Going to the coast of the Queen City is almost like going to a Starbucks - the choice is endless. Fancying a double shot of mind-clearing isolation with a spoonful of wildness, we pointed the car south and headed for Karioitahi Beach on the west coast near Waiuku.
Just getting to Waiuku is a drive in itself. You start with an easy half-hour motorway drive at open-road speed. Take the exit at Papakura, turn right towards Karaka, and soon you're in horse country. You drive on through a rich-man's paradise of sprawling estates with post and rail fences between the paddocks and road. Members of Auckland's social glitterati live out here, but were snug behind their automatic gates when we cruised past.
The Manukau Harbour reaches its fingers far inland and you're still on the highway, a long way from the beach, when the first mangrove-fringed estuaries hove into view. The full-tide water is a mirror, the glassy surface broken only by the occasional skimming bird.
To fully explore this region would take a weekend. The road signs flash by: Clarks Beach, Glenbrook, Karioitahi Beach. Even though the mouth of the Manukau Harbour is only 1800m wide, it opens into a vast shallow basin of approximately 400sq km, second in size only to the Kaipara Harbour further north.
The fenced horse estates slowly give way to suburban sections and all of a sudden you are in Waiuku. It's a small village on the southern armpit of the Manukau Harbour, originally a port town and now one of the main settlements of the Franklin District. Hungry after our hour's drive, we turned towards the coast. We'd heard good things about Castaways and thought that would make a nice stop before heading to the beach.
Despite the occasional glimpses of the Manukau, arriving at the shore was a surprise. One minute we are driving through farmland, the next we are on the coast.
The newly sealed road swoops between unusually shaped conical hills, steep-sided and ridged with the pathways of sheep. And suddenly you're at the sea. Castaways commands a magnificent headland with uninterrupted views of the never-ending rollers of the Tasman, finally finding land. It's a mesmerising view, the winter green of the ocean broken by the lines of surf.
Not having booked, we were lucky to get a table at Castaways' restaurant, Agave.
My 10-year-old daughter was taken with the dish names on her children's menu: henny penny, shark attack, hot diggity dog and jelly belly, settling after some debate for the henny penny - crumbed chicken and salad. I too ordered the chicken, called the Earle's Stack and served with bacon and ciabatta.
Sated and warmed by hot chocolate, we left our car in the carpark - looking a little forlorn next to a stately Bentley - and headed to the beach.
Exposed on the outer edge of the southern Manukau, the wind here is bracing. It's a humbling shore - the marching lines of incoming breakers fading to storm-tossed mist in the distance, barely a sign of human habitation to be seen.
The sand is black, rich in iron. The Waikato North Head Mine provides more than a million tonnes of sand a year. It is processed and piped to the Glenbrook Steel Mill. You can take a guided tour of the factory but we stopped at a viewing area and were awed by the huge chimney releasing clouds of vapour into the frigid air.
Then we pointed our nose north again, having barely touched this interesting little corner of Auckland, keen to return on another Sunday.
Karioitahi Beach is about 70km, or an hour's drive from Auckland's CBD.
You can book lunch at Agave restaurant at Castaways Lodge, 685 Karioitahi Road, Karioitahi Beach, Waiuku. Phone: 09 236 5041 ext 4.By Helen van Berkel