Diana Clement seeks out the best from Auckland's Waitemata, Kairapa and Manukau harbours.
Blessed with three harbours and hundreds of kilometres of coastline, the Auckland region has dozens of "secret" bays and beaches. Many are known to few outside the immediate area and lovers of solitude will all have their favourite spots.
Waipiro Bay/Te Rau Puriri, South Kaipara Peninsula
If you're looking for truly secret beaches, go remote. And in the Auckland region you can't get much more remote than the South Kaipara peninsula. People who don't live on the peninsula have little reason to venture 30km north of Parakai, near Helensville, to little-known regional park Te Rau Puriri.
If the 80-minute drive from Auckland isn't enough to keep the hordes away, the 1.5 to 2-hour return walk is. A poled walkway gives access to Waipiro Bay, arguably the most beautiful stretch of beach in the South Kaipara. The track is downhill all the way, meaning an uphill slog on the way back. But anyone who makes it to the coast is rewarded with a stretch of sandy/shelly coastline dotted with wading birds.
Getting there: From Parakai take Parkhurst Rd and then South Head Rd. After Donohue Rd look out for the Te Rau Puriri sign and carpark.
Kelvin Strand beach
There's nothing like a long peninsula to keep the masses away from lovely little beaches. Kelvin Strand beach almost at the tip of the Te Atatu peninsula is one such hidden treasure.
I did wonder if the locals warded off visitors with the signs, which warned about tsunamis, mudflats, quicksand and shallow water.
The beach is a real gem - lovely white sand, regenerating wetlands, and a large grassy park and playground. The views to the Sky Tower and the harbour bridge are spectacular on a clear day. This beach is best visited at high tide, although at low tide it's possible to walk to a sand bar about 100m off the beach. A good alternative is to bring bikes and ride along the relatively new Harbourview Walkway.
Getting there: Access from Kelvin Cres off Gill Rd.
Esplanade Reserve beach, Pt Chevalier
I've often noticed the people kite-surfing and swimming at Eric Armishaw Park, seen from the Northwestern motorway between the Patiki Rd and Pt Chevalier exits.
Directions from the Auckland City Council sent me to this park, which was heaving with people. But the secret is at the end of a little pathway that dives into the bush at the northern end of the park. Ten minutes up the Eric Armishaw Esplanade Reserve the path ends at a staircase and a gorgeous strip of sandy beach forming a perfect cove.
Magnificent pohutukawa spill out onto the beach providing excellent shade cover. At high tide this bay, which doesn't have an official name according to Auckland Council, is magical.
Getting there: Go to the car park at Eric Armishaw Park at the very end of Walker Rd, Pt Chevalier.
Kaitarakihi Bay, northern Manukau Harbour
With so many popular beaches around Kaitarakihi, it's no wonder this is a quiet spot. Sandwiched between Cornwallis and Huia, the beach is accessed through a gate, which closes at 9pm during daylight saving and 7pm other times. On a calm day Kaitarakihi is tranquil and the water glass-like.
There is a grassy reserve behind the sandy beach, which looks out towards the Manukau Heads. The Spragg Memorial, a short walk from Kaitarakihi Bay, is worth visiting for its views of the Heads and harbour.
What's nice about this bay is that it's not as tidal as some of the beaches around it such as Huia, meaning the swimming is good, and thanks to being close to the Heads, clean water flushes in and out of the bay every 12 hours.
Although remote and quiet, Kaitarakihi Bay is only five minutes' drive from the wonderful Huia Beach Store & Cafe, which does a good coffee, icecreams, and fish and chips.
Getting there: Turn left into Kaitarakihi Rd off Huia Rd just after Cornwallis Rd.
Wattle Bay, Awhitu
Two of Auckland's best secret bays are called Wattle Bay and both are on the Manukau Harbour. This one is a 60-minute drive from downtown Auckland, on the Awhitu peninsula.
It's remoteness means day trippers are almost guaranteed solitude. What's more, this coastline has lovely golden sandy beaches, quite different to other parts of the Manukau Harbour. And the beach at Wattle Bay, although tidal, always has deep green water to swim in on any tide.
Fishing folk, I'm told, really rate a spot called the blow hole at Wattle Bay, which is a bit like a deep undersea tomo.
It's possible to walk northwest from Wattle Bay for a few minutes and see the old cottage where local character Mavis Brambley wrote Sea Cockies Of The Manukau in the 1960s.
A worthwhile trip while you're up that way is to the historic Awhitu Lighthouse, which offers excellent views of the Manukau Heads. The entrance is at the junction of the Manukau Heads Rd and Hartner Rd.
Getting there: Take Wattle Bay Rd from Orua Bay.
Charcoal Bay, Beach Haven
Charcoal Bay is perhaps the most beautiful in the inner Waitemata Harbour. It's not signposted, but a relatively well-formed and newish track drops down to Charcoal Bay from Rosecamp Rd through a stand of native bush and mature pines.
What hit me about this beach was how quiet and yet noisy it was all at the same time. The noise came from a symphony orchestra of cicadas. The other surprise was just how clear the water was considering it is such a long way from open water. Underfoot is a mixture of sand and shell. This is a good beach to bring children to because the water is reasonably shallow and the bay protected by headlands. And because it is west-facing, it is worth staying until sunset. There are views from the bay over towards Hobsonville in one direction and Te Atatu North in the other.
Anyone looking for solitude on the beach can find it at most of the bays along the Beachaven and Chatswood coast such as Island Bay, Soldiers Bay, Onetaunga Bay and the beach at Kauri Point Centennial Park.
Getting there: Park opposite number 31 Rosecamp Rd, Beach Haven and walk down the track in the unmarked reserve.
Mercer Bay, west coast
If you think popular west coast beaches such as Piha and Karekare are wild and remote, you ain't seen nothing yet. Mercer Bay eclipses them all.
The safest way to get to Mercer Bay is by boat. Getting there on foot requires steady nerves, good scrambling ability, and maybe even a rope.
Mercer Bay sits just north of Karekare and is accessed via a series of tracks. Even if you don't have the nerve to descend to the beach, the track should be on all Auckanders' bucket lists. The cliffs above Mercer Bay are the highest in the region and will take all but the most hardened cynic's breath away.
Anyone who makes it down to the beach needs to be aware it isn't a safe swimming spot. The beauty is in the environment, and getting there.
Getting there: Park at Karekare Beach. Walk north along the Colman's Track and then the Mercer Bay Loop Track. The steep rugged and rocky track to Mercer Bay turns off at the north end of the bay.
Wattle Bay, Waikowhai
Wattle Bay on the northern Manukau was once home to a rag-tag bag of illegal baches until the council cleared them a few decades ago. It's now regenerating bush and, of course, wattle trees. Wattle Bay was once farmed and a local tannery owner planted wattles for their pigments.
It's not just humans that appreciate this corner of the Manukau Harbour. Kereru abound.
The best time to visit Wattle Bay is at high tide because the water goes out a long way. It's a safe and sheltered beach for children to swim. The energetic might want to take a walk up the new Cape Horn track to a great vantage point over the harbour.
To find somewhere even more secret, either walk east over the hill or around the foreshore towards Cape Horn and you'll find a little sandy bay with no name just before the headland.
Getting there: Park between 34 and 36 Canberra Ave.
Rahopara Beach, East Coast Bays
Summer and winter there are people on the numerous big beaches spanning the coast from Long Bay to Cheltenham. Along the coast a number of tiny beaches that all have small local followings.
My friend Doug MacIntyre drew my attention to Rahopara Beach, where his family spent many happy days in the 1970s. This beach, also called Blackjack Beach, isn't as private and secluded as it was back then, thanks to the North Shore Coastal Walkway.
If families with children tire of the beach, the playground at nearby JF Kennedy Memorial Park is one of Auckland's best, and the Mr Whippy van makes regular stops.
Getting there: From Kennedy Park on Beach Rd, Castor Bay, walk 75m south to the first gun emplacement. A path leads to stairs to the beach.
Tawhitokino, south east Auckland
Tawhitokino is an unspoiled stretch of sand in a series of beaches between Orere Pt township and Papanui Pt, on the south-east coast near the Firth of Thames.
What's great about Tawhitokino is that it's only accessible on foot at low tide or by kayak or other small boat. The beach itself is 1.4km long broken only by two small streams. It also gets a mention in the NZ Good Beach Guide: North Island.
Getting there: Drive past Waiti Bay to the end of Kawakawa Bay Coast Rd. Follow the Tawhitokino track around the rocks and over Papanui Pt to the beach. It's a 45 minute walk for an averagely fit person.