There's more to Bream Bay than a sweep of white sand; here's what to do in winter, writes Elen Turner
If you visit the Bream Bay beaches of Waipū Cove or Ruakākā in midsummer (or try to get a table at the pumping Pizza Barn), you'd be forgiven for thinking that the coast south of Whangārei is chock-a-block year-round.
It isn't. Once schools go back, locals reclaim their bay, and on the average weekday outside peak season, you're unlikely to meet more than half a dozen other people on the beach.
There's more than just 22km of white-sand beaches to attract visitors, though. Whether you're passing through on your way north or staying around Waipū, Langs Beach, Ruakākā or One Tree Point for a few days, here's what to do in Bream Bay beyond the busy summer season.
Picnic at Piroa Falls
Not long after crossing the Brynderwyn Hills into Northland, Waipū Gorge Rd branches off State Highway 1 to the west. Follow the unsealed road for about 6km and you'll come to the Waipū Gorge Scenic Reserve. A short walk down through the bush (which can be slippery when wet) leads to the lovely Piroa Falls, a 20m drop that gathers in a plunge pool. In the summer you'll usually find local lads jumping off the top into the refreshing cold water, but even on a hot day it's quite chilly so don't be put off visiting at other times of the year. Take a picnic to enjoy with a waterfall view.
Explore Waipū Caves
Forget Waitomo; there are no underground raft rides here. The Waipū Caves are what all cave systems in New Zealand would have been like before mass tourism. The karst limestone caves contain stalactites, stalagmites and glowworms, but there are no guided tours, boardwalks or lights. Take sturdy shoes, a jumper and a torch for exploring beyond the immediate cave entrance, but don't venture too far in unless you're an experienced caver. Directly west of Uretiti Beach, the Waipū Caves can be reached from SH1 by following either Shoemaker Rd, Rosythe Rd or Mountfield Rd west.
Horse-trekking on the beach
The long beaches of Bream Bay are ideal horse-trekking territory, and Waipū Horse Adventures offers beginner to intermediate treks along Uretiti Beach. Both private and group tours can be arranged. Views of the Whangārei Heads to the north and the Hen and Chicken Islands offshore accompany you.
Hike the Waipū Coastal Walkway
While some longer hikes in the area (such as the Brynderwyn Hills Walk) are closed because of the threat of kauri dieback disease, the Waipū to Langs Beach Coastal Walkway remains a good option for stretching your legs and admiring the views. The track is still under development but follows a coastal path starting at Waipū Cove and ending at the northern end of Langs Beach (or vice versa). Pōhutukawa trees grow from the steep cliffs overlooking the sea, and some limestone pancake rocks are like a mini Punakaiki.
The full trail is about 3km and takes a bit more than an hour to complete. Unless you can arrange for a pick-up at the end, you'll need to backtrack to return to the start as this isn't a loop trail. Moderate fitness and mobility are required, as on the path you'll encounter stiles, steps, ladders and rocks. A section of the track crosses private land, so if you have a dog it must remain on a lead.
Play at Waipū Golf Club
You don't have to be a keen golfer to enjoy the course at Waipū Golf Club: the views across Bream Bay should make an excursion to this golf course appealing to anyone with even a passing interest in the sport. The 18-hole, sand-based course offers some fun golfing challenges. It's just north of Waipū town, between SH1 and the sea.
Spot endangered birds at the estuaries
The river estuaries at Waipū and Ruakākā are internationally significant bird-nesting habitats. The rare and endangered New Zealand dotterel, variable oystercatcher, New Zealand fairy tern, reef heron, wrybill, caspian tern, banded dotterel, and migrating godwits all nest in the area. Kayaking can be a fun way to explore the estuary and spot the birds from afar without disturbing them. Stay off the dunes and keep dogs on leads to protect the birds and their eggs. The Waipū Estuary can be reached from Johnson Point Rd, partway between the town and Waipū Cove, while the Ruakākā Estuary can be reached from Ruakākā Beach.
Shop at local markets
If you happen to be in Waipū on the second Sunday of the month, or in Ruakākā on the third Sunday, check out each town's respective markets. The Waipū Boutique Sunday Market is held in the Coronation Hall in the centre of town and offers fresh fruit and veges, specialist produce like honey and cheese, and other high-quality handicrafts, jewellery, art and skincare items made locally. The Marsden Cove Market at the Marsden Cove Marina (north of Ruakākā town) offers a similar range of goods but with the added bonus of majestic views across to the Whangārei Heads. Street markets are also held in Waipū on select long weekends around public holidays.
Learn about local history
This might be the winterless North, but that doesn't mean it's the rain-free North. If you're looking for a rainy day activity, check out the impressive Waipū Museum in the centre of town. Long-time residents are proud of their town's Scottish heritage, and through interactive exhibits, the Waipū Museum tells the story of the town's Scottish migrants who came from the Highlands via Nova Scotia in the 1850s.
For more things to see and do in the area, go to northlandnz.com