Winter Sunshine on Bethells Beach

Sea Foam

The world had been grey for so long that the blue sky above Bethells Beach was a beacon. We were drawn to it, as were many others. The air was frigid, but the sand was sparkling, silver and black. Each footprint pressed into it seemed an act of liberation.

Bethells Beach

Excited dogs splashed through the stream; babbling tourists took kooky selfies. The stream had changed its course, forcing people to forge a new path to the sea – the result, perhaps, of those epic storms a while back. (Bethells residents had ended up without power for a worryingly long time.)

Bethells Beach

Aside from that, the beach was the same as it always had been: the bushy cliffs; the grassy dunes; the rocks jutting into the waves. We made our way to the cave at the southern end of the beach, always a deceptively long walk.

Bethells Beach

No one was surfing – not even Westies* being that insane. As we walked back up the beach, I appreciated, as always, a particular chunk of bushy cliff that resembled a giant, sunbathing woman. Its curves undulated against the sky… face, neck, breasts, belly and thighs…

Bethells Beach

Mother Nature enjoying (or guarding) one of her better creations.

Sea

*West Aucklandlanders

Now here’s what I think are The Best Beaches in New Zealand

The Best Place to Live in New Zealand

Mount Maunganui

Since moving to New Zealand, I’ve lived in four very different places:

1) Waiuku, a sleepy town south of Auckland,

Waiuku

2) Tauranga, a peaceful city in the Bay of Plenty,

Mount Beach

3) Auckland Central, the busiest part of New Zealand’s busiest city, and

Auckland Rangitoto

4) Hamilton, a city that’s mocked by the rest of the country, but actually has a lot going for it.

HamiltonChristmasTree

I’ve also experienced life out at Bethells Beach, as that’s where my partner’s from. He’d tell you it’s the best place to live in the country hands down, but I’m not so sure. Yes, it’s close to a very beautiful beach and boasts magnificent valley views, but it has its disadvantages too.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

So what is the best place to live in New Zealand? Obviously, I can only speak from my own experience, but someone somewhere might find this useful. I’m going to attempt an analysis of the four places I’ve lived, plus Bethells, beginning with…

Waiuku

Waiuku Weather StoneI was ten years old when we found ourselves in Waiuku, a small town surrounded by farmland. It’s located at the southern tip of the Manukau Harbour and is within easy driving distance of several beaches. The two nicest are Awhitu and Kariotahi, which, despite being quite close to one another, are whole worlds apart. Awhitu has calm waters and golden sand, making it perfect for picnics, whereas Kariotahi has wild waves and velvety, black sand, making it perfect for surfing. It’s also perfect for watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea from the cliff tops.

Waiuku Clock TowerIn Waiuku, we lived within easy walking distance of yet another beach, this one called Sandspit. I was always wandering down there. There was a big slide in the water… It’s still there, actually. I went to Sandspit Road School, a primary school that starts at Year 1 and finishes at Year 8. I remember being quite disappointed that I wouldn’t move up to “big school” in Year 7, as I would have done in England, instead having to wait until Year 9. I was bullied quite badly in the mean time. (I believe this had more to do with New Zealand’s – and especially small-town New Zealand’s – tendencies towards anti-intellectualism and tall poppy syndrome, though, than with me being an immigrant. See The People of New Zealand for an account of my first day of school in New Zealand.)

WaiukuDespite the bullying, Waiuku always felt like a safe town to me. My parents were letting me walk places on my own within days of settling there. The town centre was quiet, but lovely, with a few nice cafes and historic buildings. When my family first moved there, we believed it a wonderfully idyllic place. It was only after a few years that we were itching to get out. My parents both taught at Waiuku College, which had a rather high proportion of newly-emigrated teachers. We soon found out that was because no one who was familiar with Waiuku wanted to teach there. The newly-emigrated teachers were, like us, still seeing things through rose-tinted glasses.

The Kentish Hotel, WaiukuNot that rose-tinted, though. I mean, compared to where we’d just come from, Waiuku really was great. People mock it, and it does have its bad aspects, but it’s not a bad place to live. I recently returned there for a few hours with my partner, only to find that it’s actually improved in the ten years since I lived there. And it’s set to grow even further. With the Auckland housing shortage and rocketing house prices, Waiuku’s becoming a popular place to commute from. It’s only a fifty-minute drive from Auckland City. Well, fifty minutes without traffic, that is. With traffic, I shudder to think.

WaiukuOnce, I would have said don’t live in Waiuku. Run from it. But I’m not going to say that now. If you’re after a peaceful, small-town life that’s not too isolated, you could do a lot worse. Waiuku’s problems are the problems you’d expect of any small town; its rewards are many.

Tauranga

Mount Maunganui BeachWhen my family lived in Waiuku, we once went on holiday to Tauranga. I never dreamed we’d end up living there! It’s somewhere rich people live. We were never rich. We lived in a tiny terrace with a shared garden in England, but, lifestyle-wise, we got very lucky, I guess. When we moved to New Zealand in 2001, the exchange rate was three New Zealand dollars for every one pound, so we ended up with a house far nicer than we ever could have had in England. Then, when we moved to Tauranga, my nana sold her house in England and came to live with us, so we could get an even nicer house… Yeah, we got lucky.

Red Square, TaurangaTauranga is a balmy, coastal city that’s an extremely popular retirement destination. I love the fact that while it has all the amenities of a city, it’s still quite small. It feels so laidback, especially compared to Auckland – even Hamilton. It has lots of flash bars and restaurants, and plenty of awesome places to go shopping, but it’s relaxed. You can stroll along the harbourfront and climb Mount Maunganui, and you can take your pick of beaches.

TaurangaOf course, being a city, Tauranga has a few different schools to choose from. The school I ended up at, Otumoetai College, turned out to be a lot better for me than Waiuku College had been. Waiuku College had been too small to offer subjects such as Classical Studies, which turned out to be my favourite subject! There were simply more opportunities at Otumoetai. I wasn’t bullied there, either, although that might be to do with the fact that I was now in Sixth Form, or Year 12, and bullying tends to drop off at that age.

Mount Bench(My little sister got bullied there, though. One boy in particular wouldn’t leave her alone. Until the day she lost it in front of the whole school and started beating him up. The teachers hated to punish her, really.)

I was only in Tauranga for two years before it was time to leave for university. I chose the University of Auckland partly because it’s the only university in New Zealand to be ranked amongst the top 100 universities in the world, and partly because it’s only a three-hour drive from Tauranga. My parents still live in Tauranga, so I go back a lot and, every time I do, I marvel at how wonderful a place it is to live.

Auckland Central

Sky TowerI lived in Auckland Central from 2009 – 2013. Three of those years I spent on Whitaker Place, the most densely populated street in New Zealand. (Parking was a nightmare.) Whitaker Place is five minute’s walk from the main University of Auckland campus, so, naturally, it’s chock-a-block with student accommodation. When I lived there, a single room cost about $200 per week to rent and, knowing Auckland, it’s probably gone up significantly since. (And the Student Loan still only goes up to $176.86 per week.) Yes, Auckland prices are horrendous, but what’s it like to live in the city?

Auckland Domain Winter GardenActually pretty good. Auckland’s a very walkable city, and while its public transport isn’t the best, its buses are adequate. There are several great areas you can walk to from the centre: the Domain, Albert Park, Mount Eden and the harbourfront all come to mind. Being New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland has the most jobs and the most things happening. Not being in Auckland, I miss being able to easily get to so many events. Many tourists and immigrants actually find Auckland a peaceful city, because, comparatively, it is. Fewer than two million people live there!

Auckland Book SwapAuckland feels very fresh as a city. Being right on the sea helps, I suppose. There are so many beaches, and nature walks are only half an hour’s drive away. Auckland was recently ranked as the world’s third most liveable city, because it does have a lot going for it. I managed to enjoy living there and, being a student, I really didn’t have any money to spare. If you do live in Auckland, though, be prepared to spend well over half of what you earn on housing, and be prepared to get stuck in traffic.

Hamilton

Garden Place, HamiltonDue to the Auckland housing crisis, more and more jafas are moving down to Hamilton, which is driving up Hamilton house prices, which is p**sing off all the Hamiltonians now having to compete for flats. (Jafa = Just Another F**king Aucklander.) Whenever this fact is mentioned, my partner and I look awkwardly away and begin to innocently whistle. Hamilton is an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Auckland, and whilst some people are prepared to commute that far, my partner and I came here because it’s where he happened to score an IT job out of uni.

Waikato River, HamiltonWe also chose Hamilton because we wanted to live far enough away from our parents to feel independent, yet close enough to visit easily. Hamilton is an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Tauranga, where my parents live, and two hours from Bethells Beach, which I’ll talk about next.

That’s the thing about Hamilton. People are always talking about how conveniently close it is to other places. Oh, it’s great if you want to visit Raglan, or Waitomo, or Hobbiton… As for Hamilton itself, well…

Casabella Lane, HamiltonWhen we said we were moving here, people laughed at us. Hamilton is a small city, larger than Tauranga, but seen somehow as being comprised of farmers with ideas above their station. People mock it as the STD capital of New Zealand, even though statistics show that it’s not. True, the city centre of Hamilton isn’t particularly nice, except for Garden Place and Casabella Lane (in the picture,) there are a lot of beggars, and there’s not all that much to do, but, in all seriousness, Hamilton doesn’t deserve the reputation it has.

Chinese Garden, Hamilton GardensHamilton has three great things going for it: Firstly, the Hamilton Gardens. They’re officially amongst the best gardens in the world and they’re free to enter. Secondly, the Waikato River. While it’s polluted by farm run-off to the extent that you wouldn’t want to swim in it, (though people still do,) it looks very pretty, running directly through the city with plenty of trees, parks and bicycle paths along its banks. Thirdly, Hamilton Zoo is just as good as good as Auckland Zoo, if not better. Hamilton’s also got a lake that’s pleasant to walk around, walking distance from the city centre. Just don’t go there at night.

Parana Park Childrens Garden, HamiltonMy partner and I actually quite enjoy living here. It’s nice to be able to walk and cycle places. (We only use the car for visiting our parents.) It’s got a few excellent playgrounds, (not that we’re planning on having kids any time soon,) and nice-looking houses. Whenever we go back to Auckland, my partner looks out of the window and goes, “Wow, look at the all the tall buildings and flashy lights! I’m not used to it anymore!”

Bethells Beach

Bethells BeachAlthough we met when we both lived on Whitaker Place, attending uni, my partner is from Bethells Beach, a community out in the wop-wops, on the very west coast of Auckland. It’s a rugged place, full of aging hippies living alternative lifestyles. It’s so peaceful. The only sound you occasionally hear echoing through the valley, my partner once joked, is that of a police helicopter searching for marijuana patches. Also known as Te Henga, Bethells Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole of New Zealand. I’m not biased. Well, I am, but it’s not just me. So many films, television series and music videos use Bethells for a location, especially those in the fantasy genre. It has a magical quality, something that just draws people to it… The community at Bethells is closer than in any place I’ve lived. People don’t just know their neighbours, they invite them to parties. They even have bands down at the beach in summer.

Bethells BeachBethells is surrounded by the emerald bush of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. Whenever we’re driving there, when we get to the edge of Auckland City and the trees start coming up around us, my partner simply sighs in relief. Of course, its isolation is both a pro and a con. It’s a half-hour drive along narrow, winding and sometimes unsealed roads to the nearest shops, further to a big supermarket. It’s ironic that people trying to lead such environmentally friendly lifestyles are forced to use so much petrol. Until recently, the Internet out at Bethells was almost unusable, but it’s getting better. The biggest drawback for me is all the mosquitoes, but apart from that, life at Bethells is almost perfect.

Bethells BeachIf you love nature, want to know your neighbours, enjoy a quiet life, want beach views, don’t get car sick and don’t mind long drives to buy food or, indeed, go anywhere else at all, Bethells Beach is a great place to live.

Tauranga Rocks 4I honestly think you could be happy living anywhere I’ve mentioned. I think it’s obvious, though, that my favourite is Tauranga. It’s peaceful, with beaches right on your doorstep, not to mention Mount Maunganui, and other nature walks an easy drive away, but with all the convenience that cities bring.

Lake Wainamu

Lake Wainamu is a place not many people know about. Out at Bethells Beach, on Auckland’s west coast, it’s a peaceful spot of understated beauty, surrounded by low hills. You get to it either by trudging across sand dunes for about ten minutes, or by walking along a shallow river. The river way takes longer, but is less strenuous. Besides, it’s usually too hot to walk across the sand dunes barefoot; walking through the river is nice and soothing.

LakeWainamu9

Lake Wainamu is great for swimming in, being so calm. It gets very deep very quickly, however, so I wouldn’t recommend going in unless you actually know how to swim. Swimming isn’t the only activity on offer at the lake, though. The sand dunes slope down to the river pretty sharply, making them the perfect place to try sand surfing. Definitely take a boogie board with you and slide on down!

LakeWainamu3

You can also walk around the lake; there’s a proper track that does a full circuit. It takes an hour or two, but it’s worth it because hidden away behind the lake is a rather pretty swimming hole with a waterfall. Be warned, though – it’s bloody freezing! At some point around the lake track, close to the main beach, there’s a tree that leans out over the water. Local kids like to use it as a diving board.

LakeWainamu8

I’d recommend wearing old clothes and shoes when you visit the lake, because everything gets full of black sand. Black sand is notoriously clingy! I’m still scraping it off my scalp from two days ago and, yes, I have washed my hair! It is luxuriously soft, though. And the silvery dunes are starkly beautiful.

LakeWainamu7

Countless films, music videos, TV series and adverts have been filmed on the dunes. You can well imagine Xena having an epic duel across them, and we passed yet another film crew when we were there two days ago. They wouldn’t tell us what they were filming, but there were two guys in suits with guns. I didn’t envy the suited-up actors – the sun was blazing! I’d resorted to using my umbrella as a parasol:

LakeWainamu2

My boyfriend, being a tough Kiwi, was less prepared. Even though our group was planning on walking to the lake over the dunes, and not through the river, he didn’t bring shoes. He thought about bringing shoes, but then did the usual Kiwi thing of thinking ‘she’ll be ’right’ and left them behind. Sure enough, the sand was far too hot to walk on, but – lo! – Kiwi ingenuity to the rescue! He fashioned shoes out of towels and walked to the lake thusly:

LakeWainamu4

So… Lake Wainamu. It’s ‘becoming far too popular with non-locals’ and it’s easy to see why. If you’re visiting Bethells Beach, give yourself some time to walk to the lake as well. It’s completely free and there are lots of things to explore. Here’s how to find it.

LakeWainamu6

New Zealand: A Land Fit for Fantasy

You know when you were a kid, when you were lonely or sad or scared and you just… imagined you were somewhere else? Where did you imagine? What fantastic landscapes did you get lost in?

Emerald valleys beribboned with sapphire rivers? Mysterious lakes mirroring snow-capped mountains? Ancient forests with hidden waterfalls? Waves crashing upon black rocks beneath stormy skies? How about bubbling, blue-grey pools surrounded by steam vents, lava flows and powdery, yellow rocks?

Fantasy Image from Pixabay.com

You know.

Growing up in England, I thought New Zealand was some sort of fantasyland. But that didn’t mean I wanted to leave my home and my friends and everything behind to go there. When my parents told me we were moving to New Zealand, I’d never been more lonely or sad or scared!

I did feel slightly better, however, when my dad informed me they were filming The Lord of the Rings there. If I was going to be forced to live somewhere, it was good that it was somewhere magical.

BridalVeilFalls03

Bridal Veil Falls, Waikato, New Zealand

I was disappointed to find, upon arrival, that New Zealand was just like everywhere else. I mean there were a few things I found strange, but on the whole it was just like England. Of course, I’d only seen the airport, the motorway and our new town at that point. The more I saw of New Zealand’s countryside, the more magical it seemed.

Ngauruhoe

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

No wonder so many fantasy epics get filmed here! Apart from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, there was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Legend of the Seeker, Xena, Hercules, 10,000 BC, The Water Horse, Bridge to Terabithia and others I’ve forgotten. They’re doing Terry Brooks’ Shannara as we speak. (Or as I write. Whatever.)

A ridiculous amount of filming is done at Bethells Beach, for example. My boyfriend, Tim, grew up there, with a view over the valley, the silver-black sand dunes and the sea, so I’ve been a fair bit. It is beautiful, but not only that. It’s got a sort of… mystical quality. It’s not just a beach. If I believed in such things, I’d say it was a weak point in reality… a gateway to the Otherworld… You have to go when the light’s just right, I suppose.

Bethells Beach

Bethells Beach, Auckland, New Zealand

A lot of filming is also done around Queenstown. That’s where the mysterious lakes mirroring snow-capped mountains are at. My family went there on our New Zealand campervan rental tour and it’s almost overwhelming being in the midst of so much natural beauty.

Lake Pukaki

Lake Pukaki, Canterbury, New Zealand

Other places in the world are beautiful. What makes New Zealand special is simply that it has so MANY beautiful landscapes, and such a RANGE of beautiful landscapes, all within one small country. Scottish actor Graham McTavish put it well when he spoke at the 2015 Hamilton Armageddon: New Zealand is like Neverland, he said – a child’s drawing of a fantasy island with everything you could possibly want on it, in terms of natural scenery and adventure.

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove, Coromandel, New Zealand

In terms of culture, well that’s improving all the time. Auckland’s getting a full-scale replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre this summer! Pity it’s only going to be a temporary ‘pop-up’ building, but still – pretty cool, eh?

Lake McLaren

Lake McLaren, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand

More:

Locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit

What Hobbiton’s Like

The Magic of Waitomo Caves

The Magical Creatures of New Zealand

Campervan Sales NZ

The Mysterious Beauty of Bethells Beach

Te Henga, or Bethells Beach, is a properly mystical place. No wonder so many films, TV series, music videos and commercials are shot there. Being on the west coast of Auckland, its sunsets are especially spectacular. Many’s the time I’ve watched blazing threads of gold weave themselves into the pink sky above the wine-dark sea. I wouldn’t say it’s New Zealand’s best beach, but it’s pretty damn close.

The sand is a sparkling, bluish black that feels like velvet on your feet. As you walk along, you notice a haze over the dunes and the towering rocks that extend into the water – a mist over the ruins of a lost civilisation. A sort-of island – a chunk of cliff disconnected from the rest – rises out of the waves, cloaked in bush. The curves of its hills look like the Earth Mother sunbathing. Seriously, from the right angle you can see the swell of her breasts, stomach and colossal thighs.

A cave winks at you from the end of the beach – the left end, if you’re facing the sea. You can explore it at low tide. If you go right, you’ll find another cave waiting for you in O’Neills Bay. It’s a charming tunnel, a magical gateway to a “secret” beach beyond.

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Bethells Beach is a great place to surf and bodyboard, but don’t do it when the Surf Life Saving people aren’t there. It really is dangerous. Keep between the flags and don’t go too far out. If you’ve got small children, they can swim in the lagoon. (Yes, there’s a lagoon. It’s really pretty.) Incidentally, the Surf Life Saving tower makes for a rather striking silhouette against the Bethells sunset.

Between the lagoon and the car park, there’s a locally owned outdoor café. The food’s nice, and during the summer months, on Friday nights, they host various local bands. It’s a lovely community event. People come with blankets and deckchairs, and sit around drinking and being served pizza, later getting up to dance on the sand.

The Bethells locals often complain about Aucklanders (city slickers) and tourists overrunning “their” beach. Some even warned me, (jokingly, I think,) about publishing this article. I’m flattered they think my blog reaches so many people.

O'Neils

Bethells Beach is a special place. It has the wild, rugged beauty of Auckland’s other west coast beaches, like Piha and Muriwai, but it also has a mysterious beauty. There’s something otherworldly about it; something that draws people back again and again. I’ve already written about the necessity of visiting the amazing Muriwai gannet colony when you’re in Auckland, but do that during day and then, before sunset, head to Bethells.

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The Eve of Christmas Eve, New Zealand

That was what our weather was like yesterday, the day before Christmas Eve. Then, yesterday evening, we were treated to this:

bethellssunset

Spoiled with such visions, we dared to hope that, this year, the weather would be just as glorious on Christmas Day.

It is now Christmas Eve, and it is cloudy.

You always hear New Zealanders saying, “Typical. It’s always raining on Christmas Day.” This isn’t strictly true, of course, but it rather feels like it at the moment.

I know I said that, being a British immigrant, I like Christmases that are dark, so you can cosy up indoors, but…

Come on, sun, shine for us!

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