Auckland's west coast is synonymous with wild, black-sand beaches and you'll experience plenty of these on your road trip north to the Kauri Coast, along with gannets, stunning native forest and rustic hot springs.
1. Te Henga Bethells Beach
It’s hard to believe you’re less than an hour from Queen Street when you’re standing on the black volcanic sands of Te Henga Bethells Beach. To get here, wind through the bush, passing tucked-away baches, bumping along the unsealed road to, finally, the car park. Then walk through wind-bent shrubbery to where the beach stretches away left and right for nearly two kilometres altogether. It’s hemmed in by cliffs, a cave at one end, at the other an island. To the north lies O’Neill Bay, beloved of surfers, but those preferring calmer waters can swim in the Waitākere River which curls along the valley into the sea. Nearby Lake Wainamu is even more peaceful, and edged by impressively high sand dunes; while the inviting Te Henga Walkway along the coast has spectacular views. Even outside of summer, Friday nights in the car park can be lively, with locals playing music and games.
2. Muriwai Gannet Colony
High above this classic black-sand beach, on a bushy headland, a well-formed track leads to a lookout perfectly sited for spying on the gannet colony not far below. It’s one of only three places on the mainland to see this, and to marvel at the neatly spaced nesting places painstakingly constructed by lifetime partners. The birds themselves fly low overhead, their two-metre wingspan especially impressive up close, and swoop over the waves far below and a couple of rocky islands where they also nest – around 1200 of them, in season. Near the start of the track is a scenic lookout in the reserve at the top of the cliffs, with long views in all directions. You can walk down to the rocks at the end of the beach, from where – always keeping an eye on the waves – you can watch people fishing, surfers, kite-flyers and horse riders enjoying themselves.
3. Waipōua Forest
Driving along the Twin Coast Discovery Highway, the moment you enter Waipōua Forest, it feels special. It is, and precious too: the last two percent of solid kauri forest that once stretched from Coromandel all the way to Cape Rēinga, lush, rich and tall.
The many, many corners require all your attention as a driver, so you must stop if you want to connect with the trees.
Even better, take a personal tour with a guide from Footprints Waipoua at Ōpononi, who will tell you the history, natural and human, and the stories that reflect the respect shown by the local Māori to the whole environment and especially Tāne Mahuta and Te Matua Ngāhere, the two biggest kauri in the world. A Twilight Tour is a magical time to see them, as the forest moves from day to night, and to stand beneath these mighty trees as your guide sings a greeting is a properly spine-tingling experience.
4. Ngāwhā Springs
You won’t forget your soak in the mineral waters of Ngāwhā Springs, because every time you stroke your skin for days afterwards, you will marvel at how soft and smooth it feels. This is the real thing, whether you go to the newly-revamped Te Waiariki pools complex or the smaller, traditional The Temp next door. In both places, silky, cloudy water bubbles up from below, in a range of temperatures from cool to startlingly hot. You ease down the steps into the outdoor pools and sit with your feet in the gritty mud at the bottom, feeling your muscles relax and your skin rejuvenate. You can spend hours here, moving from one pool to another, up and down in temperature, blissing out in the company of others equally laidback. You will even become inured to the pervasive smell of sulphur – although you won’t regret bringing old togs to wear.
5. Arataki Visitor Centre, Ōratia
The Waitākere Ranges Regional Park comprises 16,000 hectares of coastline forest riddled with pathways of every sort. Many of them are currently closed because of kauri dieback disease, so your best move is to call in at the Arataki Visitor Centre for the latest news. In a striking timber building set into the bush and surrounded by accessible walkways through the trees you’ll find everything you need to know, and helpful advice on where you can go. With extensive views of the city, Rangitoto, Bombay Hills, Manukau and Waitematā harbours and the Tasman Sea, you might not want to leave, but one appealing option that is open is the walk down to Whatipu Beach. From the car park there, you’ll follow the stream down to this remote, moody, black-sand beach, where you might feel miles away from civilisation – but for 60 years, a giant cave here was used by locals as a ballroom.