We were incredibly lucky to have secured a house sit in the village of Snells Beach taking care of a beautiful new home and its gardens, and a gentle border collie named Pip.
Our first views of New Zealand outside of a big city were on our drive from Auckland to Snells Beach. We loved what we saw as we hugged the coastline’s inlets and peninsulas.
On the recommendation of our house-sit homeowner, we stopped at Puhoi Valley Cafe & Cheese Shop on our way up to Snells Beach. It was a perfect spot to stop for a light lunch on the veranda and to taste (and buy) delicious cheeses.
Our home for a little over two weeks was a thoughtfully designed modern bungalow with glass walls that offered expansive views of Kawau Bay, and opened to let the sea breezes flow through. The house was surrounded by gardens (lots of watering to do in the unusually dry summer). A five-minute walk down a creek-side path and we were at the beach.
In summer (December through February) many of the beaches are off-limits to dogs within certain hours. You are allowed to walk dogs off-leash (but in control) on several beaches before 10:00 am and after 6:30 pm. Since our pup was used to walking before eating breakfast, we enjoyed many morning beach walks with her. Sadly, a pre-sit paw injury acted up and forced us to curtail her walks for the last part of our time with her.
Though about an hour north of Auckland, Snells Beach is still part of the Auckland region (New Zealand is divided into 16 regions). Many of the parks and beaches come under the auspices of the Auckland Department of Conservation, and their website was a useful resource for finding dog-friendly walks.
A really interesting walking area was Cement Works near the town of Warkworth. The site of an old, you guessed it, cement works, now in ruins, was in the planning stages for how best to preserve it. A community project created a walkway around the cement works, along the river and its little marina, and through nearby fields, creating a really nice grassy walk with very interesting artifacts to check out.
Without Pip, we visited the nearby towns. We lunched in Leigh at the Leigh Sawmill Cafe and then drove farther north through winding roads to reach the 14km-long Pakiri Beach. Where we parked at the beach, we walked through many city blocks of fine white sand with shallow rivers surrounding sand islands before we reached the ocean. At the shore, people bodyboarded on the smallish surf.
Matakana, a nearby river-side village, is filled with shops, restaurants, a Saturday morning market and public restrooms that are also a piece of public art.
Warkworth was the closest bigger town and offered two large chain grocery stores, shops, restaurants, and services like the vet, as we later found out.
Sandspit is a tiny little village right around the corner from Snells Beach whose raison d’etre seems to be its marina and wharf. Apparently jumping from the Sandspit wharf is a must-do activity.
Scott’s Point is the end of a peninsula that juts off the peninsula on which we were living. Over 150 years ago it was a hub of activity on weekends and summer holidays when Aucklanders would board steamships and head up the coast. A fellow we met at the beach described a recent holiday weekend where the bay was filled with boats and the grounds with picnickers from Auckland, so it continues to be a playground for city dwellers. A heritage home/hotel at the beach has been restored behind trees that edge the property and have grown enormous. Oyster farming is active in the area with tours available.
In a small town like Snells Beach, we didn’t expect to find much in the way of attractions. In fact, we were spoiled for choice and had to pick carefully the activities we signed up for. We didn’t get to a couple of them (Brick Bay Winery and Sculpture Trail, Morris & James Pottery) or even any of the nearby wineries, but we did manage to fit in a few, including Charlie’s Gelato. OK, maybe a gelato shop doesn’t fully qualify as a tourist attraction, but I had the best lemon sorbetto I’ve ever had at this little destination shop.
Sculptureum is a carefully curated and well-displayed collection of sculptures, rocks, quotes, birds and bunnies spread among outdoor gardens and indoor galleries. Allow a couple of hours. Check their website for special events and dining options.
Goat Island Marine Reserve and Marine Discovery Centre offer snorkelling from the beach, glass boat charters, kayak rentals. You can rent snorkelling equipment at the beach, but there are several places in Leigh before you drive down to the beach. Check bookme.co.nz as well (they had the best prices when we checked). For families, a fun day out might be a visit to the discovery center ($20 NZD/family) followed by snorkelling or swimming with a picnic on the beach.
Following our visit to Goat Island we squeezed in a quick trip to see Tāwharanui Regional Park. The road into the park was windy with fantastic views and there were signs pointing the way to other beaches along the way. When we arrived at the park itself, it opened onto an amazing beach, rocks, and walking paths that take you right out to the point along the top of the cliffs. We wished we had time to hike out or even to stay and swim, but our pup was waiting for us back home. We reminded ourselves that we can’t possibly do and see everything and that there was so much more to come.
We were so sad to leave this beautiful, interesting, and peaceful place, but Northland beckoned.
- Bargains: Discount sites are popular and everyone seems to suggest checking at least one to look for deals before booking activities. The most common recommendation to date was bookme.co.nz, and so far it proved to be the best for the activities we were interested in.
- Sculptureum entry: Regular adult price is $39 NZD. Prices vary by day on bookme.co.nz. Since we were flexible, we booked a few days ahead and paid $19.50 NZD (about $17 CAD) each.
- Rental car: Omega, economy car for 36 days, $872.68 ($754.18 CAD).