Locals have fears that Orewa is turning into NZ’s equivalent of Queensland’s Gold Coast, but until they start exporting retirees and replacing them with bikini-clad parking wardens that’s unlikely to happen. It is, however, very built-up and high-rise apartment towers have begun to sprout.
Appealing little Leigh (www.leighbythesea.co.nz) has a picturesque harbour dotted with fishing boats, and a decent swimming beach at Matheson Bay. Apart from the extraordinary Goat Island Marine Reserve on its doorstep, Leigh's other claim to fame is the legendary live-music venue Leigh Sawmill Cafe, which sometimes sees surprisingly big names drop in to play a set or two.
This pleasant river-mouth village has a great beach, but it’s the wai wera (hot waters) that people come here for. Warm mineral water bubbles up from 1500m below the surface to fill the 19 pools of the Waiwera Thermal Resort. There are various big water slides, barbecues, private tubs ($40) and a health spa, or you can soak and stew while watching a flick in the movie pool.
Mahurangi & Scandrett Regional Parks
Straddling the head of Mahurangi Harbour, Mahurangi Regional Park is a boater's paradise incorporating areas of coastal forest, pa sites, and a historic homestead and cemetery. Its sheltered beaches offer prime sandy spots for a dip or picnic and there are loop walks ranging from 1½ to 2½ hours.
Blissful Pakiri Beach, 12km past Goat Island (4km of the road is unsealed), is an unspoilt expanse of white sand and rolling surf – a large chunk of which is protected as a regional park. Right by the water, Pakiri Beach Holiday Park has a shop and tidy units of varying degrees of comfort in a secure setting under the shade of pohutukawa.
Shakespear Regional Park
Shooting out eastward just before Orewa, the Whangaparaoa Peninsula is a heavily developed spit of land with a sizeable South African expat community. At its tip is this gorgeous 376-hectare regional park, its native wildlife protected by a 1.7km pest-proof fence.
Long Bay Regional Park
The northernmost of Auckland’s East Coast bays, Long Bay is a popular family picnic and swimming spot, attracting over a million visitors a year. A three-hour-return coastal walk heads north from the sandy beach to the Okura River, taking in secluded Grannys Bay and Pohutukawa Bay (which attracts nude bathers).
Goat Island Marine Reserve
Only 3km from Leigh, this 547-hectare aquatic area was established in 1975 as the country’s first marine reserve. In less than 40 years the sea has reverted to a giant aquarium, giving an impression of what the NZ coast must have been like before humans arrived.