When we lived in Auckland North Head was one of my favourite spots to take visitors to get a perspective on the city from up high. I know you can get higher in the sky tower but this is a better view and it’s all outdoors, there’s nothing between you and the sea air. When we are back in town this is still one of my favourite places to go for an hour or two and appreciate again why the city is known as the city of sails.
The Devonport area is worth a visit for its quirky seaside village atmosphere, great views, beaches and an interesting history spanning volcanic eruptions, a pre-European Maori Pa, colonial settlement and war time defences. The remnants of the past can still be seen in the area today.
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You can of course drive to Devonport and perhaps combine it with a visit to the North Shore beaches but one of the attractions for visitors to the city is the quick and easy ferry access. Fuller Ferries run every 30 minutes from the historic ferry building in downtown Auckland. It takes only 12 minutes to make the crossing and will cost $6.10 per adult. If you don’t have time to take a day trip to one of the islands in the gulf this still gives you a chance to experience the city of sails from the water.
What to do in Devonport
From the modern Devonport Ferry building turn right and it’s a short walk through to Devonport village. The village is home to a number of galleries, restaurants, bars and cafes, most places have a really good vibe going so it’s definitely worth checking out a few. If you wander around the streets for a while you’ll also get a feel for the older style village of impressive 19th century villas that have been restored and maintained largely sympathetically with their original design.
If you had turned left out of the ferry building you’d head towards the naval yards. It’s New Zealand’s only naval base and has been in operation here since 1841. In the photo below on the right hand edge you can see what I am fairly sure is the supply ship HNZMS Endeavour. That I can say that with any confidence says far more about the limited number of boats operated by the New Zealand navy than it does about my military general knowledge.
There are 5 beaches in walking distance of the ferry building; Stanley Bay, Devonport Beach, Torpedo Bay, Cheltenham Beach and Narrowneck Beach. Of these Cheltenham and Narrowneck which face out into the gulf with great views of Rangitoto Island would be my favourite but the harbour beaches are nice for a walk and a relax.
Exploring North Head
The other thing to do while you are here is to walk to Maungauika or North Head. North head was formed during a series of volcanic eruptions around 50,000 years ago making it one of the older volcanic cones in Auckland. Maungauika is the Maori name, maunga means mountain so the name means mountain of Uika. It comes from a traditional Maori legend
You can wander all over the mountain but there are 3 walking trails to explore depending on your interests and how much you like climbing. This map of North Head from the Department of Conservation shows it clearly. Each of the tracks are about a kilometre long but if you plan on doing 2-3 you won’t walk the whole distance as they do join together and overlap.
The coastal loop
This track is also a more scenic option if you want to walk around to Cheltenham beach. The coastal loop winds around the base of North Head past rocky outcrops and a secluded bay before reaching the popular and beautiful Cheltenham beach. A good portion of this track was originally built during WWII by the searchlight crews. The sparkling waters of the Hauraki gulf make this a very enjoyable and easy walk.
Along the way your past various points of interest including:
- Annie’s cave is hidden behind the searchlight fixture. It is thought to have been built by convicts and be used to service the minefields
- Volcanic history. In parts of the cliff you are able to clearly see the layers in the rock, each layer was formed by a separate eruption
- On the northern end are the anti-torpedo boat defenses, these were added in 1942 to protect Cheltenham Beach
- As you had back along the western side there are a couple of scrapped guns. The intact 6″ disappearing gun is from Bastion Point on the other side of the harbour, the 8″ that has been broken down was used on North Head.
The Tunnels Loop
North Head has been used as a fortified defense at four distinct times in New Zealands history.
It was used as a Maori Pa by the Ngati Paoa tribe who settled in the Devonport area until they were attacked and forced out by the Nga Puhi tribe in the late 1770’s.
In the 1880’s the country feared a Russian invasion and North Head was one of 3 forts established to protect the city. The invaders never arrived but the very latest in weaponry, an 8 inch disappearing gun was installed in each of the forts and is still in place at North Head. On this trail you’ll be able to take a closer look.
During both WWI and WWII North Head was used as a defense post and to house soldiers in barracks and tents. Again New Zealand’s remote location protected it from invaders on it’s home soil and the heavy guns and equipment weren’t fired other than in training exercises.
In addition to several gun placements remaining on this trail you’ll find the access point to the underground tunnels that run through the hillside. The north battery is where the first guns were placed in 1870. The tunnels have been made safe and some are now open to the public. It’s pitch dark down there so a torch would be a good idea although I’ve never remembered on and rely on iPhone of fumbling along in the dark. Fortunately, New Zealand doesn’t have wildlife that’s going to hurt you so you’re not going to come across a deadly snake or spider down there in the dark.
The Summit Loop
From the summit loop you get the best views out to the near and distant islands of the Hauraki Gulf, across the harbour to the city and up the North Shore Beaches.
The long grey shown here was built in 1885 as barracks for the Armed Constabulary, the predecessor of the Army. It was later used to house prisoners who provided the labour to build the fortifications.
The stone building next to the barracks was the kitchen, built of stone to avoid fire. It now houses an audiovisual display on the history of North Head. Further down the hill are 4 more buildings, the smaller one dating from 1910 and the other 3 from WWII.
Enjoying your day in Devonport
Whether you choose to spend your day lazing on the beach at Cheltenham, climbing North Head to soak up the history and 360 degree views or sipping some awesomely good coffee while soaking up the vibes of the Deveonport Village this day trip has something to offer most visitors to the city.
We hope you enjoy your visit to Auckland as much as we do when we get back there. Please share your experiences in the city of sails and any recommendations for visitors in the comments below.