River-hugging Warkworth makes a pleasant pit stop, its cutesy main street retaining a village atmosphere. Increases in Auckland's real estate prices and better motorway access have seen the town grow in popularity in recent years, but it is still a laid-back spot near good beaches and wine country.
Orewa's main beach is a lovely expanse of sand; however, locals fear that the town is turning into New Zealand’s equivalent of Queensland’s Gold Coast. It is, indeed, very built up and high-rise apartment towers have begun to sprout, but unless they start exporting retirees and replacing them with bikini-clad parking wardens, it's unlikely to reach the Gold Coast's extremes.
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 attract visitors. Warm mineral water bubbles up from 1500m below the surface to fill the 19 pools of the Waiwera Thermal Resort. Nearby, the 134-hectare Wenderholm Regional Park incorporates bird life, beaches, colonial history and walks.
Mahurangi & Scandrett Regional Parks
At the southern and eastern edges of the Mahurangi Peninsula northeast of Auckland, the Mahurangi Regional Park and Scandrett Regional Park are convenient as day trips from the city, or as a relaxing overnight stay in simple accommodation or at basic campsites. Walking tracks, coastal forests, sheltered beaches and Māori and colonial history all feature.
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 more than 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).