It’s one of New Zealand’s best loved seaside havens, but here’s the essential things to see and do at Waihī Beach.
It’s a beachside bolt-hole that will cast you under its spell, packed with must-sees and must-dos. Waihī Beach is imbued with a salty, care-free spirit, it enjoys the warm-clutch of an inclusive village embrace and it resolutely beats to a leisurely pace. Located in the bountiful Western Bay of Plenty, just 2 hours drive from Auckland and 50 minutes from Tauranga, it embodies the very best vibes of old-school, kiwi beach holidays. That feel-good golden glow faithfully rises with the sun, every day.
Confession time – I have just enjoyed my first ever visit to Waihī Beach and despite its glittering reputation, it still managed to exceed my expectations. Gazing across the diverse portfolio of real estate that edges its sublime coastline, from cute and cosy baches to trophy-home beach houses, I’m sure most first-visitors were struck by the wishful impulse that fast grabbed me; I would love to have a place here! Catering to such a broad range of income-earners, elitism, exclusivity or pretentiousness are not the sort of traits you’re likely to strike in this revered and cohesive beachside community.
Strung along a 9km stretch of alluring white sand and boasting one of New Zealand’s safest surf beaches, the bustling beachside village is generously endowed with a great array of boutique shops and eateries. And there are so many headline treats. Don’t miss Chez Moi – The Swiss Chocolate Shop.
Under the command of Swiss couple, Ines and Adrian, these artisan chocolatiers are fawned over for their quality handmade chocolates. These delightful little parcels of decadence are freshly made in front of you. Their truffles are made with the single cream from Lewis Road, while locally-sourced New Zealand flavours make their chocolates sing, including chilli from Kaitaia, local oranges, lemons, passion fruit, feijoa and mint plucked straight from the garden.
Be sure to enjoy breakfast at The Secret Garden, a unique, Balinese-inspired garden cafe in the heart of Waihī Beach village. This main-street hospitality oasis has been artfully planted with lush tropical plants and palms, complete with pagoda style seating. I felt positively transported – and fuelled. They serve up superb Havana coffee, deliciously fresh salads, superfood smoothies and sweet treats. It’s also a wildly popular spot for afternoon cocktails, while chilling out on bean bags, and Friday happy hour in their Tiki Bar. The Mexican street food menu is also very good.
Lording over the main drag of Wilson Road, Beach Pacific Apartments boasts a clutch of pampered accommodation options which have been stylishly furnished and decorated, whether you want a one, two and three bedroom self-contained apartment. All options have open plan living, dining areas and large decks complete with outdoor furniture for sundowners and al fresco dining on a balmy summer’s night. There are spa options including the three bedroom penthouse, which can sleep six guests, crowning the complex. www.beachpacific.co.nz
Dinner with a view? I plumped for a coastal jewel that informally doubles as an effervescent community nexus. Flatwhite’s spacious and beautifully appointed design exudes the warmth of a great timbered beach house, edging that vast sweep of sugar-white sands. This is the pinnacle of absolute beachfront dining – in fact the closest contender to rival Flatwhite’s prized perch is as far away as Pāpāmoa. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the epic views are a match for the fabulous fare.
The steamed pork buns and fish tacos are great for sharing, but I particularly enjoyed tucking into a kai Moana Pizza. This extravagantly laid construction consisted of prawns, scallops, mussels, fish, spring onion, dill cream cheese, mozzarella and deep-fried capers. A smash-hit.
Feeling suitably obliged to burn off the excess of all my noshing in Waihī Beach, morning walkies entailed knocking off the cliff-hugging natural splendour of the Orokawa Bay walk. The day had dawned bright and blue-skied, accentuating the panoramic good looks of this banger of walk. The entrance to this 90 minute-return track leads off from the northern end of Waihī Beach, wih an uphill trudge to commence proceedings. Traversing the coastal headland, swathed in giant pohutukawa, kauri, puriri, and nikau palm trees, soundtracked by breaking rollers and native birdsong, it was the constant sighting of kereru that ramped this walk’s multi-sensory theatre.
The elevated views across Waihī Beach and as far as Mount Maunganui are an early highlight, before infinity perspectives of the big blue ocean continued to captivate me on this undulating trail. Descending through native bush to Orokawa Bay, the sense of blissful seclusion is all-encompassing. Pack a picnic and park yourself up under the sweet sprawl of an overhanding pohutukawa, to drink it all in.
Back in town, I headed for a lunch break at the wildly popular Surf Shack Eatery. Transforming a pancake den into a seriously cool café, Pip and Jo were living the corporate highlife in Britain, before dreaming of creating a sustainability-focused café in Pip’s home-country. Since purchasing the property six years ago, this community-focused cafe has scooped a stash of awards, including winning NZ Café of The Year.
While I was chatting to Jo about her intrepid guardianship efforts, jet-skiing around Orokawa Bay to check on the little blue penguin colonies, Helen Clark was exercising in the neighbouring gym, before popping in for a lunch reservation. It’s that kind of place. Sticklers for sustainability, Jo and Pip are also big believers in giving back, heavily involved in charitable projects across the community. Its vibrant decor, outdoor garden area and eclectic menu spans everything from belly-busting breakfasts and flavourful burgers to sublime street food. They also do mean pancakes! If you’re up for one of their legendary burgers, whistle up a Ha-waihi Surf Burger – with a pattie topped with double charred pineapple, double bacon and double cheese. One dollar from every burger sold is donated to the local Surf Life Saving Club. What a star specimen of a community-centric enterprise.
Tracking back to Tauranga, our avocado capital of Katikati looms as one of New Zealand’s perkiest townships. The self-described Mural Town of New Zealand is unmistakeably drenched in colour. Its main street resembles an open-air art gallery, festooned with dozens of magnificent murals, sculptures and carving. But it’s the highly detailed wall frescoes that are the stars of the parade, paying homage to its past, its people and historic milestones. Grab a mural map and feast your eyes on this expressive trail of 78 artworks.
Accentuating Katikati’s creative credentials is Western Bay Museum which brings to life the pioneering spirit of tangata whenua and European settlers to the area, sharing their stories through illuminating collections, interactive experiences and thoughtfully curated exhibitions. Housed in the town’s old fire station, Western Bay Museum’s mission statement is to be Aotearoa’s best small museum. They champion, commemorate and celebrate all of the strands to Western Bay’s story, from local Māori to the vast wave of Ulster Irish settlers who arrived in Katikati in 1875.
The town’s founder, George Vesey Stewart originally called the settlement Waterford, but it was changed to Katikati because George didn’t want to pay extra telegram charges by having to add the words, New Zealand, after Waterford – to avoid confusion with Waterford in Ireland. There’s a variety of museum experiences from the 1900s School Experience (in an original 1900s schoolroom setting) to the Step Back in Time experience, complete with scones, cups of tea in antique china with volunteer guides dressed in period costume. Te Papa provides great support to Western Bay Museum because they are so impressed by the consistently exceptional quality of their self-created exhibitions. Currently on display is the stirring exhibition, Service & Sacrifice, which pays homage to the heroic service and deeds of New Zealand women in wartime, from the Land Girls of Katikati to the first New Zealand nurses in a military campaign. (Boer War.)
It’s the personal profiles of some trail-blazing New Zealand women that really shines through, including the life story of Te Puke nurse, Marjorie Harris, who worked alongside legendary plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, who developed ground-breaking techniques to treat badly burned airmen in WWII. They would become members of the now famous ‘Guinea Pig Club.’ Another highlight is the showcase of Ettie Rout, the safe sex field worker in WWI. Critically aware of the threat of venereal disease on serving troops, her tireless work saw her dubbed “the wickedest woman in Britain,” in the ensuing moral backlash. Through her persistence, the New Zealand Army made the issuing of safe sex kits to all soldiers compulsory in 1917.
Just out of Katikati, I zipped down Hot Springs Road, for a quick dip of forest bathing in the Kaimāī Mamaku Conservation Park, which comprises some of the best examples of 19th-century New Zealand mining heritage. Historic pack-horse tracks and bush tramways are still visible in many places within the park, along with other relics from the gold mining and logging era. One of the most popular trails is the Tuahu Track, which is an 11km long traverse over the Kaimai Range, spilling out in Te Aroha. But for a great little taster, follow the signposts to the Tuahu Kauri track. Just 20 minutes in, this track darts off the main trail, leading you to a platform surrounding some of the largest Kauri trees in the Bay of Plenty. These majestic specimens are 600 years old and are the southernmost growing Kauri.
I romped my way around the Bay of Plenty in a trusty Mitsubishi Outlander, courtesy of Ezi Car Rental. If you’re travelling with the whanau, upgrade to a SUV and score their spring deal on SUVs, from just $76 a day. Kiwi owned and operated, I thoroughly enjoyed the Ezi experience, where excellent cars, stringent cleaning practices, super sharp prices, and fast & friendly service are all part of the package. Ezi Car Rental operates an extensive network from 25 locations across the country. www.ezicarrental.co.nz
Pull up a beach chair, wriggle your toes into the sand and chill. Anchored by bustling Tauranga, the wonderful Bay of Plenty serves up 125km of pristine white sand beaches, necklaced with quintessential holiday towns and epic outdoorsy adventures. Lock in your summer getaway, now! www.bayofplentynz.com