About 10 years ago the pull of this mysterious place proved to be too strong, so I strapped a longboard to the roof rack of my Jeep and headed off for a day trip from Auckland – it’s around a two-hour drive from Auckland or just 45 minutes from Hamilton. The last part of the drive winds through some beautiful countryside, giving you tantalising glimpses of the blue-green waters of the harbour before you finally descend into the pretty town centre.
To read this and other articles on the RV Travel Lifestyle website please click here to sign up for a membership. Once a member and logged in, you'll be able to read all the articles on the site.
Then and now
The area was first settled around 800 years ago and was originally known as Whaingaroa (‘long pursuit’) which refers to the Tainui waka’s long search for its destination. (The waka eventually made landfall at Kawhia Harbour, further to the south.)
The first Europeans to arrive were missionaries James and Mary Wallace in 1835. In 1858 the name ‘Raglan’ was adopted in honour of Field Marshal FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, who had commanded British troops during the Crimean War.
In the early days, Raglan relied on the sea for its trade as an exporter of timber and flax, followed closely by farming, which is still a mainstay for the local economy along with tourism.
Nowadays the town centre is a vibrant, lively hub of cafés, restaurants and bars lined up along the main street. They are joined by numerous arts and crafts stores selling handmade wares produced by local craftsman and artisans, as well as a generous sprinkling of surf stores serving the myriad surfers who come here in their droves in search of the perfect wave.
On my first trip 10 years ago, I didn’t actually spend much time in the town centre as I wanted to get straight to the beach and catch some waves. With a two-hour return drive awaiting me, back to Orewa, there was no time to waste on shopping or lattes so I headed straight for Ngarunui Beach, the main beach where the surf club is located.
I was still learning to surf back then, so wouldn’t dream of testing myself on the sacred waters of Indicators or of Manu Bay; the pounding waves at Ngarunui were more than a test for my fledgling skills. I did make the rookie mistake of heading out barefoot across the jet black volcanic sands though. It was early in the day and the sun had not yet turned the beach into the hotplate that it would become later on, so it was an extremely long and very painful dance back across the scorching sands to the car after a day of surfing.
A surfing mecca
Surfers have been coming to Raglan since the 1960s and have given the town the laid back, slightly alternative vibe that it still retains today. It’s not difficult to see what attracts them though – some of the surf breaks here are literally world class. Those at Indicators, Whale Bay and Manu Bay are world famous, thanks in part to Manu Bay featuring in the classic 1966 surf movie The Endless Summer. It also has one of the longest, if not the longest, left-hand point breaks in the world, and when conditions are right you can ride the wave for 2km, or a staggering 10 minutes! There’s quite a number of surfboard shapers who call Raglan home, so if you are in the market for a new board then maybe give them a go.
My flying visit really opened my eyes to the delights of this special place and my burnt feet didn’t put me off, so it wasn’t long before I was back to explore the abundance of natural wonders that the area had to offer.
For this visit, I stayed at Solscape, magical, eco-friendly accommodation nestled in 10 acres of native bush at the base of Mt Karioi, with stunning views over the Tasman Sea.
I was in one of the off-grid Tipis (teepees) in the Tipi Forest, an eclectic collection of wooden-floored Tipis and Belle tents, sheltered in the native bush. With no car access, it’s a real back-to-nature experience, with an open-air communal cooking/gathering space, and composting toilets. It’s about a 10-minute walk from the rest of the accommodation, so you really feel immersed in the natural surroundings, an incredibly peaceful and calming place.
If Tipis are not your thing, then you can choose to stay in one of the railway cabooses or the stunning earth domes. For something really different you could spend the night in the ‘Overlander’ train a recycled 17-metre railway carriage full of native timber and character. My parents stayed in the train while I settled into my Tipi, I was also able to sample the railway experience first hand, and it was awesome.
For those who prefer their accommodation to be slightly less alternative, there are a number of gorgeous baches, cottages and studios on site, along with a small camping area for your campervan or tent.
Solscape offer surf lessons, yoga classes and massage/holistic therapies. They also offer a number of retreats combining their services, so you can soothe your body, mind and spirit while enjoying the stunning surroundings.
Kayaking the mighty Whaingaroa Harbour
I returned to Raglan a couple of years later with my partner Justine to explore further. We had read about some interesting rock formations on the far side of Whaingaroa harbour, so we headed off in our inflatable kayak in search of them. There’s a lot of water flowing in and out of the harbour, so the current can be quite strong at times, and you definitely don’t want to go anywhere near the bar as it can be very dangerous. The harbour is around 13km long so there’s lots to explore, but luckily the rock formations that we were searching for were straight across from the town centre.
It’s around a 900m paddle across the harbour but once you reach the rocks you can relax, and if the tide is high enough you can cruise between the towering stacks. The rocks are pancake-type formations similar to those at Punakaiki in the South Island and are really impressive, especially up close like this. There are heaps of nooks and crannies to explore, and as you drift between these impressive structures you really get a sense of their incredible age, and can imagine how they were formed layer by layer over millennia.
We continued to follow the shoreline further into the harbour, where there are many pretty little bays to explore and little beaches to pull up on for a rest. At Tokatoka Point there is a second set of pancake rocks. After landing on the small beach in amongst the rocks, we climbed to the top for expansive views back across the harbour with the Te Uku wind farm dominating the skyline.
Time for a drink
Back in town, you are spoilt for choice for where to grab a coffee, juice, or something a little stronger to help you unwind after a hard day’s paddling. There’s so many cool little coffee shops, bars and restaurants that it’s difficult to choose one. Best to try out a few so you don’t miss out. Make sure that you include the iconic Harbour View Hotel in your list. Originally built in 1866 and then re-built in 1903 after a fire, you can’t miss this imposing building that stands right in the heart of the town centre.
The Papahua footbridge
While you are wandering around the town centre it’s worth taking the short walk out to the bridge that joins the town to the Raglan recreational reserve. Here you’ll find the campground and also the local airstrip. The Papahua footbridge was first built in 1926 and is now in its third reincarnation, as the foundations for its predecessors became unsafe and had to be removed. It’s a bit of tradition for the local teens to jump off the bridge, and if you are here in summer you’ll be able to watch them drop in their droves like lemmings into the harbour waters below.
South of Raglan is the small settlement of Ruapuke. We took the coast road. It’s 25km of some of the windiest gravel roads that New Zealand has to offer, but around every treacherous bend is another stunning vista that makes the hair-raising drive more than worth the effort.
It was a moody weather day when we set out, and the looming clouds gave a real sense of foreboding as we wound our way towards our destination under the ever-present watchful gaze of Mt Karioi.
The landscape is nothing short of breathtaking, with large cliffs and huge drop-offs greeting you at every turn. The trees have long since given in to the will of the prevailing wind, and are now permanently stooped over, like old men struggling uphill.
As we finally descended to the vast expanse of jet black sand, we passed a pretty waterfall on the side of the road where the waters from Mt Karioi drain into the Tasman Sea. The beach is rugged and windswept, with the backdrop of rolling green hills contrasting sharply with the dark sands that glisten and shimmer, almost as if filled with fallen stars.
Even with the pounding surf crashing against the worn rocks, it’s still a really peaceful and serene spot. Maybe because so few people make the trek out here, and most of them are surfers, there’s a real feeling of remoteness and solitude.
Wairēinga (Bridal Veil Falls)
A visit to Raglan would not be complete without making the 20-minute drive out to one of the prettiest waterfalls in New Zealand, Wairēinga or Bridal Veil Falls. Wairēinga means ‘leaping waters’, referring to wairua (spirits) who leap the great height of the waterfall.
The walk out to the top of the falls is an easy ten-minute stroll and is wheelchair and stroller friendly. From here you get some stunning views of the falls as the waters of the Pakoka river cascade over the edge and plummet 55 metres to the pool below.
There’s a huge band of basalt rock under the top of the falls, which has resisted the continual attempts of the powerful water to erode it over the past two-and-a-half million years. The softer sandstone rock around it has been worn away, creating the spectacular bowl with the glistening falls as its centrepiece.
The track carries on to the base of the falls (no wheelchair or stroller access on this part of the track), winding its way down through native bush as you negotiate the 261 steps. The enticing glimpses of the falls that come and go through the Nīkau palms whet your appetite for the views that you know await you at the bottom of your descent. A viewing platform halfway down offers a magnificent vista of the falls and a real taste of just what water can do over the aeons.
As you reach the last of the steps and cross the bridge that spans the river at the base of the falls, try not to think about the fact that everything that comes down must go up (or something like that), and instead absorb a view that’s nothing short of spectacular. From this angle it’s easy to see where the name ‘Bridal Veil’ comes from, as the white waters fan out from the top of the falls, never touching the cliff face again, before crashing into the magical pool below.
Māori legend has it that Patupaiarehe (Māori fairies) who are kaitiaki (guardians) of the area live here, and you can almost see them dancing in the swirling spray at the base of the falls, and hear their flutes carried on the wind above the cacophony of the crashing waters.
We have now been to the falls three times, and Raglan a handful more than that. Neither of us tire of this unique, awesome little town though, and I know that it won’t be too long before the pull to return again becomes too strong, and we will find ourselves drawn here once more.
If you would like to read more of our travels you can check out our blog at: lifeontheroadnz.com