SH 25, 81 km, 1.5 hours
Once a major colonial port supporting the trade in kauri and kauri gum, Whitianga is now a rural service town and holiday resort. In summer tourists and holidaymakers gather to enjoy the area’s beaches, water activities and coastal scenery. You can take the passenger ferry ($2) for a quick crossing to Ferry Landing and walking access to Cooks Beach.
These are two of the Whitianga area’s most popular locations. Hahei is 37 km from Whitianga (turnoff at Whenuakite) and its attractions include its beach, a marine reserve and the Cathedral Cove walkway—an excellent coastal walk (two hours return) with spectacular scenery. At Hot Water Beach, south of Hahei, you can dig out your own natural spa on the beach two hours either side of low tide (hire a spade from nearby shops). Cooks Beach is another sublime safe swimming area, and where Captain Cook and his astronomer observed the transit of Mercury across the sun in 1769. The Shakespeare Cliff walk offers panoramic views of Mercury Bay. It’s a short drive from here to Flaxmill Bay and Ferry Landing opposite Whitianga.
Tairua (37 km from Whitianga) is an idyllic settlement near the mouth of Tairua Harbour. Mount Paku dominates the harbour entrance, but fortunately you can drive most of the way up before climbing 178 steps and an easy rocky section to take you to a spectacular 360-degree view of land and sea. Across the harbour is the exclusive, purpose-built holiday town of Pauanui. There is a good surf beach here and a rewarding though steep climb up Pauanui Mountain from the south end of Pauanui beach. At Hikuai you can head for Thames (30 km) via SH 25a, or take the turnoff to the Broken Hills and Puketui Valley for 1/2–2-hour bush walks exploring relics of the early mining period. Take a torch as some tracks feature old (though safe) tunnels, including one that is 500 metres long. Between Hikuai and Whangamata, side roads lead to Opoutere and Onemana beaches. Opoutere has walks in dunelands and to the wildlife reserve (bird-watching), while Onemana has a lovely beach and views to the Alderman Islands.
Whangamata’s 3.8 km Ocean Beach has a renowned surf break. Like Whitianga, the population swells in summer and cafés and restaurants have emerged to meet the demand for good food and beverages.