Out - west
Our guide to the beaches and bush, hanging with hippies and avoiding the hoons
Checking tides and water quality is recommended when planning a swim here. At low tide it's a long, foot-sucking trek across mud flats to get to water deep enough to sit down in. Even at full tide it's not exactly a swim as we know it, more like a wallow.
- Our tip? Reef shoes, if you have them, because the mud harbours some sharp little shells. You can also put them on your hands and creep about like a crocodile (it's fun!)
- What IS that cute little building? The French Bay Yacht Club which promises it's the friendliest sailing club out west.
This discovery is both exciting and embarrassing. We, who pride ourselves of going everywhere at least once, have somehow managed to bypass Cornwallis in our blinkered rush to get to the wilder west coast beaches. It's far more extensive than we realised, and we love the myriad grassy, shady areas where you can find a secluded picnic spot, even on the busiest summer weekend. I'm not a fan of actual sand in my sandwiches, making this a real find.
- Our tip? As with French Bay, it would be prudent to check tides and water quality before you set out. Low tide means mud flats. But it also gives you easy access along the shore line to the wharf so it just depends on what you want to do.
- Is the water rough? Nope. Which is great for kids. Also ideal for paddle boarding, kayaking and water sports such as skiing and jetskiing. There's an area at the far end of the beach near the boat ramp designated for that (we gave it a wide berth).
- Is it good for swimming? It's good for wallowing, for us there's no actual swimming involved. You'd need to walk out quite a long way, even at high tide, for it to be deep enough for that. We found the water cold with random warm patches and it became a game to seek them out.
- Cost? None, but getting here requires your own transport.
SWIMMING | SURFING | PICNICS | CAFES | WALKING | CAMPING
Piha is our go-to place when we want a swim involving waves. You're almost guaranteed to find yourself clutching your togs while getting bashed about in the surf. And there's something truly special, almost mystical, about swimming at the foot of that great, looming rock. It really does look like a lion.
Piha is the most developed and popular of the west coast beaches, which normally would be enough of a reason for us to avoid the place. This is the exception. Because it is so busy, parking has had to be properly sorted and the swimming areas are vigorously patrolled. Because it is so expansive, it swallows up the crowds and you always manage to find plenty of personal beach space.
Keith says that the west coast reveals itself to you. Either you get it, or you can't figure why anyone would want to go there. The beaches are notoriously wild and make for dangerous swimming. You alternate between sizzling your feet on insanely hot black sand and numbing them in icy sea. Often there's wind, usually with a southerly bite, that sand-stings your legs and leaves you with a gritty scalp for weeks. So how, you ask, is this fun?
It is! It just is. There's a powerful, moody beauty here and sparkles in the black sand. You just need to respect and negotiate it.
Here are our tips:
- Parking? On busy days we always head straight for the field next to the camp ground.
- Picnicking? I'll tolerate black sand in my hair but I don't care for it in my food. There are some pleasant grassy areas at the most northerly end of North Piha Beach. Alternately we go to the Lily Pond, a verdant, shaded, sheltered oasis on a back road behind the beach.
- Swimming? Always, (this is important) always swim only on patrolled beaches and between the flags. There's even a reality TV show called Piha Rescue. Don't get out of your depth.
- Walks? You can climb Lion Rock and there's a track at the south end of Piha Beach which heads up over the hill. Both provide great views. Sadly the waterfall walk, a favourite of ours, recently re-opened after Kauri Dieback. is closed again due to slips from last summer's cyclone.
Heaps more info here
GANNET COLONY | SWIMMING | SURFING
FISHING | WALKING | CAMPING
There are two beaches here. One is a forever beach stretching 60 kms north alongside Woodhill Forest to South Head at the entrance of the Kaipara Harbour. The other (my favourite) is Maori Bay, a little pocket of a beach semi-circled by formidable cliffs. In between is the gannet colony.
Muriwai feels different to Auckland's other west coast beaches. Rivaling Piha in terms of busyness, It's more 'burb-sy for one thing, less Waitakere native bush. And as well as Auckland daytrippers, it attracts hard-core, foreign travellers by the bus load. This is overtourism on steroids. Having been trampled (quite literally) by hoards waving selfie sticks, we can't leave fast enough.
That's a pity. The gannets are the most designer-y of birds with their yellow heads and black edged wing tips, and watching them soar from above on the thermals is a delight.
Other Muriwai attractions include a surf school, campground, golf course and horse riding as well as the Sand Dunz Beach Cafe.
WALKING | FISHING | SURF CASTING | CAVES
PICNICS | CAMPING
As an antidote to Muriwai in mid summer, we head out to Whatipu. At the entrance to the Manukau Harbour, it's the most southerly of Auckland's west coast beaches and one of the most remote. The smallish car park is only half full on a sunny Sunday afternoon, partly because accessing it involves a winding 10km drive on a steep and very narrow gravel road. From there, it's still a fifteen minute walk to the beach.
The only buildings here belong to Whatipu Lodge. A nearby field serves as the camping ground. There's an information board, a rustic toilet block and a couple of picnic tables. That's it.
This is a haunt for fisherman and people who enjoy lost places. The sea is dangerous and unpatrolled, so swimming isn't recommended.
- So what can you actually DO here if you can't swim and don't fish? Well, you can picnic and wander around the rocks and along the beach. There are caves to explore and a lighthouse on a standalone pointy rock. The whole area is a scientific reserve and walking trails start here. It's a vast landscape. We love the views across to the other side of the Manukau Harbour; the way the cliffs disappear down the side of the ocean as far as you can see. It's awesome just to be here.
WALKING | PICNICS
Anawhata is the most remote of the West Coast beaches (accessible by car) and one of the prettiest. You get there after bouncing along 10kms of narrow gravel road, not quite as up-and-down as the road to Whatipu, but a slow drive nonetheless. Once you arrive, it's still a half hour steep slither down to the beach on foot. You don't need to be super-fit, but it isn't somewhere you'd take your gran with her walker.
Today we don't get that far. As we're unloading our picnic in the car park, we notice two separate piles of newly smashed glass on the ground - the remnants of car windows. Although there are a couple of other vehicles around, we don't feel comfortable leaving ours unattended. The downside of lonely places.
The upside are the views on the drive itself. You get a different perspective on Piha, looking back across North Beach with Lion Rock in the distance. Almost worth it for that alone.
Amenities? A small carpark with a single composting toilet at the top end. There's a private dwelling near the beach and hidden in the bush somewhere, Keddle House.
Can you swim? It's an unpatrolled beach and as wild as any on the west coast, so no. Not a good idea.
SWIMMING | SURFING | PICNICS | WALKING
FISHING | CAMPING | WATERFALL
Karekare has a lot to offer, in many ways it's the best of all worlds. Not too busy, not too remote with patrolled swimming in the height of summer; vertigo cliffs, wildness, vastness, plenty of bush and an easy-to-reach waterfall. The road, while steep, narrow and winding, is tar-sealed.
We picnic in the shade of the waterfall today. Although it's the end of a hot, dry summer, there's still enough water cascading over it to create a ferny green oasis. Luck is with us, our timing is spot on. We're just heading back to the beach when Bush and Beach spills a mini busload of selfie-stick waving tourists.
There's no actual sign to the waterfall but you don't really need one. Park in the beach parking ground, walk up the road across a little bridge and you'll see the tumble of water through the bush. Just follow the path down to it.
The beach itself has its own unique feel. A stream leads you onto it, alongside a huge rocky cliff face. From there it opens into a expansive, black sanded amphitheatre, semi-circled by steep bush-clad ridges on the northern side, stretching down beyond Panatahi Island towards Whatipu in the south. It takes your breath away.
Amenities? - A parking lot, toilet block, DOC camping in a nearby paddock and a surf lifesaving club house. (Note: there's no parking at the waterfall).
Is this where Jane Champion's movie 'The Piano' was shot? - It sure is.
Te Henga (Bethells)
WALKING | PICNICS | SURFING | SWIMMING | BETHELLS CAFE | DUNE LAKE
WALKING TRACKS | SWIMMING | SAND SURFING
Bethells dune lake is as popular as the beach. It's hard to find a place to park. Even on out-of-season weekday, latish in the afternoon, there are people around. It doesn't detract from the experience though. Once you're walking you get plenty of alone-in-nature time without feeling too isolated.
It takes around half an hour to reach the lake. There are two ways to get to the it, following the stream or hot-footing it (quite literally) over the dunes. We choose the cool stream in the heat of the day, leaving the black sand, moonscape route for the return trip.
Once you find the lake (and regardless of which way you choose, it always seems to take longer than you expect) there are a number of things you can do. Swim, sunbathe, picnic, sandboard down the steep dunes into the water (fun, even just as a spectator), or continue walking.
Circumnavigating the lake takes about an hour. It's easy going with well maintained pathways and tunnels of shade, a section of the Hillary Trail that is still open. A picturesque little waterfall marks the halfway point.