As New Zealanders head to the sand and surf this summer, Isaac Davison investigates the environmental issues at our most popular North Island beaches. Today it is Taupo Bay.

In whispers, Far North residents tell one another they have the best beach in the country on their doorstep.

A deep gouge in the east coast, flanked by striking headlands, with crystalline sea and glittering white sand, Taupo Bay is a gem of the North.

During an easterly swell a well-formed metre-high surf break unfolds across the bay. A short dinghy ride will reap snapper and kahawai, and the rocky nooks at the tips of the coast hide crayfish. Further in, dotterels nest at the southern end of the bay, near a seabed which is bumpy with tuatua. For swimmers, the ocean is half a degree warmer in this part of the country.

The beachfront was subdivided in the 1950s and today has a few modern houses. But it has resisted overdevelopment.


So why has Taupo Bay not gone the way of the Mount? How has it retained a semblance of a bach tradition in a country where developers are increasingly colonising the beachfront?

The reasons are varied. Locals say the key difference compared with intensively built-up beaches is the distance from Auckland - a 4-hour drive deters property speculators and anyone seeking a weekend bach.

Most of its homeowners are from Whangarei, Kerikeri, or other parts of Northland, and a small but growing number of international travellers who could not bring themselves to leave.

Diane Sinclair, who lives at the bay three weeks out of four, says: "It's never really developed at all. We have a few two-storey houses but it's really just a lovely Kiwi beach. Families pass on their baches, and nothing much happens here."

Others say the bay's lack of amenities - there is just a store at the campground - puts off people who want everything at arm's reach.

In the words of one homeowner, it is 25 minutes to the closest latte.

The land rears up into mountainous shrub 150m from the beach, so housing is only two blocks deep. The Far North District Council's height restrictions have prevented any unsightly impingements on the landscape.

There are 180 private properties, but only 40 or so permanent residents. The advent of broadband has meant home owners who pine for more time at the bay can run their businesses in this remote spot.

Jan Turner planned to stay at the bay for six months when she sold her house in Auckland. But 20 years later, she's still there, running a real estate office from her home with the help of her husband, John, who mows lawns.

Access to the beach is via a winding, dipping 13km road which leaves State Highway 10 near Mangonui. The last kilometre was a dusty road until six years ago, which further encouraged Taupo Bay's isolation.

That section of road ran through the property of Paul Hatton, who opposed the sealing of it for eight years, claiming it was worth $1.2 million.

When Mr Hatton died, his widow allowed the sealing to go ahead.

Residents say Taupo Bay's isolation, helped by that patchy access road, bred a rare community spirit.

"There is one road in and one road out," says Ms Sinclair. "In times of crisis, you are reliant on the people around you, and the people seem to rise to that occasion."

The community has also cared for its beach, which has few serious environmental pressures.

One main issue is degradation of the dunes, which have been worn down by development. A coastal care group is working to replant there.

Another concern are the visitors whose roaming dogs ravage dotterel nests at breeding season.

In the past year, there's been tension over a planned community centre and tennis court at the northern end of the beach. The plan gained resource consent but an appeal will be heard by the Environment Court.

Residents hope the legal tussle will not sour relationships within the community. "It's not what Taupo Bay's about," says Ms Sinclair.

The proposed site is council-owned, highly valued green space on Taupo Bay's main street, Marlin Drive. It is rumoured to be the most expensive street north of Whangarei.

Colin Moore, the Herald's former travel editor who died in an accident at the bay in June 2009, bought a property in Marlin Drive 30 years ago for $2280. In an article in the Herald, he said it was the wilderness, not the property value, that defined Taupo Bay.

"Every day is the same and every day is different ... Some people like to tell me how much my slice of paradise is worth. I don't think they have any idea."