On a wet, warm and windy November morning, my wife and I set off from Wellington heading for Whanganui intending to stop at all the beaches along the North Island’s west coast along the way.
We choose to stay at holiday parks, partly because we hadn’t done so for many years and partly because we’d heard they had become a bit trendy since Covid-19 restrictions were lifted enough for Kiwis to travel domestically. We weren’t disappointed with that experience.
The best beaches on our route are well known; Raumati, Paraparaumu, Waikanae, Ōtaki, Foxton, Himatangi all attract day-trippers, campers, and caravaners. People from Wellington, Palmerston North, the Manawatu and the Wairarapa variously have holiday homes or attachments to caravans at all of these places.
We also wanted to see the many other interesting nooks and crannies less visited, many of which we hadn’t been to previously.
The first stop was Pukerua Bay, where most of the houses date from the 1960s, a time when the settlement expanded from a few places on the beach to a sizeable settlement on both sides of the main highway. Pukerua Bay’s existence is marked by a small clutch of shops on the main road; a hairdresser, a general store and the latest edition, a set of public toilets.
Driving down to the beach we see two riders on trail bikes approaching and the wind begins to howl, recalling the Bob Dylan song. At shore level, this is a rugged beach landscape, and those who live in the 35 houses along the beach road must do so because they like it. Fishing other than by handlines is banned according to the signposted in English, Samoan and Tongan.
Paekākāriki means the perching place of the kākāriki or green parrot, but in my youth, we used to say, ‘where the girls are cheeky’. We cross the railway line into the small township. This is the gateway to the Paekākāriki escarpment, a long and windy trek up and along the hills, high above the sea. I note the warning that there are no toilets, no water and no suitable places to rest or stay. With our age and fitness level we decided it was not for us, it is a popular walk for those fitter than us.
“Morena” said the lady in the Paekākāriki Deli, one of two places serving coffee – but the only one with customers, which settled who got our business. (They served a great Date scone.)
The township is right by the railway lines.
As the crossing bells ring, barrier arms go down and approaching trains make their own warning noises. There is a general store, a good looking fruit and veggie shop, a hairdresser and what used to be a garage with a sign above the street saying it dated from the 1920s.
People still commute to Wellington every day from here; perfectly possible as long as you get up early enough. For a while in the early 2000s, it was fashionable to live here, and along the beachfront, the houses are solid and permanent. The beach has never looked attractive to me as a swimming place; not enough sand and quite exposed compared to its more developed and classier neighbours further up the coast.
Raumati, Paraparaumu and Waikanae beaches are the dress circle of beaches for grooming, accessibility, size and services. All have a mixture of permanent residents – working in Wellington, the Hutt Valley and locally – and well-off retirees, particularly Waikanae, where there is a strong retirement community enjoying a beautiful area.
As a child in the late 1950s, I recall family get-togethers at Paraparaumu Beach on Boxing Day, cars in a line along the bush separating the road from the beach. There were ham sandwiches and hardboiled eggs, lettuce leaves from a plastic bag, and tomatoes from my father’s glasshouse in a good year.
Peka Peka Beach north of Waikanae is a nice beach and less populated than its brothers and sisters nearby. We went off the new State Highway 1 through a tangle of intersections to Te Moana Road. This used to be just a simple turn to the left at the lights on the old SH1 before the traffic engineers made it more complicated.
The temperature is a warm 19 degrees and the wind, so evident further south, has abated to a gentle zephyr, but the elderly cyclists we encounter on Peka Peka Beach say there was “a bit of breeze earlier”.
“Now there’s a surprise”, I said to the grey-haired old lady. She just grinned, mounted up and rode away. She and her mate looked fit and wrinkly at the same time, a feat I have never attempted nor am ever likely to.
A bit further north, Te Horo has a large number of settled houses in a tranquil setting. The beach is scruffy and stony compared with Peka Peka, with driftwood and other detritus littering the beach. There is a boat access ramp and cars are permitted on the beach, which has a 20kph speed limit. Dogs off-leash and horses are OK too, but no fires and no drinking after 9 pm. (The ban lasts till dawn when it is presumably OK to have an eye-opener with one’s morning coffee.)
My memories of Ōtaki Beach and its motor camp are a bit mixed. We once stayed there as a family for a short period in summer – at the time we had a near-death relative and didn’t wish to be too far away from Wellington.
Ōtaki Beach is 4km from the main road and Ōtaki township itself, known locally for
its outlet shops (Wellingtonians shop here for cheap underwear), and for being the point where the traffic jams start during holiday weekends or when there’s been an accident.
We looked carefully through the town and the beach and lunched delightfully at the Feathers café at the motor camp on locally caught whitebait, available in abundance, served in a sandwich with some salad. Just $12 and ample for lunch.
On the beachfront, we run into Chas and Pam and their big motorhome. I open the conversation with a hearty “nice day for it”, and Chas and I fall to talking about the attractions of a motorhome. They are from Whanganui and have had the motorhome for a few years, but “we didn’t use it much and thought we should get out in it more often”, Chas tells me.
At the beach, a local tells me only about 30 per cent of the houses are permanently occupied, mainly by retirees. She loves it here because the beach is not “manicured”.
In storms, she says, huge waves crash into the estuary and the waters can go purple.
Hokio Beach is another estuary beach, with a bumpy, potholed dirt track leading from the tarseal to the beach itself. There is little bush here, but a long stroll across the estuary brings you to the beach and the waves. Suitable only for those seeking the unspoiled natural look.
Waitārere Beach is a much more sizeable enterprise all around. There is a good motor camp, a liquor store and a domain, and a Four Square store with a café behind it. Visitors have plenty of beach to walk along, and a feature is the remains of the wreck of the Hydrabad, a cargo and passenger sailing ship which was wrecked off the coast in 1878, with no lives lost, after the captain deliberately ran the ship aground. Various salvage attempts failed and the wreck was left to deteriorate on the shoreline. Work is afoot to create a memorial using some or all of the remains.
Five in the afternoon is a popular time for dog walkers. The owner of Pip, which looks like a pedigree mongrel, tells me not to get too close. Pip is not savage, she explains, just a bit stinky. On the beach, a plumpish woman is exercising her puppy by driving her SUV down the beach and letting the dog run alongside, but she drives too fast and the poor puppy can’t keep pace. I look away; what looked like an innovative way to exercise is really just laziness verging on cruelty. Some owners don’t deserve their pet’s love.
Our first night’s stay was at the Himatangi Holiday Park, run by Reuben and Alice Emery. They are living their dream of being at a beach, and home all day together with their school-age children able to play with friends in the spacious grounds.
The park has accommodation options ranging from unserviced cabins through to self-contained units which is where we stayed – very comfortably too. The place doesn’t have a pool but there is a water feature in the sandpit, a trampoline, a book exchange and a games room.
Moana Roa Beach is reached by heading southwest from Bulls to the coast. The beach is scruffy and windswept but has some regenerating wetland. It’s a 300m walk from the carpark area over the high dunes to the beach itself, although the sandy track is navigable by car.
There are houses back up the road a bit. In 2004 floods swept through the settlement when a stopbank on the Manawatu River collapsed. The ‘mayor’ of Scott’s Ferry, a bloke called Bill Grey, started a movement to use the word ‘inn’ for all the houses along the road. Among others there are Retire Inn, Nicks Inn, Back Inn. Hev Inn, you get the picture.
Turakina is where the road running from SH1 through Marton joins SH3 heading for New Plymouth. Inside a wonderful antique and curio shop is a lovely café with great homemade food. I remembered my mother’s advice in such places; look with your eyes and don’t touch. There was a lot to tempt us, but we left without a purchase or breakage thankfully, mum would be pleased.
Whanganui is one of New Zealand’s oldest cities, and today services a population of just over 40,000 people. The history shows with the heritage buildings in the main street of town, and houses around the city. Castlecliff is the old port area just out of the town, active when Whanganui was a blustering centre of commerce taking cargo from farmers along the river out to other parts of New Zealand and to the world. Now the river is silted up, and most trade has gone elsewhere.
There are two beaches at Castlecliff. One at the end of Morgan Street looks out to the city and the river flowing into the sea. You can swim there, but it’s rocky, unpatrolled and dangerous. The real beach is a few kilometres along the way and is a proper settlement with a great café called the Citadel where we lunched. The beach is long and has a surf lifesaving club at one end. Adjacent is the Duncan Pavilion, nicely set back from the beach, and named after one of the pioneer families in the area, whose lives and history are on display at the Regional Museum back in the city.
We had two nights in Whanganui at Ben Kay and Jeannie Marshall’s Holiday Park, which backs picturesquely onto the river. It’s sunny, warm and comfortable in our serviced unit, looking out onto the main playing area for the kids. There’s a pool – because it’s a fair trek to the beach – and plenty of pedal bikes and the like. Also a sizeable aviary with parakeets, love birds and others.
On our way home we stopped at the Foxton Beach Holiday Park run by Uwe Kroll. We wanted to see the town and its windmill and to get a good look at its beach. The camp is adjacent to renowned wetlands and has good family-oriented facilities. Our motel-style unit met all our needs. Uwe is proud of being the first zero-carbon-accredited holiday park and is a living-wage employer.
The town has a working windmill, de Molen, reflecting its Dutch heritage also sells Dutch goods and, of course, speciality flours milled on the premises. Open daily and tours are available.
- John traveled with support from the Holiday Parks Association