Tent, sheltered swims and G&Ts provide Jane Binsley's family with Tapapakanga tranquillity
Tapapakanga is sheltered enough for children to swim within sight of reading or fishing parents.
Some days I wish I'd just kept my big mouth shut. It all started quite innocently. I was at lunch with the editor, blithely regaling her with details of a recent family camping holiday at Tapapakanga, just an hour southeast of Auckland. I should have noticed her newshound's nose twitching.
"Ooooh," she said, "I'd love a story about that for Weekend Life."
It isn't writing the story that worries me. What's kept me awake nights is the concern that by sharing one of Auckland's best-kept camping secrets I'd be making it even harder for myself to get to the front of the Auckland Council's take-no-prisoners booking queue and secure a place for our family next year.
Eventually, social responsibility (and the editor's patient reminders) won out over self-interest.
That, and I realised that the horse may have bolted already, given that thousands of partygoers descend on this scenic coastal farm park every second summer to attend the popular Splore Festival, so surely word of its gorgeousness must by now have spread far and wide.
To be honest, we hadn't heard of Tapapakanga Regional Park ourselves until about six months before we eased our trailer full of camping paraphernalia down the dusty metal road into the secluded natural amphitheatre that embraces the beach.
With camping experiencing a surge in popularity in recent years, it's become increasingly difficult to book a spot at the Auckland Council's most accessible camping sites.
Since our kids were small we'd camped each January at Tawharanui, chosen not only for its idyllic golden-sanded ocean beach but because it was only an hour or so northeast of Auckland — an important consideration as our three children didn't cope well with car journeys.
But, suddenly, we couldn't get a booking anymore — hence the decision to try Tapapakanga, a similar distance to the southeast. On the western shores of the Firth of Thames, Tapapakanga faces northeast across the water to the west coast of Coromandel.
It's definitely not a surfing beach, but its sheltered, calm waters are perfect for young children, kayaking and fishing.
There are picnicking facilities at its southern end and at its northern end bare-basics camping - long-drop toilets, a cold-water outdoor shower and a couple of wood barbecues are the only facilities provided — for a maximum of 40 at any time.
The hilly terrain means this beachside campground is best suited to campers who don't feel the need to bring the kitchen sink on holiday, but there's also a second, flatter campground at the top of the hill that's suitable for caravans and large groups, plus a couple of riverside areas for self-contained campervans.
The council's booking system doesn't allow you to "bags" a particular spot, so it was luck of the draw which spaces were available on the day we turned up.
The spots I coveted in the shade of the pohutukawa trees along the beachfront were, unsurprisingly, all taken, so we set up camp on a grassy knoll behind the toilet block.
This proved to be a tactical error given the prevailing winds throughout our stay but, luckily, the views more than made up for the occasional whiff of eau de long drop.
From the comfort of our camp chairs, gins in hand, we could keep an eye on the kids biking along the foreshore, exploring the rock pools at low tide and swinging from a rope swing on a nearby tree.
Our days quickly settled into a relaxed routine of domestic duties, punctuated in our more energetic moments by cooling dips in the ocean at high tide, or in the deep freshwater swimming hole at the southern end of the beach.
Each day over breakfast we discussed options for adventures and exploration - then invariably returned to reading our books in the shade.
It took us until the last day of our weeklong stay to summon the energy for some of the gentle walking tracks that trace the park's rich Maori history, including two pa sites and a stonefields garden, where we were fascinated to see the stone stacks built up to warm the earth and border the vegetable beds.
Closer to our campsite, and to the 21st century, the historic Ashby homestead dating from about 1900 is now used as an artist's studio in the council's artists-in-residence programme. Our kids took some convincing that a family with 14 children lived in this modest cottage — and had space for a school and a post office in the front room.
Tapapakanga is just far enough from civilisation to feel like an escape, yet not so far as to necessitate roughing it.
When the last of our chilly bin ice trickled out of the bung hole on day four, we simply jumped in the car and made a 15-minute dash down the coast to Kaiaua, returning laden not only with bags of ice but other luxuries of civilisation — fish and chips and ice blocks.
Next year we plan to arrive on a Sunday so we can stop in at the Clevedon Markets on the way out of town and stock up on gourmet treats.
That is, if we can get a booking.
IF YOU GO
Sleep over: To book camping at Tapapakanga (if you must) see regionalparks.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz.