There's more to the West Coast than gannets, finds Danielle Wright.

To me, Muriwai has always meant hot black sand-dunes, a playground near the beach with a very steep hill for the kids to slide down, waving to my husband far out in the surf and watching fishermen braving the elements on the rocks or gannets diving for their dinner.

Lately, though, our family has been exploring parts of Muriwai not on the direct beach route. On a recent day trip, we took a right turn at the fire station into Coast Rd and came to a dirt track filled with Muriwai Beach Horse Treks trucks.

After kitting the kids out in hi-vis vests and riding hats, we popped two 5-year olds and two 8-year-olds on the back of ponies, and we were off.

My son's horse was called Smiley and had a smiley face clipped into its hair. My daughter's, Gypsy, had its hair clipped into love-heart shapes, much to the kids' delight. The 5-year-old girls were nervous so high off the ground, but soon got the hang of it.


The 8-year-olds were desperate to gallop and were fully in control of their horses most of the time, and the others were led. The older kids did get a little stumped, though, when their horses veered into the scrub or dipped their heads to sip the seawater.

Back at the base, we met a white horse named Tilly, under a new horse rug. It looked like she was wearing an expensive puffer jacket. As the company's only white horse, she's a prized possession waiting for a wedding photoshoot later in the day.

"The horses are the money-makers," says Hayley Smith, who started Muriwai Beach Horse Treks with Kate Arthur around Easter last year. "We have to spoil them."

The horses are said to be "bomb-proofed" because they get used to everything in the forest, along the beach and with the noise of the quad bikes and dune bikes thrashing past them. They certainly seem that way, they're incredibly calm.

Kate was a dressage rider and has worked with the Whittaker's show jumpers, and Hayley took up riding at 6 years old and worked her way up through pony club. Recently she has been involved in horse racing.

Surprisingly, considering both live locally, neither has bothered to check out the local drawcard, the gannets.

They point customers towards the birds, but were recently told that they've flown to Australia.

They're more familiar with Woodhill Forest and we walk around the edges of it. For more experienced riders there are plenty of inspiring tracks and wild deer to dodge. Hayley estimates around 30,000 fallow deer are in the forest. Deer have been in the forest for more than 100 years.

As the horses gracefully step over driftwood and we reach the soft sand, the sound of waves turns from a soft distant sketch to a slap in the face for our senses. It's a busy section of beach and we're surrounded by quad bikers, by families fishing and by 4WDs heading along the coastal "road".

As we head back to the base, my 5-year-old daughter (who flatly refused to hop on a horse for the first 20 minutes) happily discusses the day's riding, concluding it was "bumpy and wobbly, but nice".

Over milkshakes at the Muriwai golf club, my friend's 8-year-old daughter Aimee shakes her head when we ask her whether it was fun. "No," says Aimee. "It wasn't fun ... It was AWESOME fun."

More than meets the eye

Choose from horse treks, riding lessons, pony rides and more from Kate and Hayley at Muriwai Beach Horse Treks. Prices start at $65 per person for one-hour treks, or $25 for a 15-minute lead rein pony ride at the farm ($65 for a 45-min lead rein pony ride through Woodhill Forest).

The Muriwai Golf Club has a bar and a cafe (be warned, it has no eftpos). It has the feel of an RSA club and is filled with every generation ogling the ocean views. There are picnic tables outside on the deck and one on the grounds, as well as the friendliest staff who actually run the food to the table. Open daily, 10am-3pm.

We gave the cafe a miss and stopped instead at the lovely Top Shop Muriwai at 189 Motutara Road. It used to be a pretty ordinary dairy, today it's a delicious and interesting shop featuring Kiwiana crafts, beach essentials, healthy takeaway meals for the freezer, as well as great coffee, homemade pies and baking. My favourite is their raw energy salad, surprisingly tasty. The kitchen is open Tuesday-Sunday from midday to 7pm in winter.

Take the kids for a stroll along the beach, but swim at the safer indoor pool up the road. The "Fools' Pools" at 376 Oaia Road is a state-of-the art, European-designed enclosure available on Saturdays from midday and Sundays from 6am-dark. The small pool is closed until summer. Cost: $7, under-5s free with a paying adult.