Unbeatable on a good day (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

The summer road trip: Wellington’s surf breaks, waterfront, and wildlife

In the second part of a four piece series exploring places around Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, Spinoff Parents editor Emily Writes reveals the capital’s hidden secrets, while Avi Duckor-Jones takes you to the very end of the North Island.

Read part one, on the great Auckland summer road trip, here.

Windswept hideaways and long drives, by Emily Writes

Wellington be still my beating heart. I love Wellington to death. I wasn’t born here, I didn’t even grow up here, but it’s my chosen home. My city. So it’s exciting to be able to share my favourite parts of her. I am not much of a traveller and am also broke – so staycations are my jam.

Wellington sure is a wee little city, but it has the best nooks and crannies of any place in this big ol’ country of ours. My favourite thing to do pre-children was to jump into the car with my husband and try to find a new secret spot to explore. After my first baby I found myself driving around aimlessly trying to get my baby to go to sleep. Then once he was (finally – bloody finally!) asleep, I’d find somewhere to park up and read my book or talk to my husband.

There’s so much to explore in and around our little capital (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

When we are able to dump the kids at nanna’s driving to one of our old haunts is the best way to spend our few hours of freedom. Here are some of our favourite places and we hope you like them too. I’m terrible with directions so follow our maps; it’s all been laid out for you like a treasure hunt (and there’s a road trip playlist too). 

Pencarrow

My husband and I got married at Pencarrow Lodge six years ago. As such, Pencarrow will always be dear to me as it’s where I signed myself up to a life of patriarchal servitude. JOKES. Chill.

It was a beautiful day then and my very shy husband grabbed my hand after we were hitched and half dragged me up a hill to hide from all of the guests. We drank Tui while looking out at the lighthouse.

The Pencarrow lighthouse (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

The Pencarrow Lighthouse was New Zealand’s first permanent lighthouse. It was also run by New Zealand’s first and only woman lighthouse keeper, Mrs Mary Jane Bennett. I’ve thought about Mary Jane a lot since I had kids. She lost her daughter little Eliza and her husband George died at sea. For a decade Mary Jane ran the lighthouse raising her six children alone. If you make the journey out to Pencarrow Head, you will see why she stayed.

Drive to Eastbourne, about 30-40 minutes from the CBD, and stop at Chocolate Dayz Cafe where you can get a beaut coffee and a giant piece of warm sticky date cake. The locals there are lovely and it feels a bit like it’s a quaint fishing village. Park up just before the Pencarrow gate. There are always lots of parks. You can’t drive past the gate but it’s a lovely walk. It takes around four hours to walk, on a fairly easy path. You can hire a bike from the gate in the summer. It’s about a one and a half hour relatively easy bike ride. There’s no charge to enter the gates. Eat at the glorious Pencarrow Lodge but be sure to book as they host lots of weddings in summer.

The rough and wild entry to Wellington’s Harbour at Pencarrow (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

My tip: check the weather. It can turn quickly, and it’s a nasty place to get stuck when the wind and rain comes through. But it’s perfect on a sunny Wellington day.

Makara Beach

Makara is about half an hour from the CBD but it feels like a world away. The 30 minute drive from Wellington city to Makara is a treat in itself. It’s just a really, really lovely drive and one during which I’ve sat in the passenger seat gazing out at the farmland many times. It’s open and wild, with a pebble beach that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of the world. The wind turbines take your breath away.

Explore the trails around the hills of Makara (Photos: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

Makara Beach Cafe is right by the water and has a lovely outdoor covered area – great for any weather. It’s basic fare: fish and chips and toasted sammies. Get a takeaway and check out the Makara Art Gallery or walk the Makara trails and peek into the houses that dot the shoreline. I can imagine living here on my own, yelling at the wild beach about editorials by jerks moaning about children in cafes. It must be so impressive in a storm.

On a clear day there are rock pools to explore and driftwood to collect. Makara Walkway begins and ends at Makara beach. The Meridian Wind Farm Walkway is full on and just a must-see – standing under the turbines with that view is amazing. It’s 6km and some of it is really steep so take plenty of water. And no dogs are allowed.

The Meridian Energy West Wind Farm above the cliffs of Makara Bay (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

On your way back home stop in the city and head into St John’s Bar by Te Papa. They have bean bags outside and loaded fries with pulled lamb, jus, feta and mint. Get one of their famous cocktails – I recommend a coconut and chilli mojito or the St John’s Rose which has Hendrix gin, raspberry, lemon, apple and mint. They usually have a bar outside so you barely have to move. If St John’s is too busy, head over to Courtney Place to my beloved rooftop sangria home Basque. Head right up to the roof and try out the sangria bar – they have almost every flavour. I couldn’t possibly choose a favourite from the peach, watermelon, and apple cider sangrias. It’s the perfect sort-of secret summer spot.


The Spinoff’s road trip playlist

Drive the bays from Owhiro Bay to Scorching Bay

The Wellington South Coast is a stunner. There’s just no doubt about it. Even on a wild day it’s a great drive – when the water is hitting the road you know it’s a solid Wellington wind. My absolute favourite drive begins at Owhiro Bay. I walked around Red Rocks trying to get my waters to break with my second child. I really recommend it as a scenic place to sweat along trying to evict your offspring from your womb. It’s also an awesome place to look at the houses of rich people and question how long they will have their houses before they’re stolen by climate change. Enjoy Red Rocks while it’s not under water, there’s plenty of parking at Owhiro Bay.

Park at the end of Owhiro and walk the Red Rocks track (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

After you’ve checked out the rock pools walk around to The Beach House and Kiosk between Owhiro Bay and Island Bay. There you can grab a coffee and with it you’ll get one of their signature tiny donuts. It’s an awesome place to stop for lunch too. If you’ve got a dog, they’re welcome but keep them on a lead so you don’t disturb penguins or seals. There’s sometimes orca in the bay too. Drive through Island Bay and stop at the Island Bay Marine Education Centre which is only open on Sundays. They have some great octopuses errr octopi and very friendly volunteers who are passionate about the Marine Reserve. The Island Bay Festival in February is a must-see – the annual Blessing of the Boats is my favourite event in the Wellington calendar.

Carry on past The Lighthouse (which you can stay in!) and around to Princess Bay – one of the best bays to swim in, and very sheltered by the wind. Lyall Bay’s Spruce Goose is a great place for lunch but it’s always very busy so you could also grab some fish and chips and plane-spot by the airport. If you park in the inlet just past the tunnel, there’s a pebble beach where you can lie on the rocks and watch the planes pass over. Follow the road around and you’ll find Breaker Bay. I’ve got naked here many times and you can too! It’s a treacherous beach though so be wary of the drop into very deep water by the shore. There’s nothing nicer than feeling the sun on your bare skin and relaxing in the relative privacy of the beach.  

Princess Bay is one of the best places to swim in Wellington (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

From Breaker Bay you can drive straight through to Seatoun where you can have some quiet reflection at the Wahine memorial. The anchor is there and it always makes me pause and imagine the horror of the Wahine disaster. You can find out more about the tragic event by going to the Wellington Museum on Queens Wharf. Seatoun is the home of very rich people; it’s fun to look into their houses and imagine that they have valium addictions.

Carry on through to Scorching Bay and Karaka Bay by following the road. You can stop in at Scorch-o-rama (a good choice on a cooler day) or travel on round to The Chocolate Fish where there’s delicious kaimoana and wine.

Greta Point Penguin Spotting

For a shorter walk, head out to Greta Point and try to spot some penguins. There is a walking and cycling track around the point that’s flat and easy. About half way along the walk there’s a fenced off area which is a reserve for Little Blue Penguins. I’ve been lucky enough to spot penguins there a few times but it’s a nice walk even if you don’t see them. The best time to spot a penguin is May and June when they are preparing nests. If you do see them – make sure you leave them alone!

Greta Point Cafe has world famous almond biscuits that folks swear by. There’s plenty of nice spots for fishing, the jetty in particular is lovely and sunny.

After your Greta Point visit you can drive on through to Beach Babylon at Oriental Bay and chow down on a Fat Bastard (hey it’s a breakfast) or their famous cheese fondue. Don’t miss Carrello del Gelato, the jewel in the Oriental Bay crown. Grab a Mr Pops ice cream or their award-winning mango sorbet. My favourite is gingernut.  

Drive to Evans Bay Parade, minutes from the CBD if you drive along Oriental Bay.

Hopefully that’s enough motivation to make you jump into your car and head out into the Wellington wilds. Our city sure is beautiful, you just can’t beat it on – sorry, I’ll stop now.

But honestly, when the sun’s out and the wind still, it’s pretty hard to beat (Photo: Danny Rood/The Spinoff).

Beyond the end of the road: Cape Palliser to White Rock, by Avi Duckor-Jones

I feel like I’m stealing my Dad’s stories. He was the first to mythologise the Wairarapa’s south-east coast for me. Growing up there were a whole string of stories about the cast of surf rats who used to roam the coast from Palliser to White Rock. I have in time created my own collection of memories, and feel I have earned my own right to someday rant about it.

Wellington has no shortage of accessible adventures, but unfortunately the Rimutaka Ranges often represent a mental barrier to Wellingtonians who are thinking of which trip out of town to take. But the truth is that the coast is just a short drive from Wellington, and it is certainly worth the trip. Every time I come down off the hill, it suddenly feels hotter, wilder, and incredibly vast, with undulating hills rolling into the distance, and an empty stretch of coast with multiple breaks to explore.

A surf rat beneath the hills of Cape Palliser (Photo: Avi Duckor-Jones/The Spinoff).

Heading out to Palliser, the first glimpse of the sea at Lake Ferry is striking. It is always bluer than I remember it to be, and there is often a mild anticipatory panic as I search for a small ribbon of whitewash indicating swell out by the farthest point. The drive is beautiful, even if the road is falling away in parts. Many of small beach shacks that I used to dream of residing in now hang tentatively over the cliff face, teetering on the edge. Eerie reminders of the old road remain in jagged lines as the road leads up into the limestone cliffs, and there is a distinct feeling that the whole thing could be washed away in the next light rain.

Then come the surf breaks. Dee Dees, Ning Nong, Craps, Toilet Bowls. This is where I stop and pull onto the side of the road to join the fleet of vans and trucks, many with tents alongside them, and dogs in the trays, sniffing around the chilly bins. I suit up, stumble down over the rocks and paddle out through flecks of seaweed and tentacles of kelp. On clear days, the faint ridges of the snow capped Kaikoura range can be seen across the strait.  The spot hosts an A-frame break, where surfers can take either a long left or a short punchy right. I’ve had long days out there through wild southerlies and glassy summers. There always seems to be a mutual respect on the water, acknowledging that the “townies” had at least committed to the drive.

Continuing around the coast is the small fishing village of Ngawi, with fishing boats and rusted trawlers pulled up on the beach. Nga-Ra-o-Kupe (Kupe’s sail), a sheer cliff face of sandstone, resembling a boats enormous triangular sail, towers over the thin rocky road around to Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the North Island. The road ends at Cape Palliser lighthouse with its candy cane stripes, looking like backdrop from a Wes Anderson movie.

The walk from the lighthouse to White Rock is one I have done many times. It still elicits a great sense of adventure, possibly due to Dad’s stories. Walking alongside the Jurassic mountain cloaked in harakeke, I always feel as though I can see time. The thousands of years of rain that formed the jagged peaks.

The Cape Palliser track to White Rock (Photo: Avi Duckor-Jones/The Spinoff).

There is a sense of sharing space too. Lichen covered boulders sit next to leathery ropes of unraveled bull-kelp. Sheep occupying the same space as seals, their smells intertwining in a briny, grassy stench. Karaka, Te Kouka, Springy shrubs forming dense hummocks, and the windswept sweeps of manuka. Slick seals dip in and out of the water, and fishermen and divers are often seen stumbling back across the rocks with sacks full of crayfish and kina.

The waterfall. The moonscape as you reach the spit. The spit itself, a long rocky outcrop, with left and right-hand surf breaks down either side of it. Ngapotiki hut. White Rock. Tora. Dolphin Bay. Then inland, the ancient limestone Patuna Chasm (accessed from Patuna Farm via Martinborough with a $25 fee) and the track to the Putangirua Pinnacles.

Even yuppie insects are welcomed in the breaks of the bottom of the North Island (Photo: Avi Duckor-Jones/The Spinoff).

It would be negligent of me to omit the imperative end-of-the-day beer at the Lake Ferry Pub. After the Palliser to White Rock walk, or after a day spent in the water, you will have deserved it. As the shadows become elongated in the evenings, and you turn back, a little wind bashed, sunburnt, and encrusted with salt, you will never find a colder or more satisfying brew.

To many, Wairarapa represents empty farmland, or cheese boards and a glass of wine. But go a little further and spend a bit more time. Look closer and sit with it for a bit, and you will find that there are adventures everywhere. I love the emptiness, the vastness, the space, and although it has been nice to write and reflect about this part of New Zealand that I love, I now hope I don’t attract too many people over the hill.

So ignore everything I’ve said. It’s a barren wasteland. Go to Kapiti instead. 


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