatea River Loop soon after we arrived, starting and ending at the marina.


Te Kakano (The Seed) has the approval of the (Friendensreich R D) Hundertwasser Foundation in Vienna and has been constructed as a trial for a much larger building. The Hundertwasser Art Centre with Wairau Maori Art Gallery

A few days later we followed another trail leading from Town Basin, this time going up the Hatea River to Mair Park. We then climbed up Mt. Parihaka, which overlooks the city of Whangarei and the surrounding area.

At the start, the trail is boardwalk over wetlands bordering the Hatea River –

p1040355 Leaving the river behind we moved into the forest, where everywhere we saw these iconic tree ferns. There are several varieties of these tree ferns, all endemic to New Zealand. Two emblems that are recognized and identified with New Zealand are the tree fern (e.g. the All Blacks national rugby team) and the kiwi.


A stand of tree ferns within the forest. The dense forest is mixed deciduous and pine, with a variety of plants in the undergrowth and mid-story, including the tree fern, which can grow to 20m.


Mair Park viewed across the Hatea River. Popular with families, it includes picnic areas and a playground. We are standing on the forested side, which is rugged and undeveloped other than foot trails. We were struck by similarity to Forest Park in Portland, Ore., another “wilderness” inside a city’s boundaries.


View from the top of Mt. Parihaka, looking at the Town Basin and city center below. Volcanic cones in the distance.


Another view, this time looking east over the river toward the ocean.

Back at the marina we are part of a community of stay-aboards, including several families. Most are here for the summer and plan to leave in the autumn, either to return to the tropics, or cross over to Australia. The kids are all skilled at small boat handling and unafraid of the water. This girl and her brother regularly row across the river between their family’s catamaran and the marina offices/laundry/showers and nearby playground.



5 thoughts on “The Bridges of Whangarei

  1. You have finally landed in my familiar territory. Great photos!!! Move around to the Tasman Sea coastline southwest corner of North Island under Mt. Egmont, and you will be in my OLD neighborhood — Hawera (between Wanganui & New Plymoth). Fond memories and my 1st born. Yes, she’s still a Kiwi! Hgs, Annie


  2. Just forwarded this to Chuck — he will no doubt fondly recognize many of the spots in Whangarei. Happy New Year to you both and Velic. Karen Jacobson


  3. Happy New Year, guys! Your photos are terrific! The view looking east toward the ocean with the green foliage in the foreground is stunning, with the foreground shadow detail remarkable! Looking forward to seeing you in about a month! Dave Williams


  4. What a difference from Tonga! You are in a city. The bridge is amazing. I am glad you showed pictures of it closed and open. Beautiful pictures. Love, Mom


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