What is it about Bethells Beach? We go there as often as we can. And whenever I say,"Oh yeah, we're off to Bethells this weekend," my mates go dreamy eyed and say: "Bethells - wow, it's so great out there - I love it!"
It is only 37 minutes' drive from the CBD and that's seriously important, especially in the winter; shorter days and all that.
Bethells is elemental and wild. Big landscapes and roaring ocean are a great background for our walk. Got dogs? They'll have a ball on this beach. There's even a handy map by the carpark that shows where the off-leash areas are.
If you turn right, best be at low tide, otherwise there's the humiliation of being rescued while trying to cross what appears to be a little creek. Left is a great long beach walk and we can just about always get to the caves at the south end. The caves are actually privately owned but left open for everyone.
The history is optional but to really enjoy Bethells, it's great if you know or read a bit. Who owns this place? How'd they do it? Why isn't it developed like Piha?
Bethells has a fascinating story, with characters Te Kawerau a Maki and Pa Bethell. From what I've read and heard, it was a good relationship.
If we fancy a change and it hasn't been raining for a couple of days, we park up by the bridge and walk up and over to O'Neill's Beach. The track has spectacular views over Bethells and beyond; and you can clamber down on to O'Neills, where the surf is relentless and beautiful. Very soon the windswept manuka hillside will be peppered with yellow kowhai and native clematis, but right now it's classic West Coast bush and suits the season.
Our other inland walk is the sand dunes - huge and black and world-famous in TV ads and Warriors' training runs. We either traipse across them a la Lawrence of Arabia, or follow their baseline up the creek to the lake.
The track goes on from there, part of the newly-opened Hilary Trail, but for a short day's outing the lake's a great destination. The first time I saw it, with those huge black dunes making such an improbable and vertical shoreline, I envied the two kids I watched hurling themselves down the slope and echoed their expletives as they hit the water. Apparently it does get warm in summer.
Any outing around here is made totally perfect by coffee and food at the Bethells Beach Cafe, run by Anna and Jim Wheeler. On winter Sundays it's a real meeting place for locals and tourists alike. The cafe and kitchen are actually caravans that are driven on to the sheltered beach site each weekend. The coffee is Allpress and food includes delicious pizzas, gourmet burgers and kumara wedges, then huge slices of chocolate brownies and cakes. And, of course, Jelly Tips and bags of lollies.
I'm a keen amateur photographer and, like many before me, I fall in love again and again whenever I'm out at Bethells. This landscape has been painted, sculpted, filmed and written about countless times - and I just can't stop myself either. But the best light, the most impressive seascapes, happen for me in the winter months on my beach walks.
It's a wild thing. Makes my heart sing.