TRAVEL DESTINATION: Auckland’s West Coast Beaches, North Island, New Zealand
TRAVEL DURATION: 1 Day Activity
Think black sand. Think rugged landscape, vast ocean, rough winds, endlessness. Imagine the most beautiful sunsets, long walks, sense of freedom and belonging all at once. Beaches can evoke many feelings in people. They can bring back memories or give birth to daydreaming thoughts. Auckland’s West Coast beaches are the synonym for rugged and unspoiled part of the biggest New Zealand city. The first thing I notice when coming to any West Coast Beach is the almost black sand that easily warms up and becomes quite hot during summer months. It’s hard to walk on it barefoot without getting burnt. The other thing is the constant, steady wind and a background noise buzzing in your ears. The ocean is loud here. West Coast Beaches are very much exposed, naked and raw. This is where the Tasman Sea first meets the New Zealand coastline and brings the ever changing weather to the shore and the inland. It takes from 40 – 60 minutes to reach these beaches from Auckland. So let’s have a closer look at all the big and few smaller beaches on Auckland’s West Coast.
Whatipu Beach is located on the southern end of the Waitakere Ranges, on the mouth of the Manukau Harbour. It takes around 10 minutes to reach the beach from the car park. You’ll notice a huge area of coastal sediments and black dunes when you come closer to the lighthouse on the Manukau Harbour entrance. Whatipu Beach is quite easy on the eye and a busy area in my opinion as well, with Paratutai Island, Burnett Head, Ninepin Rock Lighthouse, Manukau Head, Whatipu Caves and extensive dunes wonderfully scattered across the area. Water currents and rips are strong here and I wouldn’t recommend swimming in these waters. Nevertheless, it seems that the beach is still popular with expert surfers. You’ll be left with a magnificent view of Manuakau harbor if you decide to do the short climb to the Burnett Head. Also, a couple of interesting hiking tracks start in the area that I haven’t done yet: Gibbons Track, Kura Track and Omanawanui Track, just to name a few. I find this place lit with amazing, reflecting colors every time I visit. They bounce back from the Manukau Heads across the harbour and are especially spectacular during the evening golden hour.
Karekare is the next beach when moving up towards the north. It’s located between Whatipu Beach on south and Piha Beach on the north. If you’re searching for a laid back, low key beach, then this is it. It is beautiful. It seems to be under advertised, but that may just be the reason for the calm atmosphere it embodies. Come here in the evening, and you’ll leave this place peaceful and centered. There is a path parallel to the Karekare estuary leading to the beach from the parking place. I always come across some cool reflections from this estuary that are great for photography too. Karekare is also popular and ideal picnic spot. It’s a starting point of many short walking and hiking tracks. The beach here is ideal for swimming and surfing. You will also be amazed by the beautiful Karekare waterfall that is accessible from the car park area. Karekare beach has been quite popular with the artists like painters, writers, photographers, filmmakers and others. Panatahi Island gives it a magical appeal without a doubt.
Piha Beach is perhaps the most known and popular Auckland’s West Coast Beach. Scenic drive to the beach leaves me breathless every single time. With the long stretch of black volcanic sands, sea on the horizon, a play of clouds and the Lion Rock in the middle, you’re given an iconic West Coast vista experience. This beach is quite versatile, and everyone can find something that suits their taste: swim, surf, long walks, nearby hikes,… Piha has become a synonym for a surf lifestyle here in Auckland. Many national and international surfing competitions and championships are held here at this beach. You’ll find many surf schools in the area as well. While the swim at the Piha Beach is quite awesome, the ocean dictates the rules here. Be sure to get educated about the safety, strong rip currents and dangerous sea swell before you hit the waves. Sea conditions here can change quickly. Piha is also known for the famous Surf Life Saving Patrol that keeps this beach a safer place during summer months.
Lion Rock is without a doubt a central feature of Piha Beach. It is an eroded part of a volcano from 16 million years ago. If you decide to take a short steep climb to the Maori pou carving lookout spot, you’ll be able to enjoy the amazing views of the north and south Piha coastal landscape. Taitomo Island, another distinctive feature of Piha, closes the beach from the southern end. Piha is one of the most active and lively communities of the Auckland’s West Coast. Here you can find galleries, a Post Office, places to eat, shop and camp. I recommend you stay at the beach for the evening stroll to catch the sunset. The combination of a dramatic landscape and breathtaking colors never disappoints.
There’s much more to Piha. Go further up or down the coastline and you’ll find few other jewels. It’s only been recently when I discovered these special spots and beaches. These places are all short driving or walking distance away, but nothing too extreme, so do go and check them out if you have some extra time once you’re in the area.
Mercer Bay is an isolated beach, located between Karekare and Piha Beach. The most direct access would be from the car park at the end of the Te Ahuahu Road that turns left shortly past the road section of the Karekare Beach. Mercer Bay is surrounded with extremely high cliffs (these are the highest sea cliffs in Auckland area), and you’re actually taking your own risk when “freestyling” down these hills to the beach. The reward is a secluded beach and some amazing caves to discover. For the not so brave ones I would recommend taking 1 hour hike on the Mercer Bay Loop Track. You’ll still be able to experience amazing views of the West Coast seascape and the Waitakere Ranges (minus the beach).
Right at the southern end of Piha Beach starts The Tasman Lookout Track that ends with the beach access to The Gap and Taitomo Island (Camel Rock). The Gap is known for some huge waves coming in from the Tasman Sea, crashing on the sea cliffs and Taitomo Island. The beach area can be quite an amazing place for new discoveries, especially when the tide is out. You might be able to explore the Keyhole tunnel through the Taitomo Island at low tide. Channeling my inner explorer, I went further inland from the marked path and came across a hidden but quite amazing and huge cave with a blowhole. My newest discovery! Not suitable for swimming though.
The north end of Piha Beach is a starting point for the Laird Thomson Track with some awesome views of Whites Beach and other West Coast cliffs that are extending further north. Combining it with the Rose Track will get you to the secluded Whites Beach where you’re surrounded by black sand, steep cliffs and profound sense of peace. This beach is apparently great for surfing but not so safe for the swimmers. If you want to escape the crowds on those hot summer days, then this is a beach you’ll definitely like.
Part 2 of Auckland’s West Coast Beaches can be found HERE.