Break out - Raglan's long white wavelength

By Paul Rush

In Raglan, on the Waikato's wild west coast, taking a break has a particular meaning. In the town's colourful vernacular, it means ripping it up on the longest left-hand surf break in the world. But there's much more to the town than great waves.
What I'm seeking on this visit is a hands-on holiday mini-break, focused on relaxation, strolling around town and sipping freshly brewed flat whites.
Arriving in the centre of town, I notice for the first time just how picturesque Bow Street is with its central row of phoenix palms.
The trees give the town an exotic seaside character, but it's the shops and cafes that speak of lifestyle and modernity and add charm and pizzazz.
I don't wander far down Bow Street before sensing a certain feeling in the air. It's a kind of bleached hair, barefoot, board short and T-shirt vibe that suggests a culture of sun, sand and surf. There's also an unmistakable laid-back pace that is reminiscent of late-1950s New Zealand.
Bow Street is made for strolling. I pass curio stores, an op shop, plant store, design gallery, surf shops and a collective craft shop. The Harbour View Hotel stops me in my tracks. It's a grand two-storey colonial-style building that looks down on the bustling main street in a benignly paternal manner.
Directly opposite is the Black Sand Restaurant and Bar, where lunchtime crowds will soon spill out on to outside tables to enjoy the cool breeze from the harbour. I savour an excellent vegetable soup and French bread while watching the passing parade of holidaymakers.
The restaurant staff tell me that Black Sand is a popular venue for Sunday music sessions featuring cabaret, Irish ballads, Latin and soul.

The town has several upmarket restaurants and cafes; Zaragoza offers Burton's pure espresso coffee, Orca has views over the tranquil harbour and Vinnie's ''World of Eats'' BYO presents a tropical look in an historic kauri cottage with a thatched veranda. Tongue & Groove offers all-day coffee and funky food in a retro atmosphere. The Marlin Cafe & Grill has pride of place at the town wharf, where it specialises in fish and chips and ''Chef your own grill'' platters.
There's even a microcosm of Auckland's central-city life in the form of Volcom Lane, which boasts boutique shops like Up My Alley.
I'm finding it easy to see how a keen surfer might come to Rag Town, as they call it, for a long weekend riding the big swells and then hang ten around the cafe tables, swapping yarns and deciding to stay here for good. It's just that appealing.
The friendly folk in the visitor centre suggest an afternoon drive around Mt Karioi, aka ''The Sleeping Lady'', the dormant volcano that dominates the town from any viewpoint.
On Wainui Point, four Maori stone carvings stand proudly in a geometric garden setting, providing a dramatic foreground to a magnificent view of Ngarunui Beach. Orderly lines of white-capped breakers tumble on to the broad sands, while black-suited surfers bob like seals in the distance.
The road winds past Manu Bay and Whale Bay until the forested flanks of Mt Karioi take over. Whaanga Road takes me to the lookout over Te Toto Gorge, a 100m drop that takes the breath away.
From here, a bush track leads up to the summit of the great mountain. It's a five-hour return trek, so will have to wait for another visit.
A local youth informs me with pride that, on a clear day, the view from this lofty sentinel encompasses three harbours (Aotea, Raglan and Kawhia) and four volcanoes (Karioi, Pirongia, Taranaki and Ruapehu). The Explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook both recorded a sighting of Mt Karioi in their expedition logbooks.
Continuing on my round-the-mountain odyssey, I reach Ruapuke Beach and wander along the wild, black-sand expanse in complete solitude, absorbed in the sounds of the ocean, the seabirds soaring overhead and the stark beauty. It's a therapeutic experience.
Further on, I reach the tiny settlement of Te Mata, gateway to another popular tourist attraction, the spectacular Bridal Veil Falls. A 10-minute walk brings me to a lookout over the cascade, which is one metre higher than Niagara Falls but is a narrow chute of water that responds to updraughts of wind by taking on a veil-like appearance.
Back in town, I'm ready for more sustenance, and find it in the Orca Restaurant and Bar. The fresh snapper fillets leap out at me from the menu and they're delicious, served with potato/onion latke, melon salsa and organic greens.
The restaurant manager fills me in on life in Raglan-by-the-sea. ''It's a great place to live if you love the outdoor lifestyle. We've got magnificent beaches by day and fine dining by night. Raglan is a close-knit community of surfers, artists, craft folk and businesspeople.''
An evening stroll around the waterfront is a must-do activity here. Families and couples gather on a grassy swathe at the foot of Bow Street or wander over the picturesque estuary bridge to the domain and holiday park.
Returning to the appropriately named Sunset Motel, the town's newest accommodation, I reflect on my day at the seaside. There's no doubt the town has undergone a form of gentrification - but it's still a good old Kiwi holiday town at heart. And there's a lot to be said for hanging ten in Raglan
Raglan: Fact File
* Raglan is 2 hours drive south west of Auckland travelling on SH1 to Ngaruawahia, turning on to SH39 and following it to Whatawata and turning onto SH23. From Hamilton it is 45 minutes drive on SH23
* Accommodation is available across the full range from holiday park tent sites and comfortable cabins to upmarket motels.

Websites
www.raglan.org.nz
www.raglansunsetmotel.co.nz
www.raglanholidaypark.co.nz

- Bay of Plenty Times

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