Raglan: Beyond the breakers

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush dives below Raglan's surface to sample its many shore-based attractions.

Mt Karioi, a dormant volcano, dominates Raglan's sparkling landscapes. Photo / Paul Rush
Mt Karioi, a dormant volcano, dominates Raglan's sparkling landscapes. Photo / 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.

I have fond memories of sitting on the Manu Bay foreshore many years ago, watching surfers catch the foam-flecked curling barrels rolling in from the Tasman Sea.

It's a fascinating spectacle observing the antics of groovy young grommets on miniature boards and hardcore veterans executing slick 90-degree turns.

In the past I've thought of Raglan only in surfing terms, but recently I heard there's much more to the town than famous waves.

What I'm seeking on this visit is a hands-on mini-break, focused on total 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 St, the main drag, is with its central row of phoenix palms spreading out over the roadway between a row of ancient pohutukawa trees.

The trees give the town an exotic seaside character, but it's the shops and cafes that speak of lifestyle comforts.

I don't wander far down Bow St before sensing a certain feeling in the air. It's a kind of bleached-hair, barefoot vibe that suggests a culture of sun, sand and surf.

There's also an unmistakable laid-back pace of life, reminiscent of late-1950s New Zealand.

Bow St 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 modern Black Sand Restaurant and Bar, where lunchtime crowds spill out on to outside tables to enjoy the cool harbour breeze. 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, with cabaret songs, Irish ballads, Latin and soul.

The town has several upmarket restaurants and cafes; Zaragoza, which offers Burton's pure espresso coffee; Orca, which has views over the tranquil harbour; and Vinnie's "World of Eats" BYO, which presents a tropical look in a 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.

I am intrigued with the way Raglan has created a modern cafe society in the Ponsonby mode. The requisite elements are there - soy lattes and long blacks, paninis and pizzas, sushi and quiche, plus vegetarian and vegan fare.

There's even a microcosm of Auckland's central-city alleyway life in the form of Volcom Lane, home to eclectic boutique stores.

I'm finding it easy to see how a keen surfer may come to Rag Town, as they call it, for a long weekend riding the big swells, hanging around the cafe tables swapping yarns - and then decide to stay here for good. It's just that appealing.

The friendly folk at the visitor centre suggest an afternoon drive around Mt Karioi, aka "The Sleeping Lady", the dormant volcano that dominates the landscape.

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, and 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 engulf it in a mantle of overhanging bush. Whaanga Rd 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).

Explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook 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 1m higher than Niagara Falls but is a narrow chute of water that responds to updrafts of wind in a unique way, creating the semblance of a veil.

Back in town, I'm ready for more sustenance and find it at the Orca Restaurant and Bar. The fresh snapper fillets leap out at me from the menu - I am in a west coast fishing port, after all.

An evening stroll around the waterfront is a must-do activity. Families and couples gather on a grassy swathe at the foot of Bow St or wander over the picturesque estuary bridge to the domain and holiday park.

The footbridge is a much-loved landmark from which kids leap into the water.

There's a move to replace it with a higher structure, but the locals are adamant that they want to preserve the children's water-jump as a rite of passage.

I watch the setting sun light up the western sky in a blaze of colour. Sunbeams burst out of the golden orb, light up the high cirrus cloud and dive into the sea, which shines like mother-of-pearl.

Returning to the appropriately named Sunset Motel, the town's newest accommodation option, I reflect on my day at the seaside.

There's no doubt Raglan has undergone a form of gentrification, with its upmarket boutiques and eateries. But it's still a good old Kiwi holiday town at heart.

I reckon I'm already on the town's long white wavelength.


* Raglan is two-and-a-half hours' drive southwest of Auckland, travelling on SH1 to Ngaruawahia, turning on to SH39, following it to Whatawata and turning on to SH23. From Hamilton it is 45 minutes' drive on SH23.

* Accommodation is available across the full range - from tent sites and comfortable cabins to upmarket motels: See raglan.org.nz; raglansunsetmotel.co.nz or raglanholidaypark.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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