Real New Zealand begins, for many, in West Auckland, where verdant hills and magnificent beaches replace tower blocks, suburbs and sanitized wharves. The suburban sprawl peters out some 20km west of the centre among the enveloping folds of the Waitakere Ranges. Here, some of Auckland’s finest scenery and best adventures can be had little more than thirty minutes’ drive from downtown.
Despite being the most accessible expanse of greenery for 1.5 million people, the hills remain largely unspoilt, with plenty of trails through native bush. On hot summer days, thousands head over the hills to one of half a dozen thundering West Coast surf beaches, largely undeveloped but for a few holiday homes (known to most Kiwis as baches), the odd shop and New Zealand’s densest concentration of surf-lifesaving patrols.
The soils around the eastern fringes of the Waitakeres nurture long-established vineyards, mainly around Kumeu, just short of the Kaipara Harbour town of Helensville and the hot pools at Parakai.Read More
For decades PIHA, 20km west of the Arataki Visitor Centre and accessed along Piha Road, has been an icon for Aucklanders. A quintessential West Coast beach with a string of low-key weekend cottages and crashing surf, it lures a wide spectrum of day-trippers and the party set, whose New Year’s Eve antics hastened in a dusk-till-dawn alcohol ban on holiday weekends. Despite the gradual gentrification of the old baches and the opening of the modern Piha Café, it is hanging onto its rustic charm.
The 3km sweep of gold-and-black sand is hemmed in by bush-clad hills and split by Piha’s defining feature, 101m-long Lion Rock. With some imagination, this former pa site resembles a seated lion staring out to sea. The rock was traditionally known as Te Piha, referring to the wave patterns around it that resemble the bow wave of a canoe. Most swimmers flock to South Piha, where the more prestigious of two surf-lifesaving clubs hogs the best surf.
Perhaps the most intimate and immediately appealing of the West Coast settlements is KAREKARE, 17km west of the Arataki Visitor Centre and accessed along Piha Road, with manuka, pohutukawa and cabbage trees running down to a broad beach and only a smattering of houses. In one hectic year, this dramatic spot was jolted out of its relative obscurity, providing the setting for beach scenes in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano and the inspiration for Crowded House’s Together Alone album. The Karekare Surf Club patrols a relatively safe swimming area on summer weekends, or there is a pool below Karekare Falls, a five-minute walk on a track just inland from the road. There is nowhere to stay here, and no facilities.
West Coast tours
West Coast tours
You’ll need your own transport to do justice to the beaches and most of the ranges, unless you join one of the West Coast tours, or perhaps join a canyoning trip. All trips pick up around central Auckland.
Bush & Beach t0800 423 224, wbushandbeach.co.nz. Afternoon trips include a short bushwalk to waterfalls and kauri trees, and a visit to Piha beach. The more satisfying full-day tour has longer walks and more bushcraft.
Fine Wine Tours t0800 023 111, winsidertouring.co.nz. Phil Parker personally leads small-group, half-day tours including three Kumeu wineries, lunch and a visit to Muriwai. Also full-day wine tours to Kumeu with five wineries and honey tasting, plus tours to Waiheke Island and Matakana.
Potiki Adventures t0800 692 3836, wpotikiadventures.com. Run by a couple of passionate Ngapuhi women who bring a Maori world-view to their full-day, small-group Urban Maori Experience trips, which include morning and afternoon tea. Tours visit Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) before heading west to the Waitakere Ranges and Whatipu beach to learn creation stories and medicinal plant usage. Saturday trips include a visit to Otara Market.
TIME Unlimited t0800 868 463, wnewzealandtours.travel. Personal service and a willingness to go the extra mile characterize these small-group tours focusing on Titirangi and Whatipu beach with an excellent bushwalk and pounding surf. Go for the half-day or include it as part of a full-day city and coast tour. More hiking-focused trips through the Waitakeres are available at similar prices.