Where Europeans first settled in New Zealand, Northland is a fascinating place, filled with historic sites.
The best place to start is with Kerikeri’s Kemp House and neighbouring Stone Store, dating from 1822 and 1832 respectively. These are well presented and evocative sites from the earliest days of European settlement in New Zealand, beautifully set on the waters edge. There are further important early sites at the Te Waimate Mission House, Waimate North (with it’s beautiful church) and Clendon House in Rawene (also home to lovely waterfront buildings).
Russell’s Pompallier Mission and Printery shows the early French influence. It’s a fascinating place, a French-style printery and tannery, with attractive gardens, set in a lovely location by the bay.
All these places are managed by Heritage New Zealand. If you’re planning to visit Northland its well worth becoming a member ($64) to get into them free, plus many others throughout the country (particularly on the South Island, and there are three in Auckland) and overseas (including National Trust and English Heritage places in the UK). You’ll also get the excellent quarterly Heritage New Zealand magazine and will be supporting preserving heritage in New Zealand. It may be a young country, but all the more reason to protect and preserve what we have.
Next to Piahia is the most famous historic site in the country, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand as a multicultural country, was originally signed. I’ve not been since they opened a museum on site, but this can but have added to the experience.
Less historic but still very much worth visiting are the famous Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa, which are quite unique though you need to watch out for the tour groups visiting with cameras if you intend to use the facilities! Hundertwasser Park is in a similar style, but without the practical utility.
For a somewhat different historical experience the Kauri Museum at the southern end of Northland is far more interesting than a museum about species of tree suggests. Harvesting kauri and their sap was a major part of the early New Zealand economy, responsible for a lot of the economic development, and environmental destruction, in Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel. This is a well presented and interesting museum, worth stopping at for an hour or two on your way to or from Northland.