Ceana Priest shares five short Auckland region walks to tempt the family outdoors and prevent cabin fever during the cooler months.
Crisp winter days on Auckland's sprawling volcanic isthmus are ideal for family adventures. The summer hordes have long departed, and the pace of life slows. But getting kids enthused about winter strolls can be hard work, especially when the family is hibernating in toasty warm pyjamas and squabbling over the remote.
Luckily, tantalising close to the urban sprawl are hidden gems that will tempt even the most screen-hungry family members. Walk to an uninhabited island with its ill-fated rabbit farm or eyeball nature's power as furious waves erupt between narrow cliffs.
So grab a cosy jumper, pack some snacks and don't forget a rain jacket for the changeable weather; not much competes with the misery of being cold and soaked while trudging along outdoors. Stash warm clothes in the car if the weather looks dicey. Need bribes? Don't forget the universal appeal of icecream, despite arctic conditions.
Te Tokaroa | Meola Reef Reserve, Westmere
Hiding some intriguing skeletons beneath its grassy mounds, this reserve, with its reef jutting two kilometres into the Waitematā Harbour, has had a chequered history. Created when Te Kōpuke/Tītīkōpuke/Mount Saint John blew its top more than 75,000 years ago, its history includes being a food-gathering site for Māori travellers, a farm and quarry, and eventually a rubbish dump. The rolling green hills hide some unusual items, including dead zoo animals. Follow the path to the headland where the grass meets the exposed reef. If you don't mind muddy shoes, you can clamber across at various points here or look out for the wooden plank. Explore the stands of saltmarsh and mangroves growing on the flow, and if you're lucky, you might spot an endangered reef heron. Take care as you head further out on to the reef as there are razor-sharp rock oysters to navigate, and keep an eye on the incoming tide.
Accessibility: Gravel buggy-friendly paths on the headland but walking only on the reef.
Time: Allow 60 min (about 2 km) return to explore.
Location: Small car park and plenty of on-road parking on Meola Rd, Western Springs.
Dogs: On-lead through the reserve. Off-lead in the fenced area.
Tasman Lookout Path, Piha
If there's one walk to do at Piha, this is it. Tackle the short, steep climb to the Tasman Lookout with its bird's-eye views of the coastal township before meandering past flax and cabbage trees as the path descends through low coastal vegetation to a vantage point overlooking The Gap. Here, incoming waves surge through a narrow opening beside Taitomo Island before splaying out onto Puaotetai Bay. Continue to the small bay where you can eyeball nature's power from ground level. The bush-clad hills surrounding this cove make it feel wonderfully isolated – despite a hive of activity just around the corner on Piha Beach. Peer through the tidal tunnel The Keyhole at the base of Taitomo Island and watch the rolling surf speckled with wetsuit-clad surfers catching a wave. If the tide is in, the last section back to Piha Beach includes a scramble over rocks.
Accessibility: Dirt paths, sand and steps. Walking access only.
Time: Allow 60 min (about 2 km) for the loop.
Location: The walks starts at the southern end of Piha beach.
Dogs: No dogs allowed.
Motukaraka Island, Beachlands
Kids can unleash their inner Robinson Crusoe on this uninhabited island tantalisingly perched at the end of a long shallow shell bank. Starting from Sunkist Bay Reserve, walk over the exposed sand bar for about 500 metres to reach the island. Look out for the cockles hiding in the shallows and see if you can spot the shag colony around the back of the island. After Māori occupation, the island was at times farmed for potatoes – and rabbit breeding! – until a fire swept across the island for three days in 1965, burning everything to a crisp apart from a couple of hardy pōhutukawa trees. The island is accessible for approximately three hours on either side of low tide. If you want to circumnavigate the island, make sure you start your adventure at least one hour before low tide. It gets muddy, so bring an old pair of sneakers.
Accessibility: Walking access only across sand, rocks and mud.
Time: Allow 80 min (about 4 km) return.
Location: Sunkist Bay Reserve, Ealing Cres, near Beachlands Wharf.
Dogs: Off-leash allowed at all times on the beach until November 30.
Whatipū Beach Sea Caves, Waitakere Ranges
These ancient sea caves were once the spot for high-spirited dances during the height of the settlement's timber milling days and are now the stomping ground for intrepid explorers. The path heads north from the car park to the base of the cliffs and edges past a handful of accessible caves. For more than six decades from the early 1900s, the largest cave Te Ana Ru/The Ballroom, hosted formal dances. Keen folk tackled the relatively inhospitable roads by horseback or boat to reach the lamplit cave decorated with ribbons and native ferns. Partygoers mingled while an accordion band belted out popular tunes. The cave's kauri dance floor might still be buried deep under the sand. Take a torch to explore all the nooks and crannies in the caves but be careful, as rockfall does occur near the cave mouths.
Accessibility: At times rough, narrow dirt path. Boggy in winter. Walking access only.
Time: Allow 40 min (3 km) return.
Location: Start by the information shelter at Whatipū Beach car park.
Dogs: No dogs allowed.
Ambury Foreshore Path, Māngere Bridge
This often windswept trail leads you to the edge of the vast Manukau Harbour, where kids can clamber through ancient lava caves - only if they aren't squeamish about the occasional cave wētā. Amble across the pasture, past fenced-off freshwater wetlands and native herb fields to the coast. Keen bird-twitchers have identified more than 86 species of birds here at Ambury. See if you can spy the threatened native wrybill that has the only laterally-curved bill (always curved to the right) in the world or the incredible migratory kūaka/godwits. Lava spewed from nearby Māngere Mountain has created a small network of shallow caves that kids can explore. At night the caves are lit by titiwai/glowworms. If you keep to the grass and hop across the small boggy patches, you'll make it out of this adventure with clean shoes. But some mud-sploshing near the coastline adds to the fun.
Accessibility: Flat grass and dirt paths. Occasional boggy patches. Walking access only.
Time: Allow 45 min (about 2 km) return.
Location: The trail starts beside the Ambury Regional Park car park, Māngere Bridge.
Dogs: No dogs allowed.
Ceana Priest is the author of Kid Friendly Adventures Auckland: The Ultimate Family Guidebook. outdoorkid.co.nz