The coastal route between Auckland and Whangārei is packed with activities that will get you on, near or in the sea. From surfing to snorkelling, horse treks, boat tours and unique kayak trips, we've picked five great options for your next journey.
1. Kawau Island
Kawau Island, off the coast of Sandspit was once the privately-owned playground of Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand. He bought the entire island for £3,700 in 1862.
An enthusiastic botanist, Grey cultivated his own Arcadia here, with many exotic species of flora and fauna including antelopes, emus, monkeys and zebras. Today, peacocks and wallabies still wander the grounds, and the the gardens have plants including Chilean Wine Palms that are considered some of the best specimens in the world.
Aside from the distinctive song of tūī and swooping kererū, visiting Mansion House Bay is like stepping into another country with its tropical warmth and exotic plants.
Grey’s home, the aptly named Mansion House, is as frilly as a wedding cake, with lacy verandahs curving like a carousel. Once the site of the island’s copper mine manager’s home, the house was converted by Grey when he bought the island from the mining company.
For a small fee you can wander through the many rooms of Mansion House, preserved as a snapshot of the Grey family’s years on the island.
2. Clearyaks, Leigh
Goat Island / Cape Rodney-Ōkakari was New Zealand’s first marine reserve, established way back in 1975. A popular spot for snorkelling and diving, there’s also a unique way of discovering the abundant marine life here without getting wet.
Clearyaks are New Zealand’s only transparent sea kayaks that allow you to explore the reserve and marvel at the myriad of fish species without immersing yourself in the water.
A weather-dependent experience, you’ll need to check the Clearyak website for updates on wind and sea conditions for the day before setting off, but if the water is favourable this is a truly special experience.
Launch your kayaks from the sandy beach under a pōhutukawa tree and paddle at your own pace, discovering the rocky underwater outcrops and reefs teeming with sea life.
Clearyaks seat two people and the relaxed and easy paddling means it’s an experience suitable for both families and beginners.
3. Sandy Bay Horse Trails
Catering to all levels and abilities, the team at Sandy Bay Horse Trails offers the chance to explore a stunning coastal farm from the comfort of your trusty steed.
An easy one-hour valley ride is ideal for those with little to no riding experience with its gentle pace and mostly flat terrain. Crossing the shallow stream, past pūriri trees and mānuka, you’ll amble comfortably up the valley.
Stop and admire the ‘pet’ eels that have been hand fed in the creek for many years; they come to a whistle and writhe in the shallows.
The horses here are placid and amenable; well used to a mixed bag of riders. A light twitch of the reins is all it takes to manoeuvre from the broad western saddles.
Even the shortest ride includes commanding coastal views, as you crest the hill to see Sandy Bay, a gleaming expanse of ocean with the Poor Knights Islands in the distance.
4. Surf Tutukākā
Sandy Bay is also a popular spot with local surfers, with mostly safe waves of a manageable size. It’s also a great spot to learn.
To start, you’ll learn where to position yourself on the board, how to keep your hands close to your ribs – chicken-wing style – and to push your chest up, all practised while lying on the sand before you even get wet.
You’ll have a few test runs in the surf – learning quickly that if you’re in the wrong position it’s quite easy to nose dive into the water.
Then, it’s time to practise popping up onto your feet which is, of course, much easier said than done. But it’s also compulsively good fun. And entirely possible for a complete novice who has never been on a board before to stand up after one lesson.
5. Perfect Day
Operated by the team at Dive! Tutukaka, the Perfect Day cruise offers the chance for non-divers to get on – and in – the remarkable marine environment of the Poor Knights Islands.
A 45-minute trip takes you from Tutukākā marina out to the cluster of volcanic islands, known as Tawhiti Rahi in Māori.
Arriving in the shelter of the island’s high cliffs, the sea smoothes to a jewel-coloured pancake. Once the boat is anchored, everyone aboard is free to do as they please. Slip into the sea, warm and bouyant in a thick wetsuit, with fins and masks provided to discover a rich and varied underwater world.
Large schools of little fish flit to within touching distance, unperturbed by snorkelers swimming amongst them. Keep an eye out for larger species including snapper, kingfish and even stingrays.
You can also opt for standup paddle boards or kayaks to get up close to the sheer cliffs. And kids can try the ingenious reef explorers, like floating sleds with clear panels that allow you to watch the fish below without putting your head underwater.
When your fingers get too prune-like, or the water feels too brisk, come aboard the boat for a warm shower, hot drinks and a buffet lunch.
The cruise also includes a tour of Rikoriko Cave – the world’s largest sea cave. Named for the patterns made by sunlight refracting off the water, the enormous cave easily accommodates the large boat and has often been used as a place of shelter in bad weather.