When thinking of an amazing surf destination, New Zealand is bound to come up on the list at some point. This island-nation, known for its dramatic coastlines, empty beaches, long point breaks, and, well, sheep, is going to beckon the wandering wave rider at some point.
What is less obvious, perhaps, is that you will also be ticking off one of the most amazing travel destinations for coffee you can find.
Really? New Zealand and coffee?
In the last couple of decades, the coffee scene in New Zealand has absolutely blown up. Already steeped in the daily ritual of British tea time, Kiwis have it in their culture and routine to take a break from work and go sit in a cafe with friends or family a couple of times each day. As this began to morph in to coffee, they embraced the idea of providing the highest quality espresso-based coffee drinks you’ll find just about anywhere.
I noticed on my last trip to the North Island of New Zealand that there seemed to be a truly amazing number of cafes in every town relative to how many people there were. In the US we often joke about how there is a Starbucks on every corner, but I came to realize that there could easily be a Starbucks on every corner and three more cafes in between if we drank as much coffee, or at least visited as many cafes, as these Kiwis.
In fact, a little research found some claims that New Zealand has more roasters per capita than anywhere else in the world and might be serving the best coffee anywhere.
Making a trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud in July (their winter) is going to make these cafe stops even more frequent and important. However, there is a part of the North Island that they call ‘The Winterless North’ where the weather stays a bit warmer and, importantly, drier.
Traveling in the off-season like this and being able to find places to stay at the last minute (I think you’ll notice this is a trend for us) allows for swell chasing and weather-based decisions – extending your stay a night or two while the swell holds and hitting the road on flat days. After all, you can easily be on a completely different coast, surfing in a completely different ocean, from one day to the next or even in the same day (which I did).
Getting Geared Up
In order to limit the sheer volume of gear we were traveling with (after all, it was a family trip) I brought a 4mm wetsuit, but no booties. Since our plans were for the North part of the North Island I was hoping this would suffice, and it did for the most part. Sure the big-toe was pretty numb after a while, but it worked out ok.
If you’re heading further south different gear would be needed. And if a winter surf on the South Island is on the agenda, well then that’s a whole different game altogether. Get the seal suit out!
I ponied up a few bucks for a premium membership to Surf2Surf for the trip, which ended up to be indispensable. Surfline just doesn’t have New Zealand covered the way this local website does with daily updates and surfcams on beaches you’ve never heard of. I was checking it before we got off the plane and it was our guide from then on.
Once we got our car, the first order of business was grabbing a board. I knew that we would be stopping at random beaches and exploring little nooks and crannies as we went. I also knew that we would be dealing with really unpredictable weather, a wide variety of surf, oh, and the general craziness that is taking long trips with kids. So, I didn’t want to rely on finding boards as I went.
I had found a woman running a board rental place out of her home in Auckland called Quiver. She was renting out premium surfboards and I was able to get my hands on this really great, and really pink, twinnie fish with glassed on keels for the trip.
It ended up being a great board for the wide variety of surf I would find, from two foot Rarawa to overhead Shipwreck Bay.
**Update – It seems that the website for Quiver is no longer loading. Perhaps she’s closed up shop.
Once we had everything ready to go, it was time to head north. First we made a quick stop in Mission Bay to get some food and fresh air. It had been a long overnight flight and we all needed to run around a bit. Our coffee journey would also begin with my first flat white of the trip at The Coffee Club.
Maybe it’s just the foggy travel head or maybe it’s the driving on the left, but things were already getting weird. The trees, the birds, the unbelievable blue water right here in the country’s biggest city. New Zealand is just amazing, and it hits you as soon as you get off the plane.
My general plan was to head up to Ahipara to surf Shipwrecks Bay – and it looked like the swell forecast was cooperating. Not only does heading north bring better chances of some warmer and drier days, but Shipwrecks holds the possibility for some seriously long rides without the crowds that Raglan can attract. Plus, as you get further north the North Island continues to narrow, making it possible to bounce back and forth from one coast to the other easily within a day trip.
Oh, and did I mention that every one of the beaches is going to be pretty much the most beautiful beach you’ve ever seen?
Ahipara is about a five hour drive from Auckland and it had been a long overnight flight, so we broke up the drive with a stop in Waipu so we could hit the beach and stretch our legs. Waipu is one of those places that wasn’t on any itinerary for us, it just worked out from a logistical standpoint.
A bit further south is the more well known town of Mangawhai and it’s surf beach Mangawhai heads, but for whatever reason the tiny beach of Waipu Cove caught our eye and we thought we would check it out. Turns out it is a popular summer spot and is, of course, on an amazingly beautiful bay that gets good waves and has a great trekking trail – The Waipu Coastal Walk – right there.
We found a nice room at the Waipu Cove Resort, which is just steps from the sand and was basically empty at this time of year. As luck would have it, some nice waist to chest high waves were rolling in with just a half-dozen or so locals out in the water.
Everyone else was happy too. The beach was beautiful and the kids were already wading around in the stream that feeds into the ocean – looking for critters and climbing the trees that hung over the water.
What a way to start the trip and clear the head! First day off the plane and I was getting tons of rides at one of the most amazing beaches I’ve ever been to and everyone else was content too. We wrapped up the day with a soak in the hot tub at the resort and an amazing dinner at The Cove Cafe. It really was one of those days that makes your mind explode – totally unplanned but worked out perfectly.
We ended up staying for a couple of nights and would come back for one more night later in our tripi.
Waipu to Ahipara is about a three hour drive, and you’re switching from the Pacific on the east to the Tasman Sea side on the west. The road twists its way through dense forests which gave us our first real glimpse of the lush, thick vegetation that grows here.
When you come out on the other side, Ahipara awaits nestled in the trough of the fishing-hook-shaped 90 Mile Beach. 90 Mile Beach stretches up the west coast of the North Island from Ahipara almost all the way to the tip at Cape Reinga. Technically it’s a highway and you can drive the whole way along the beach. However, your rental car insurance isn’t going to cover anything that happens there, so it’s on you to decide how you feel about that.
A nice swell was hitting Shippies as we arrived, and we were able to grab a nice Air BnB from a couple who had left the big city of Auckland to raise their little ones in a more quiet setting up north. From what I could tell the husband surfed a lot and he had some soft boards I could borrow for my kiddos too.
Does the word ‘amazing’ keep coming up?
Well I guess I’ll go with ‘stunning’ as an alternative to describe the view from our place. Looking west across the Tasman Sea towards Australia, the break at Shipwrecks just a half mile or so to the south, and all of 90 Mile Beach extending to the tip of the North Island in the other direction, which alternately drifted into clouds and fog or was clear enough to take in the entire thing.
I hit the surf and clearly didn’t know the best system as locals were catching waves from the point, taking them all the way in, and then just running around this road on the rocks before jumping right back into the takeoff zone.
It was still a beautiful session just soaking in the surroundings and catching my share of good waves with just a few people out.
Ahipara was super quiet at this time of year, and as the crowd in the water picked up on the weekend, it seemed that the surf was mostly people commuting up from larger towns.
There were just a couple of little places to eat, some small shops, and of course some good coffee. But in general, it was a quiet place to surf, cruise the rocks and tide pools, and soak in the view.
Day Trip to Rarawa Beach
As I mentioned, as you head this far into the Northland, the Pacific and Tasman coasts get closer together making a day trip from one side to the other a no brainer. We had our eye on a couple of different beaches on the Pacific side and would just bring the trusty pink fish along and see how the day unfolded.
As it turns out the spectacular Rarawa Beach was about an hour drive from Ahipara. There were some small but perfectly clean waves rolling in and we had the entire beach to ourselves. Not one other person as far as you could see in either direction!
Gotta love the off season. In the summer this is actually a very popular area with good places to camp. It also gets much bigger surf at times.
I paddled out while the kids explored the dunes and grew their shell collection. They had become expert in identifying the differences in location based on the shells. The shells on the east coast reflected a much different sea life than those just an hour away on the west coast.
Meanwhile I pulled into little two foot barrels and soaked in the absolute serenity.
On the way home we hit a little roadside trailer cafe and grabbed coffee, hot chocolates, and sandwiches. I had also become quiet a connoisseur of meat pies at this point and hit every bakery in every little town we passed through.
One completely unexpected bonus of heading this far north at this time of year was the avocados. The Northland is avocado growing land and all along the road there were unattended avocado stands based on the honor system. Drop five dollars in the can, grab a bag of avocados.
Produce in New Zealand is unbelievably expensive, and this was less than half the price you would pay in any store just down the road, so we loaded up.
Heading South – Auckland, Hamilton and Raglan
The swell at Shipwrecks had faded and we had some plans to meet old acquaintances down in Hamilton, so it was time to head south. After spending a couple of nights in the Takapuna neighborhood of Auckland we continued south for a night in Hamilton.
We had actually lived in Hamilton for a few months back when the kids were just babies. My wife had an opportunity to work in the hospital there, and we thought it would be a great adventure. We were making some time to catch up with some of her old work colleagues and see the old digs. The town had changed a bit with a real improvement in food options and some cool little stores.
Hamilton is landlocked, but only about 45 minutes away from one of the best left points on the planet, Raglan, which was our next stop of the surf and coffee North Island tour.
Unlike Ahipara which seems like a regular little town that happens to have a great surf break, Raglan is a true surf town.
Being only a couple of hours from Auckland and its proximity to Hamilton means much of the surfing population can hit it as a day trip when a swell arrives. The town has catered to its place on the surfing road map since Bruce Brown showed it off in the original Endless Summer movie.
It makes for more crowds, but it is a really fun and lively place with a great wave. Keep in mind that the actual town of Raglan is a short drive away from where the surf is at Manu Bay.
We ended up grabbing a private house within the Raglan Backpackers compound. Completely separated from the rest of the hostel with its own patio overlooking the bay, it made for a great place for quick strolls through town and watching some pretty intense weather blow in from the sea.
A swell was up, but it was also blowing onshore and pretty nasty. Standing on the rocks at Manu Bay, it wasn’t hard to see that there were many more of us looking from up high than braving it out in the stormy swell.
I left it to those locals who were clearly in much better shape and had way better skills than I do, but it was awesome to see. The girls clammored around on the bowling-ball size rocks and wandered way off to the point while I watched the few surfers with great respect.
The rain was coming in pretty good for much of our stay there and I was having dreams of our luck up in The Winterless North. But we still really enjoyed our stay in Raglan. The food and coffee options were much more diverse and generally better, and the bay that surrounds the town makes for almost endless exploring with the kids.
The last time we were here was eight years before when we carried the kids much more than they walked on their own, so it was fun to see them exploring the place. We kept up a nice fire at our place in the hostel and drank plenty of hot chocolate while wrapped up in warm blankets.
New Zealand is famous for not having heat in homes or much insulation despite the range of weather it receives, so our few days there were kept in close quarters, snuggling around the fire.
And Bob’s your uncle.