Along the western edge of Auckland, from the Manukau Harbour north to the Kaipara Harbour, ancient volcanic ranges covered in rainforest rise steeply from the Tasman Sea. Their time-weathered cliffs are interrupted by river valleys ending in long, black sand beaches. The thundering ocean swells break well off the beach and reform several times to finally slide up the sand. Whatipu, Karekare, Piha, Bethells and Muriwai beaches have a remote, untamed beauty that's good for the soul.
Whatipu is at the northern head of the entrance to the Manukau Harbour. Powerful currents cross the sand bars to meet the long ocean swells. Many early ships were lost here when they strayed from the deeper channel. A native forest walk through the ranges returns along this beach with its hill-sized sand dunes, sun-dried driftwood and a cave once used as a ballroom.
At Karekare, three streams from a forest valley converge and descend to the beach. There are several forest walks in the area. An easy track leads to the Karekare Falls, which tumble six metres into a beautiful opal pool. The broad, firm beach is ideal for walking or running along the water's edge.
Piha is popular with experienced surfers. Lion Rock, a small island, stands in the middle of the beach offering panoramic views to those who climb the 70 metre track to the top.
Bethells (Te Henga) is smaller, and cosier feeling, than the other beaches. The sand begins well back from the surf and there is a shallow lagoon before the river reaches the sea. A walking track crosses the northern headland to secluded O'Neill Bay, a favourite with surfers.
Muriwai is a regional park with cliff top trails to a gannet colony near the car park at its southern end. The beach runs 60 kilometres north to the Kaipara Harbour, interrupted only by streams and rivers. This is a great place to stretch your legs and overdose on fresh ocean air.
Visitors to the west coast beaches need to be aware that the powerful surf creates changing undertows and rips, but you can swim safely where there are surf patrol flags. There are camp sites at most of the beaches.