Anywhere else, I’d have my eyes firmly fixed on the trail ahead, wary for snakes or dangerous critters. [...] my head is angled up into the green canopy, where shafts of the day’s last minutes of sunlight create a kaleidoscope effect — a swirl of emerald, azure and gold. The cultural history in this distinctive and beautiful region at the far northern edge of the North Island — from the kauri forests to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, from the colonial buildings and whaling history in Russell to the spot that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Tasman Sea where Maori spirits are believed to leap to the water to return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki — offers a deeper understanding of its complex past. History and legend are bountiful in the rural Northland, and the region sometimes goes by the nickname Te Hiku o Te Ika, “the tail of the fish,” referring to the legend that New Zealand was fished from the sea by the demigod Maui. The colossal beings that surround us in the forest reach their branches like outstretched arms into the space above my head, as if they’re welcoming us to their domain. Early Maori migrations settled throughout the Northland, including the subtropical Bay of Islands, with its turquoise water and nearly 150 islands that today lure those on holiday. [...] the village quickly became a magnet for rough elements during the height of the whaling industry, and grog shops and brothels did a roaring trade when sailors were on shore leave, earning the town the nickname “the hellhole of the Pacific.” On the outdoor patio of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel (which began life in 1827 as Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop), families lunch on fish and chips while kids pedal along the Strand on bicycles, weaving in and out of meandering vacationers. Not far from Russell is Waitangi, the site of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the British Crown and more than 500 Maori chiefs, establishing New Zealand as a British colony. At the newly opened Museum of Waitangi, I wander among the artifacts in the permanent exhibition, but am drawn back to the interactive display of New Zealand’s founding document, which was written and translated in less than a week. Next to me, a teenager proudly points to where his ancestor signed the treaty, his family crowded around the display, poking fingers at the digital copy of the historic document. Outside, across the Treaty Grounds with panoramic views of the Bay of Islands, visitors hang out between the Treaty House and carved meeting house, awaiting a cultural performance. After death, all Maori spirits travel up the coast and over this windswept vista of the most northwestern corner of the country, down the roots of the lone pohutukawa tree at Te Rerenga Wairua, into the sea and to Manawatawhi (“last breath”) in the Three Kings Islands. Walking around the lighthouse and the crowd of visitors posing at the signpost that proclaims the distances to Tokyo, Sydney, Vancouver, Los Angeles, London and the South Pole, I scan the bluffs to find the lone pohutukawa tree. If I were a Maori spirit, I’d want to travel here, too — among the shades of aqua ocean currents and whistling wind at the grassy, green end of the world. A straight line cutting along the west coast of Northland and flanking the Aupouri Forest, 90-Mile Beach (which is only 55 miles) is known for spectacular sunsets, a great left-hand surf break and towering sand dunes. Don’t bring your rental car along on a tour of 90-Mile Beach, because rental companies won’t allow their cars on the sand, mostly for safety reasons. Thrill seekers get to try their hand at sand surfing on the Te Paki Sand Dunes. Luxurious Northland home base on the dramatic coastline of Matauri Bay, with rolling farmland and quiet, pristine private beaches. Room rates start at about $1,124 per night, and include daily breakfast, evening cocktails and canapes, and a nightly gourmet dinner. Room rates start at about $124 per night. Another garden spot to enjoy in good weather, this restaurant serves wraps, salads, fish and chips, and wood-fired pizzas — along with local wines and Northland craft beers. At this fine-dining restaurant, pair incredible views of the Bay of Islands with dishes focused on seasonal New Zealand ingredients. On the Twilight Encounter tour, visit the majestic kauri trees of the Waipoua Forest with a Maori guide and learn about the culture’s deep spiritual respect for these ancient giants. New Zealand’s most important historic site is where the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840 — by Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown.