While Auckland can make for a convenient pit-stop en route to other parts of New Zealand, it’s also well worth noting the potential exploration that can be done when you spend some time getting to know the City of Sails. From sprawling black-sand beaches to volcanic islands, hilltop wineries, and waterfall hikes, you can experience all that there is to offer in and around the country’s largest city. Auckland is your oyster and these day trips are but a hop, skip, and a jump away.
Awaiting you on Auckland’s treasured Waiheke Island are acclaimed wineries and art galleries, tropical beaches, and laid-back towns. You can be there in just a short 35-minute ferry ride from either downtown Auckland’s Wynyard Wharf or Half Moon Bay. As one of the most populated and easily-accessible islands in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island is perfect for a day trip, whether you’re after a jam-packed itinerary or a day of wining and dining. There are several different ways to explore the island, the first of which is to board the car ferry with your automobile, allowing you to arrive with the ability to explore the wineries and beaches on your own time. For those without a car, book a tour either at the ferry terminal before you board or online. After coming ashore, you’ll be picked up and transported to a variety of Waiheke’s best vineyards for an afternoon of local wine tasting and platter nibbling. New Zealand’s reputation for adrenaline-filled fun doesn’t just apply on the mainland: You can enjoy ziplining over native forests or soaring into the sky on a scenic flight that allows you to catch views of the surrounding islands and Auckland city. With horseback riding, kayaking, and beach-hopping, as well as nature trails, cafes, and fine dining, you’ll be spoilt for choice of activities for your day trip to Waiheke Island.
Less than 18 miles west of Auckland’s city center lies the Waitakere Ranges, an undulating paradise of lush rainforests where waterfall chasing reigns supreme. For the outdoors-lover, you’ll want to head out here not only to experience this slice of pure New Zealand nature but for some epic photography as well. The hills and mountains feature more than 39,000 acres of isolated treasures, from forests and woodlands to waterfalls and rivulets. Hike to Kitekite or Karekare waterfalls, which offer endless trails suited to any fitness level. Breathe in the fresh air and admire New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna — without forgetting to look up to see the mighty and towering Kauri trees, the giants of the forest known to live for thousands of years. If you’re after a wilderness experience in the depths of the native bush without venturing too far from the city, this is your spot.
A popular excursion for day-tripping locals and holidaying visitors alike, Matakana and its surrounding region is the perfect city escape. Just a 45-minute drive north of Auckland, the area is dotted with beautiful white-sand beaches, picturesque river valleys, and vineyards — along with the quaint town of Matakana itself. Gaining popularity due to its weekend farmer’s markets, the town offers trendy cafes and eateries, locally-made strawberry ice cream and boutique shops. Treat yourself to a relaxed, gourmet lunch while sipping locally sourced wine before making your way to the nearby Sculptureum for artwork, gardens, and galleries, or the dynamic outdoor exhibitions of Brick Bay Wines and Sculpture Trail. Check out the likes of Omaha or Tawhranui beaches, best enjoyed on a summer’s day, with Omaha just a short eight-minute drive from Matakana’s township. On your way home, make a pit stop at Warkworth’s Honey Centre, to learn about the benefits of New Zealand’s Manuka honey and sample their deliciously pure, quality-made products.
If you’ve spent any time at all in Auckland, you’ll no doubt have caught glimpses of the symmetrical cone-shaped island looming just off shore. A familiar presence in Auckland’s harbor and one of the city’s most distinctive natural landmarks, Rangitoto’s iconic cone has been an inspiration to artists and photographers for years. The island is one of Auckland’s 48 volcanoes and offers visitors sweeping views from atop its pinnacle. Pack your comfy shoes and jump on a ferry — in just 25-minutes time you’ll be stepping foot on ashy terrain some 6,000 years old with the opportunity to experience Rangitoto’s mighty grandeur up close and personal. Trek through swirling lava crops and beneath New Zealand’s largest Pohutakawa forest (which blooms in all its vibrant splendor during the summer months of November through February). Learn of the volcanoes’ history with a 4WD tour before you reach the summit 260 meters up for spectacular views in every direction. There are no inhabitants or facilities on the island, so bear in mind that you might want to stock up on water and snacks for this day trip!
If you want to head north in the direction of Matakana but don’t want to venture so far afield, stop in at the historic town of Puhoi for a peek into the region’s past. Huddled on the banks of the Puhoi River, which translates to “slow water,” you can have yourself an equally slow afternoon. Learn the stories of hardship and perseverance of early pioneers at the Bohemian Museum, then pop in for tea and scones at Puhoi Cottage. To satisfy a bigger appetite, make your way to the esteemed Puhoi Pub built in 1879 and adorned with vintage photos, or head over to the lakeside, upmarket cafe-cum-cheese factory, Puhoi Valley, to sample local dairy products. For a taste of the outdoors, kayak or canoe your way down the serene river or meander along the Te Araroa walking trail, before making the 35-minute drive back to Auckland.
West Coast beaches
The sheer beauty of a black-sand beach is truly something to behold. When it comes to rugged coastline exploring, Auckland has an abundance of it. The region’s west coast beaches are a twinkling delight of far-stretching black dunes — favorites being Piha, Bethells Beach, and Muriwai. A 50-minute drive out of Auckland city through the winding Waitakere Ranges will lead you to Piha, where Lion Rock looks out over the expansive beach. Surfers are lured to Piha all year round in order to ride the treacherous waves amid fearless bodyboarders and adrenaline-loving swimmers. Up the coast lies the more sheltered Bethells Beach (Te Henga). A shorter 40-minute drive from Auckland City, Bethells Beach is known for its stunning boardwalks and three lakes surrounded by dunes. Spend the day scouting out Lake Wainamu, Lake Kawaupaka, and Lake Waiataru, before tackling one of the walks located on the cliff tops or lounging on the sand.
Farther up the west coast is where you’ll find Muriwai, home to a colony of around 12,000 gannets and panoramic views of the coastline. The birds nest here from August to March, making it an ideal location for bird-lovers and curious visitors alike. Down on the beach, Muriwai is another popular spot for surfers. No matter which beach you head to along the west coast, there’s one thing you must do for sure: a day spent on Auckland’s Wild West calls for a quintessential dinner of fish and chips on the dunes against the backdrop of a stunning sunset.
Want to learn more about New Zealand? Read up about Australian photographer Jimmy Raper’s experience in the South Island!
Header image by Aaron Birch.