Call me snobbish but I’ve never been the biggest fan of seaside holidays, least of all those in my own country. I’m afraid I find something faintly depressing about many of the coastal towns in the UK; a sense that their glory days as major fishing ports or glamorous tourist destinations are long since past, but that someone forgot to tell them. The peeling paint of crumbling promenades and ghostly organ themes of empty fairground carousels are impressions as hard to shift as old barnacles but there are, of course, vast stretches of English coastline that remain in a gloriously wild, unspoilt state, unimpaired by the tourist tat that mars the likes of Great Yarmouth and Scarborough.
The wonderful thing about New Zealand’s beaches is that they’re almost all wild and unspoilt, even those within a few miles of a big city like Auckland. I realise I’ve been lucky enough to experience the likes of Muriwai and Leigh at their best – in sunny weather and when the kids are at school – but still, the absolute desolation of some of these places is quite staggering for someone who’s more accustomed to beaches where the sunbathers seem to outnumber the sand grains. The fact that much of the coastline around Auckland has been carved out by millenia of volcanic activity lends the beaches a distinctly unearthly quality. Sometimes it’s enough to make you feel like you’re walking on the surface of the moon. But with palm trees.
Apart from the odd toe dip, I haven’t actually sampled the waters themselves as yet, partly because, even in this late spring season, the sea is still bloody freezing, and partly because I know my pasty English body isn’t yet in a fit state to be seen in the company of my inevitably buff Kiwi swimming companions. But to be honest I’m more of a beach walker than bather anyway and a casual stroll along the sea front is more than sufficient to taste the atmosphere of these places. In any case, there are so many unique sights to experience in and around the coast here that spending an afternoon lying face down in the sand would be doing a massive disservice to the landscape. From the geometrically aligned gannet colony that breeds annually on a couple of rocks off Muriwai to the tropical-esque views across to verdant Goat Island at Leigh, there is more than enough to keep even the most defiant non-swimmer happy.
Probably the most awe-inspiring coastal experience I’ve had so far, however, was not actually by the sea but by the creek about a kilometer up stream from it at Bethells. Having parked the car, we followed the creek’s course backwards via a black sand path that barely hinted at the epic vista just a few minutes’ walk away. Suddenly, the path, which until that point had been surrounded by lush vegetation, opened up onto a vast stretch of sand dunes that seemed to rise up at almost impossible angles all around us. As we clambered up and over the dunes with calf-straining purposefulness we felt like we were walking through a universe of stars, so brilliantly did the sand glitter in the midday sun. The final set of dunes banked down steeply to a misty blue lake that disappeared enticingly around the back of another tower of sand. The whole experience was incredibly surreal to me and were it not for the illusion-shattering sunbathers we glimpsed in the distance, I could have quite easily believed I was on another planet. (For the record, that's a compliment).