Best known as the home of Hobbiton, the Waikato region of New Zealand’s North Island has plenty more to offer. At its heart is Hamilton, set on the banks of the Waikato River. There’s plenty to do here, but if you plan on hiring a rental car and heading out to explore, consider a day trip to Raglan, 40km to the west.
Known by surfers around the world as home to a very long break, there’s much more than long black sand beaches and epic waves to this fishing village. From the town’s beautiful bay to a main street lined with surf shops, cosy cafes and artistic businesses, there’s so much to see and do on a road trip to Raglan.
Raglan itself is a town with a creative heart and an adventurous spirit. There are incredible black sand beaches, such as Manu Bay, 6 km south of town, which has one of the longest left-hand breaks anywhere in the world. If you love a classic surf movie, you will have seen it in 1966’s The Endless Summer and heard Bruce Brown’s legendary commentary: “Surfers here don’t carry wax, they carry life-raft rations.”
But this isn’t a break for beginners. There’s a tricky rock entry and some intense locals, so it’s one best left unless you’re practised on a board. Other great spots nearby for advanced surfers, even if you only intend to watch the action, include Ruapuke and Whale Bay.
If you’re a beginner or simply want to dive beneath the waves, head towards Ngarunui (or Ocean) Beach. Lifesavers set up a patrol here in front of the access trail to the beach between October and April, and there’s a surf school and hire shop that operates near the main entrance to the beach.
Raglan’s not just about the ocean though. It sits at the mouth of the Tawatahi River, with bays and islands ready to be explored. If you feel like going for a paddle, Raglan Kayak and Paddleboard offers both hire and guided tours that take you exploring Whāingaora Harbour, the magnificent limestone formations along the coastline and Pancake Rocks, named that because their layers look like stacks of hotcakes.
Those feeling less energetic can join Whāingaroa Wahinemoe for a lunchtime nature cruise to take in this beautiful part of the world, spot marine life and discover the stories that come from the region. Book ahead and you can even order fish and chips to have onboard.
There’s no better view of the Raglan coastline than the one you’ll get if you take a walk through Te Toto Gorge. A culturally significant site for Māori people, you’ll see three natural coastal amphitheatres, as well as remnants of ancient gardens, stone walls and groves of karaka trees that have been dated as far back as the 1700s. It’ll only take about 30 minutes to complete the walk, although if you’re fit, kitted out and ready to go, the car park is also where you’ll find the start of the Mount Karioi Track. Bear in mind it’s very steep, includes the use of chains and ladders, and the lookout is likely at least three hours away.
If rock climbing is an activity you’ve been itching to try, Raglan Rock looks after everyone, from absolute beginners to experienced climbers. The guides and instructors there can also sort you out for caving and, if you don’t mind getting wet, canyoning tours, including one that takes you to a glow worm habitat near Mount Karioi.
Don’t forget to have a stroll around the town. You’ll see local kids jumping off the bridge into the water below and people fishing at the end of the jetty. Plus, there are lots of galleries, artist studios, independent stores and cafes and pubs to discover. If you happen to be in town on the second Sunday of the month, you might even find a keepsake to take home at Raglan Creative Market.
If you’ve got some time and can get the timing right (you need to arrive within two hours either side of low tide), visit Kawhia Hot Water Beach, about an hour’s drive south in the rental car from Raglan. At low tide, hot spring water bubbles up and onto the beach. You’ll either need a spade to dig your own spa in the sand or hope that someone vacates their hole when you arrive.
Not quite as far is Wairēinga/Bridal Veil Falls. It’s worth the 20-minute drive from Raglan just so you can stare down from the viewing platform, but to take in the full majesty of the water plunging over rocks into the pool 55m below, you’ll need to hit the stairs. At the midway viewpoint, take in the full majesty of the flow then keep going to the bottom, where you’ll be so close to the waterfall, you’re likely to come away a little damp. The stairs back up are steep, so give yourself ample time to ascend them comfortably.
Ready to hit the road to Raglan? Hire a rental car in Hamilton to get there.