21 August 2020

Cape Palliser: the rugged end of the North Island, NZ | Day Trip Guide

Cape Palliser is a stunning part of New Zealand off the beaten track. Surrounded by spectacular rugged coastline, it's home to the Putangirua Pinnacles, a historic lighthouse, charming fishing towns, black sand beaches and seal colonies.

It's the southernmost point of the North Island, and fun fact, it's even further south than Nelson and Blenheim in the South Island. It's an epic day trip from Wellington, the Wairarapa or Manawatu regions.

Driving from Wellington:

The driving time from Wellington CBD to Cape Palliser Lighthouse is around two hours total (A to F on the map). It's 139 kilometres in distance with several points of interest to stop along the way.

Feel free to pack your own picnic lunch and drinks for your day trip but if you fancy stopping for a morning break, I recommend the Aston Norwood Cafe in Kaitoke (Point B on the map) along the Remutaka Ranges. They do great coffee and cheese scones and have clean facilities.

Driving from Masterton/via SH2

Alternatively, if you are driving from Masterton or coming along State Highway Two (the Wairarapa or Manawatu regions), I recommend stopping at Clareville Bakery in Clareville (they do amazing pastries, pies, coffee and especially cronuts) or The Offering in Greytown for a coffee and cheese scone.

The driving time from Masterton to Cape Palliser Lighthouse is one hour forty minutes (A to F on the map) and is 108 kilometres in distance.

With coffee in hand, sit back and enjoy the rolling countryside views filled with sheep and cows before hitting the stunning blues of the coast.

Putangirua Pinnacles

The Putangirua Pinnacles are a must-see in Cape Palliser (point C on the map). They're some of the most amazing rock formations in New Zealand.

There are three hikes you can do at the scenic reserve, a 3-4 hour return loop track, and two 1.5 hour return walks, one leading above the Pinnacles to a lookout and one walking along the river bed to view them from below.

Hiking boots or sturdy walking shoes are strongly recommended. I did the walk along the riverbed and the stones and rocks are very loose and it involves crossing and jumping a few small rivers (all a part of the fun and adventure!).

The towering pinnacles are a product of the (usually famously wild) elements that have shaped the coast over the years. They soar above you like natural skyscrapers, made of old crumbly gravels carved by the wind and rain.

For fellow Lord of the Rings fans out there, this was the Dimholt Road filming location in the Return of the King.

Cape Palliser Lighthouse

Perched high on a cliff, the red and white striped Cape Palliser Lighthouse (point F on the map) is the landmark of the coast. It's a steep 253-step climb to the top on a narrow staircase with a reward of sweeping views over the spectacular coastline.
The first light on the site was lit one hundred and twenty-three years ago in 1897 and was originally fuelled by oil. It was fully automated in 1986 and it's still shining strong today.

As well as an impeccably painted lighthouse up-close, the views are sensational and it offers an awesome perspective of the coastline.

Spot Fur Seals 

The Cape is also home to the North Island's largest fur seal colony. South of Ngawi and closer to the lighthouse end (point E on the map), the seals have colonised a prominent rocky outlet and largely ignore onlookers.

It won't be hard to find them - they often lay on the grass patches right next to the road. Be careful not to get too close, they may look cute but they can be dangerous if they feel threatened. It's best to keep several metres away and admire them from a distance (they're also kinda smelly so it works in your favour).

Fish & Chips on the waterfront in Ngawi

If you have time to stop for a bite to eat, I recommend stopping in the charming fishing settlement village of Ngawi (point D on the map). It's known to hilariously have more tractors per head of population than anywhere else in the world (they don't have a jetty so they're used to transport their fishing boats into the water).

There are public toilets, picnic tables and the only shop comes in the form of a food truck - but it's very good. Captain's Table Food Truck serves up fresh fish and chips, drinks, ice creams and more.

It cost $9 NZD for one piece of battered fish and a small serving of chips, but the quality was excellent so it was worth the price. Alternatively, have your own picnic lunch here on the tables and enjoy the waterfront views.

Pin it! :)

I highly enjoyed exploring the highlights of Cape Palliser, I felt like I was exploring another country - the scenery is so unique and I was blown away by the natural beauty.

This could be one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets, especially in great weather. If you get lucky and experience it with a perfect bluebird day like I did, it might just become one of your favourite days of the year like mine.

Seals, stunning walks, and a spiffy lighthouse - you'll find them all at Cape Palliser. It's just two hour's drive from Wellington, with unforgettable sea views along the way.

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Happy Travels,

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