Michelle Coursey finds the ideal way to get away from it all in the peaceful haven that is Kawhia.

It's a long trek to the top of the sand dunes, and our feet are covered in burning hot black sand by the time we make it to the bottom on the other side, but as we look along the huge expanse of rugged beach that is virtually empty, it's all worth it.

We're in Kawhia, a west coast beach town some way off the beaten track, but home to one of the Waikato region's best-kept secrets: a natural hot water beach, called Te Puia Springs - minus the huge crowds you'll find if you head to the Coromandel Peninsula in search of the same.

After following the unassuming sign towards this special stretch of sand, we have climbed the dunes with spades in hand ready to shovel and soak. With the tide retreating (you can dig a pool two hours either side of low tide), we head out to the wet sand and quickly spot bubbles beneath the surface signalling hot water. Pushing our feet down, we can feel the heat beneath, but our digging doesn't produce any results.

Just as we start to scratch our heads, we stumble across a shallow steaming pool - naturally formed and the perfect temperature for lying in. We ditch the spades and settle in, occasionally shifting to a new, hotter patch when the mood strikes. It's an idyllic feeling, especially with so few people on the beach, the sun shining, and the wild waves crashing metres away.

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Kawhia is a small. peaceful town, perfect for a chilled-out weekend. We have chosen to stay at one of the local camping grounds, where a small cabin and communal facilities are basic but all we need. The town centre is just a short stroll through the bush along a cliffside path - a trip we make one night to get fish and chips from the beachfront store and eat with the company of some seriously noisy gulls and no one else in sight.

The Kawhia Museum, which inhabits the 1916 Kawhia County Council building on the waterfront, is packed full of colonial records and historical trinkets. The displays are brimming with fascinating information about the busy settler town's heyday, and there is enough to keep us busy for a couple of hours as we trawl through old newspapers and photos from yesteryear.

There isn't a lot to do in Kawhia except relax, take in the sea views and go fishing - our campground host recommends taking the back route to trendy Raglan if we're after more action, although it's a gravel road most of the way for an hour.

Instead, we choose to make the short drive to the tiny seaside settlement of Aotea, which is well worth a visit for the alien landscape of sand dunes across the harbour that dominate the scenery in a slightly foreboding but impressive way.

One of the most popular activities in Kawhia is horse-riding along the beach - we aren't game enough to try it, but locals say it's a beautiful experience. You can also take quad bike tours along Ocean Beach in the summer, or go sand yachting or on a fishing charter.

Instead, we spend our time in this relaxed town soaking in the natural hot water pools, walking along those windswept beaches, and imagining days gone by in this small haven that still retains so much of the charm of Kiwi beach towns as they used to be. If it's a bit of nostalgia and a true holiday you're after, Kawhia might well be the place to find it.

NEED TO KNOW

Kawhia is at the end of State Highway 31, about three hours from Auckland. For more information and directions to the hot water beach see kawhiaharbour.co.nz.