Tired of the same old places to open your picnic basket? STEVE HART reveals some hidden gems that you may have missed.

It's great to get out for a few hours to wide open spaces for a walk, enjoy some lovely scenery and let the children blow themselves out running around playing games or swimming. We've picked some of the less well-known picnic spots for you to try. Some are almost secret, but while they may be off the beaten track, we have selected sites for their beauty and accessibility.

North Shore - Birkenhead

Chelsea estate is probably the best-kept secret on the Shore. It is not a public park, as it is owned by the New Zealand Sugar Company, but it opens its parkland to the public and has gardens, lakes, bush walks, stunning views of the city over the Waitemata Harbour and children can feed the ducks. There is also an astro-turf tennis court the company hires out.

Facilities: Parking


Getting there: Take SH1 and cross the Harbour Bridge to the North Shore. Take the Onewa Rd exit (SH27) and follow signs to Birkenhead. Continue on to the Highbury bypass and turn left into Mokoia Rd, then look for signs for Colonial Rd. Follow to the end, passing the private property sign, and head for the carpark. Open 6 am to 8 pm daily.

Tawharanui Regional Park

Head for Anchor Bay, one of the finest, 2km-long, white sand beaches in the Auckland region. Swim with the fish in the marine park or go surfing - it's one of the best surf beaches on the region's east coast. The lagoon at Jones Bay is more sheltered and great for new boaties learning to sail. If you like adventure, try one of the two mystery walks that will take you into places you would otherwise miss.

Want to find an idyllic spot? Walk the ecology trail from the eastern end of Anchor Bay and within 30 minutes you'll find peace and quiet. A place to spread your picnic rug high above Tawharanui and enjoy stunning views of the regional park farmlands, wetlands, bush and, of course, the beach.

Facilities: Toilets, parking, campsite, information office.

Getting there: Take SH1 to Warkworth and follow the AA signs to Matakana. Past Matakana turn right on the Omaha turnoff and head along Takatu Rd. The park is well-signposted. To reach Anchor Bay you will need to drive down a short gravel road. No dogs are allowed.

Mahurangi - Scotts Pt

Fancy taking a step back in history? Consider picnicking in the peaceful, old-world setting of Scotts Pt, with its historic Scotts Homestead. There is safe swimming in front of the homestead and at low tide you can cross the flats to Manganui (Casnell Island). Take your boat and skip across to Mahurangi East where you can wander the old farm tracks - you'll feel like you are the only people on Earth.

Facilities Scotts Pt: Toilets, parking, boat ramp. Mahurangi East: Campsite.

Getting there: From Warkworth, take the Warkworth Sandspit Rd then Mahurangi Beach Rd to Snells Beach. After about 1km, turn right into Ridge Rd. Scotts Pt follow to the end and Scotts Pt. Mahurangi East has no road access - you can only get to it by boat.


Whakanewha Regional Park (Waiheke Island)

Here's a spot that lets you really get away from it all. Settle down at the safe swimming beach or walk to the bluff at the beach's southern end. There you will find a historic pa site, complete with kumara pits, and a secluded picnic table looking out to Rocky Bay and towards Auckland city.

Facilities: Parking, campsites, toilets, drinking water.

Getting there: From the Waiheke port of Matiatia, take a shuttle bus direct to the park or take the Rocky Bay bus which will drop you near the edge of the park.

Waitakere Ranges - Whites Beach

A great spot that lives up to its Wild West reputation, this beach is best accessed from walking the track from North Piha. Picnic at the lookout at Te Waha Pt with views over Piha and Whites Beach or carry on to Whites Beach and enjoy the seclusion of this undiscovered gem.

Whites Beach is perfect for viewing the west coastline and taking in the fresh air and excitement of the crashing waves. If you want a swim, take a dip at North Piha as there is no surf patrol at Whites Beach.

Facilities: Parking. Closest toilets at north Piha.

Getting there: Take SH16 to Scenic Drive and then take Piha Rd. At the fork, take Te Ahuahu Rd and follow to the end where you can park near Te Waha Pt. From here take the short walking track to Whites Beach.

Waitakare Ranges - Kaitarakihi Bay

Little known, but an easily accessible bay tucked between Cornwallis and Huia.

Children can enjoy sheltered and safe swimming, a great beach and there's a chance to cast a line to fish from the shore.

The spot is close to the Spragg monument and the Huia Pt lookout, which offer superb views of Manukau Harbour.

Facilities: Parking, picnic tables, toilets, lookout point.

Getting there: From Auckland City head for Titirangi on SH24. Take the coastal Huia Rd, pass Cornwallis Rd and take the turnoff for Kaitarakihi Bay. Parking at the end.

Waitakere Ranges - Karamatura

A popular spot with those who have discovered it. This one is great for all the family. The park offers picnic spots, nearby streams, swimming holes and short walks nearby.

Across the road from the entrance is the Huia Settlers Museum and plenty of wide open green spaces if you'd rather walk off lunch than spin a frisbee or throw a ball to each other. Highly recommended.

Facilities: Campsite, parking, information, toilets.

Getting there: From Auckland city head for Titirangi on SH24. Take the coastal Huia Rd to its end, turn left and look for Karamatura on your right.

Waitakere Ranges - Karekare (Mercer Bay)

A famous beach and popular with tourists and New Zealanders even before the film The Piano took it to the world - but there's more than just the beach. Take the Mercer Bay loop track (on the coastal side from the Karekare end).

You'll find several knolls high above the black sand, some covered in bush, others covered in grass, which offer breathtaking views of the beach far below.

The higher you go the more you'll see - don't go home till you can see all the way to Whatipu.

Facilities: Toilets, parking, information.

Getting there: Take SH16 to Scenic Drive, then Piha Rd. Take the Karekare turnoff and park in the beach carpark. Walk back over the bridge just before the carpark, which will take you to the start of the track. Alternatively, take Piha Rd as far as Te Ahuahu Rd and start at the other end of the track.

Awhitu Regional Park

Two secluded spots on the Awhitu Peninsula coast to chose from here - Kauritutahi or Brook Beach. Both offer safe swimming.

There are plenty of picnic sites and a barbecue site between the two spots. Roam the farmland or pick one of the marked short walks.

Facilities: Parking, toilets, public phone, boat ramp, barbecue, educational camp with 80 bunks ($8 a head a night - ph: 0923 58139 for details).

Things to do: Golf (fee payable), swim at the old wharf and visit the Brook Homestead.

Getting there: Take SH1 (south) heading for Drury, turn off to Waiuku and keep travelling along the Awhitu Peninsula through Matakawau. After about 2km turn right down Brook Rd to the park.

Hunua Ranges - Wairoa Dam

Often lost in the shadow of the more popular Hunua Falls, the Wairoa area of the Hunua Ranges is a great setting for a picnic, with its dense native bush and views over the picturesque dam. Take a short walk to several spectacular lookout points. The Wairoa loop track or the first part of the Wairoa Cosseys tracks are recommended.

Facilities: Parking, information, toilets, lookout spot.

Getting there: Take SH1, turn off at Papakura. Follow Beach Rd across the Great South Rd and along Settlement Rd, then turn right by Edmund Hillary School to Hunua Rd. Follow this through Hunua Gorge to Hunua Village. Continue for about 8km and turn left to Moumoukai Rd. Wairoa is on the left after about 1km.

Waharau Regional Park

Here the world is your oyster. The Hunua Ranges on the coastal side, with superb picnicking and a barbecue area by the beach, or you can find your own spot on the bush side of the Coastal Rd.

Try one of the short, flat bush walks that are suitable for the whole family.

Recommended is the 40-min return bush walk or the lower link track walk that will take an hour if you stop to look at everything. Afterward you can relax by the stream.

There are some excellent mountain bike tracks - ideal for those with a new bike for Christmas to try out.

There's safe swimming at the beach and if you want to make a day of it, try a dip in the hot pools at nearby Miranda (charges apply).

As a special treat, try some food from the award-winning fish and chip shop at Kaiaua.

Facilities: Parking, campsites, mountain bike tracks, toilets, information, drinking water. There is also an outdoor education camp with 88 bunks which costs $8 a person a night. Minimum charge is $150, plus a $100 deposit and $100 bond. Ph (09) 267 9804.

Getting there: Take the Southern Motorway to Manurewa or Papakura and follow the signs to Clevedon and, from there, to Kawakawa Bay. Follow the signs towards Orere Pt but carry on past the final Orere Pt turnoff and you'll find yourself on the picturesque coastal road towards Waharau, Kaiaua and Miranda.

Duder Regional Park - Whakakaiwhara Pt

This is a farm park that occupies a peninsula south of Maraetai and Umupuia Beach. Head out on foot or on your mountain bike, and picnic at Whakakaiwhara Pt, which offers spectacular views of the Hauraki Gulf islands and the Coromandel.

Children can enjoy safe swimming beaches nearby and the coastal walk is recommended, but it can only be done at low tide. There's also a great cliff-top walk. Take a kite to fly and help the youngsters to enjoy exploring the rocky shore.

Facilities: Toilets, parking, information.

Getting there: Turn off SH1 at Otara and turn left on to East Tamaki Rd, right into Preston Rd and immediate left into Ormiston Rd. Follow Ormiston and Sandstone Rds to Whitford. From here take the Whitford-Maraetai Rd to Maraetai. Continue through Maraetai and take the Maraetai Coast Rd to Umupuia. The park is just to the south of Umupuia on North Rd.

Omana Regional Park

Omana Beach and the smaller Kellys Beach are both excellent. Each offers a great spot and there is a farmyard to visit. There are also larger sites for group picnics and barbecues.

The headland cliffs comprise Waitemata sandstone. Below these an extensive rock platform stretches into the sea, an ideal place to search out small marine life. No dogs are allowed in the farm area.

Facilities: Phone, parking, toilets, animal petting area, campsites, barbecues, lookout points.

Getting there: Turn off SH1 at Otara and turn left on to East Tamaki Rd, right into Preston Rd and immediate left into Ormiston Rd. Follow Ormiston and Sandstone Rds to Whitford. From here take the Whitford-Maraetai Rd to Maraetai. The park is on the left just before you enter the township.

* Dogs are not allowed at any of the ARC's campsites. Permits and pre-booking may be required for camping and barbecues at ARC sites. Check before you go by calling ParksLine on (09) 303 1530. Special thanks to the Auckland Regional Council.

* Worth reading

A Field Guide to Auckland - Exploring the region's natural and historic heritage. By Ewen Cameron, Bruce Hayward and Graeme Murdoch. ISBN number: 1 86962 014 3. Price: $39.95.