“You learn a lot when you are barefoot. The first thing is every step you take is different” – Michael Franti
As both winter and our move north to a small surf town steadily approaches, I am keeping fond memories of our two summer weeks spent in Raglan. Raglan is a laid back town on the west coast of Te Ika a Maui North Island, known as NZ’s surfing mecca. Boasting the longest, most consistent left-hand break in the world, the kick back surf vibe is dominate and the off-wave chill outs, funky shops, and local art culture are not to be missed.
Bri had to be in Raglan for his work for two weeks so we decided to drive our own car up this trip. If you ever have time to get off of the state highways in NZ and follow the slow coastal roads, do it! We had such an adventure hugging the west coastline. Stops at the Waikawau Beach Tunnel, Kawhia sand dunes, and Te Toto Gorge were most notable and it is nice to arrive in Raglan from the surf coast side.
Our early December arrival in Raglan meant that the streets were a sea of red from the pōhutukawa ‘Christmas tree’ blooms and the weather was warm and sunny.
Surfing & Kayaking
Although Raglan is known for its surfing, the waters were fairly calm during our stay so there wasn’t nearly as much activity on the waves. The most popular beach, Ngarunui, aka ‘Main Beach’ is typically packed with surfers to the south and wind surfers to the north.
This is a great area to hike the tracks above or walk the wide sandy beaches if you aren’t’ into surfing. The views from the top of the large sand dunes overlooking the beach are stunning. Don’t miss the Māori compass stone carvings. The sea breezes have weathered these carvings, adding character to this remarkable craft.
For more intimate surfing experiences, head just a wee bit south to Manu Bay and check the famous break or Whale Bay that demands more advanced surfing skills. You get a flair for Raglan on your trip up this way…rural, organic, sustainable, simple.
It is pretty clear around town that surfing is a big deal and when the waves aren’t right, there is always the skate park.
Kayaking and standup paddling are also popular activities in the calmer harbor waters. When the wind is down, crossing the harbor to the pancake rocks is a great place to spend the day exploring secret coves.
West Coast sunsets in NZ are incredible. While you can certainly find many places in the world where the sun sets over the sea, here in NZ there is often no one else around. There is something extra special about having the beach all to yourself at sunset. While you will find people near the town and Ngarunui Beach out in droves at this time…if you are willing to drive 30 minutes south to Ruapuke Beach, there is good chance you will find solitude.
This volcanic sand beach is a great place to enjoy dinner waiting for the sun to fall. The drive away from the beach post sunset, it always lovely as well.
When you want to stay close (even walking distance) sunsets along the main beach and in town are also lovely.
Hiking & Running
The iconic Karioi volcano, the mountain rising to form the backdrop of the town, is a great way to explore the bush in the area. The climb is only about 5 miles round trip, but it is steep, rooty, and often muddy so be prepared for a bit of a slog. The top of the volcano isn’t all that interesting (see communication infrastructure), but the views along the way are gorgeous. If you are pressed for time, the view over raglan from the first lookout area is just as good as the summit. A round trip to this point will take you half the time.
Wairēinga/Bridal Veil Falls
The hike down to the falls isn’t very long, its just steep with many many many steps. The falls are a single 55 meter stream with a lush green bush backdrop. If you visit on a sunny day, you will most certainly catch a rainbow or two. If you aren’t keen for the steps, I wouldn’t fret as the best views are from above.
Where To Stay
We have stayed quite a few places while we were in Raglan. Generally we prefer places walking distance to town, but have also spent a weekend out near Whale Bay on Indicators Beach. During our first trip, we stayed in a yurt, just above town ~5-10 to the center. It was simple, off the grid, and absolutely stunning. Nights by candlelight and an outdoor shower were so special.
During this trip, we generally stayed in the wharf area on the harbor, ~10 – 15 mins walk to the main part of town. This area contains a tiny little enclave of antique and pottery shops, restaurants and cafes. Local fisherpeople come in each day and bring fresh catch to the fish market, Raglan Fish, at the end of the wharf. The fish and chips here are very popular!
Our place was a block from the wharf and the harbor and although it wasn’t right on the water, we had little glimpse of the harbor and the sunset from the private yard area.
Over the weekend, we decided we wanted to be on the surf coast so we rented an amazing place near Whale Bay. The home has been in the family for years and today is basically a compound. Multiple generations of the family live on the main floor of the house and in vans on the property. The house is tucked into the bush with views of the bay and beach access.
Where to Eat
If you are into breakfast and lunch, there are heaps of places to eat in Raglan, with smoothies, sushi, icecream, and coffee houses filling the town blocks. The Shack, located in the heart of downtown, is ‘Raglan’s favorite cafe’ and my poached eggs on corn fritters was yummy and healthy. Dinner choices are fairly limited on weekdays with only the Wharf Kitchen and Bar, Orca Restaurant and Bar , Harborview Hotel, and Raglan Social Club as sit down restaurants in town. The first has amazing chowder with a lovable resident dog, go to the second for mussels, and the third for pizza and beer.
We weren’t social enough to venture to the fourth. The Rock it Kitchen is a tiny little place in an old woolshed on the way to the beach, just outside of town. This place is lively and has excellent food all day long. There is a large back patio and yard for kids to play where they grow many of the veggies for the restaurant. It is about a 20 minute walk to Rock it from town.
Raglan is super chill, fairly youthful, and very expressive about their political and environmental views. I have heard of many NZ towns described as ‘hippie’, but only Raglan (maybe Takaka) somewhat captures the vibes of tolerance (and resistance), environmental stewardship, and rejection of some of mainstream culture.
So if you are headed to Raglan, most definitely kick off your shoes and relax…you will fit right in!