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.