Kia ora: Leigh

Elisabeth Easther finds a town of stunning views and fabulous seafood.

The glass-bottom boat at Goat Island Marine Reserve provides a fascinating look at what's beneath the waves.
The glass-bottom boat at Goat Island Marine Reserve provides a fascinating look at what's beneath the waves.

Where is it? On the outskirts of the greater Auckland region, Leigh is 92km north of Auckland and 13km past Matakana.

Origin of name: The town was named after Reverend Samuel Leigh, the first Wesleyan missionary to visit the area. Before that the whole area was known as Omaha, or "place of plenty".

Population: About 500 during the year, rising sharply in the summer months.

Town slogan: Leigh by the Sea.

Town mascot: There isn't an official one, but if there were it'd probably be a giant snapper.

Famous locals: Dennis Marwood (motorsport driver) Kevin Lawton (Olympic medallist rower), Pat Booth (journalist), Valerie Davies (journalist), Penny Hulse (deputy mayor of Auckland), John Hempleman (grand prix motorcycle rider).

Best website: leighbythesea.co.nz.

Main employer: Leigh (Lee) Fisheries.

Source of pride: The strong community, which does things such as putting seats in scenic spots, replanting coastal areas and building stiles on walkways. They also like to look after each other.

Town fiestas: The Sawmill Cafe is always hosting bands. There's also a guided coastal walking event in April (supporting Leigh's Volunteer Fire Brigade), the Leigh family fishing contest is a big attraction (raising money for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter) and the school carnival on Easter Sunday is a big drawcard for visitors.

Best reason to stop: To ogle at the fish, which you can do by snorkelling, diving or taking a trip on the glass-bottomed boat.

Best place to take the children: The Marine Discovery Centre will keep children occupied for hours on end. Budding marine biologists will be interested to know that this is the centre of the University of Auckland's marine science activities.

Best place to get a drink: The Sawmill Cafe. It has its own brewery, great grounds and a host of top acts passing through and, if you book ahead, you can stay in the lovely accommodation there.

Best food: The Sawmill Cafe. their wood-fired pizzas are legendary. Seafriends Cafe is also good.

Best flat white: The Coffee Cart. Leigh isn't big - you can't miss it.

Best bakery: Lamingtons Cafe in Matakana is the nearest bakery doing all the usual favourites plus scallop pies and mussel fritters. Highly regarded.

Best shop: The Shadze of Lace factory shop. Picture everything you've ever wanted to wear, in lace.

Best museum: It's not a museum as such, but the Goat Island Marine Discovery Centre is a great place, with amazing marine displays and tanks filled with crabs, crayfish, seashells, urchins, sponges, even nudibranchs.

Best walk: The Goat Island Coastal Walkway is opposite the Marine Centre, and you can download brochures for tracks at leighbythesea.co.nz/walks. These paths include Ti Point, Leigh Harbour, Te Araroa, Tamahunga, Matheson Bush plus plenty more.

Best view: From the top of Pakiri Hill, looking out over Omaha Bay towards Auckland, Coromandel Peninsula and Little Barrier Island. You won't believe your eyes.

Best swim: Matheson Bay - safe swimming and impressive pohutukawa. A gorgeous place for a lie down.

Best mountain biking: There's an excellent (if steep) 2km ride up to the top of Pakiri Hill (approximately 300m) followed by an undulating 5km gravel ride along Rodney Rd to where it joins the Mt Tamahunga Walking Track. You need to be fit for this and on the right sort of bike.

Best surf spot: Daniels Reef boasts right- and left-handers breaking on a rocky beach. It's not great for beginners, but intermediate to advanced surfers can get good barrels when the conditions are right.

Best fishing: Leigh Reef. Grab a few fish that stray beyond the reserve.

Best diving: The North Reef of Goat Island.

Best adventure: Diving and snorkelling at the Goat Island Marine Reserve. Or, for landlubbers, how about going on a horse trek over the sand dunes and along the beach at Pakiri?

Best place to pull over: The Cape Rodney Rd lookout with views to Omaha, Goat Island and Little Barrier.

Best park: Matheson Bay's playground is lovely. And Leigh itself also has a skateboard park and two tennis courts, so bring your gears.

Here for a short time: Snorkel off the beach at Goat Island, walk around the Leigh Coastal Track or watch the fishing boats coming in and going out of Leigh Harbour.

Best kept secret: Ti Point Reptile Park, a unique collection of native and exotic reptiles. Amazing.

Or try this: Go snorkelling in the mangroves of Whangateau Harbour at high tide, where you might spot flounder, crabs, mantis shrimps and cockles.

Wildlife: The sea life at Goat Island will blow your mind - there are snappers the size of trucks and sometimes dolphins, orca and other whales pass by. Birdlife is also abundant and includes kaka, tui, native pigeons, bellbirds and kookaburra. And if that's not enough, New Zealand seals spend winter on the rocks around the Leigh Coast.

Safety first: Do be careful in the water; the sea can be a cruel place, so know your limits.

Visitors say: This place is love-Leigh.

Locals say: You better be-Leigh-ve it.

Thanks so much to Jenny Enderby, from Discover Goat Island, for being so frank about Leigh's abundant charms.

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