All you can do is follow the lines on the twisting road while you’re surrounded by walls of native ferns and the occasional house of some lucky soul who has dropped out of city life. But, you know you are getting close when you start to get those rewarding glimpses of the big space you are looking for, the open sea.
A nice little bonus of staying in Auckland is that you can get to a number of beaches within a short drive. The pick of the bunch are less than an hour’s drive to the west. Piha, Karekare, Bethells/ Te Henga and Muriwai are four beaches, each with their own character, that are well worth the drive over the Waitakere Ranges. It’s easiest to think of the beaches in two pairs.
Piha and Karekare
The dramatic thing about arriving at these two beaches is that you drop down from above. At Piha, there is even a popular place to pull over check out the view before descending. Make your own postcards here. And, you may recognise Karekare as the beach that The Piano was filmed on.Although the West Coast beaches are known for their volcanic sand, here it is a mix of black and the more usual brown sand that provides a tiger-stripe effect in some places and is very soft underfoot. The pounding waves that produce this fine sand are also the reason that these beaches are a perfect venue for the surf competitions that happen throughout the year. Surf comp or no surf comp, it’s great to soak up the atmosphere and have a picnic. If you aren’t keen on loading up the chilly bin with your own eats, at Piha there is a small takeaway place where you can get burgers, chips and ice cream.
To get to Piha and Karekare, you point your car in the direction of Titirangi village, which is nice place to stop for breakfast, lunch or a coffee en route. There is also a small supermarket where you can pick up picnicking supplies. Immediately after Titirangi you will come to a roundabout where you veer on to the second left known as Scenic Drive. After a short drive you will see the Arataki Visitor Centre on the left which is the gateway to the Waitakeres and provides good information on local flora and fauna as well as directions to the various walks and tramps in the area. From there, keep driving until you see the turnoff on your left for Karekare, or continue on to Piha.
Muriwai and Bethell’s/ Te Henga
Muriwai is characterised by the gannet colony that exists here. You can climb up to the outcrop and look down on the migratory birds from a viewing platform. Depending on the time of year, the birds may be sitting on what seem like impossibly large eggs or flying off and back to feed the fluffy chicks, which is always fun to watch. Fishing off the rocks is fairly popular, but it is not recommended as people regularly get washed off. Instead, take a walk along the dark black, sparkly, and very hot volcanic sand. Or simply just relax and watch (or join in with!) the kite surfers.Te Henga looks and feels very wild. You emerge between two large dunes to come out to a wide, and often windswept, beach. It’s great for surfing or a dip in the briny, but do have a look at the surf lifesaver’s board before venturing in as the conditions can be a bit rough sometimes. If in doubt, there is a great lagoon that is especially fun for children. Just bear in mind that if you choose the beach on the far side of the lagoon at low tide, you may find yourself on a bit of a hike to get back at high tide. You generally need to bring your own food here, but at some times of the year there is a little caravan café that serves up good coffee and snacks.
Muriwai and Te Henga are the northernmost of the four beaches and can be accessed by going up Scenic Drive as you would for Piha, and then taking Waitakere Road to Te Henga Road for Te Henga. For Muriwai, continue on to Kumeu and travel west until you run out of road.
As with all beaches in New Zealand, on the west coast beaches what you see is not always what you get in terms of calm waters. There are a lot of dangerous rips and undertows. Be safe and swim between the flags. And if there aren’t any flags or lifeguards, it means the beach is closed so don’t risk a swim. But with a bit of common sense and a slathering of sun block, New Zealand’s clean, beautiful beaches are an experience not to be missed.
Note: While writing a recent article on Matador.com about What NOT to Do in Auckland, I realised that I really wanted to expand upon the information I gave regarding the west coast beaches. Since I’m now a student at the virtual campus of Matador U, I thought it’d make a great assignment topic. So, here it is. Fire away with feedback!