Raglan is like Byron Bay 30 years ago. There are rustic beach shacks, glistening surf, great cafes, and, when there’s no swell, lots of walks, waterfalls and art galleries dotted in and around the volcanic valley. Located just 48 kilometres west of Hamilton and two hours’ drive from Auckland, you can get beached as, bro, in this little hippy town with the big surfie culture.
Raglan, which has been inhabited for about 800 years and is known in the local Māori language as Whaingaroa (‘the long pursuit’), is today best known for having one of the most consistent left-hand surf breaks in the world.
Although, in recent years, it’s become a bit more touristy, with that comes benefits such as quirky cafes to get a decent brew, atmospheric bars filled with grizzled surfers, a lively calendar of gigs and a few rave-worthy eateries.
Surf's up in Raglan
Here, the way of life seems to ebb and flow with the ocean, and is very much dependent on the swell and its direction. When the surf’s up, a surge of visitors seem to suddenly stream into the town, in and out of the surf, in and out of the cafes, back into the surf, snapping up burgers and pancakes, slurping down chai and coffee and then doing it all over again.
Even if you are not staying right by the sea, you can hear that swell build from a whisper to a roar to a commotion. There are four main surf breaks in Raglan: Manu Bay, Indicators, Whale Bay and Vortex Bay. If riding waves is your No.1 reason for visiting Raglan, the surf shop in the main street is a good place to get some local knowledge about the breaks.
Even if you’re not fond of wearing foamed neoprene in public, when the swell is running, it’s entertainment in itself to watch the surfers hopping around, stork-legged, trying to wriggle into their wetties and staring at the sea as if it might be their Church.
If gawping at their exultant faces gets awkward, crunch along the black-sand beaches until you reach the harbour or map out a walk on Wainui Reserve. Novices can also book a lesson with Raglan Surfing School and channel the stars of the seminal surf film, The Endless Summer, which featured the town in Bruce Brown’s cult 1966 classic.
Paddleboarding and kayaking, fishing and kitesurfing are other sea-centric options. Alternatively, trek to Te Toto Gorge or Bridal Veil Falls or get all extreme with a full-day rock-climbing and abseiling adventure up the 'Stupid Fat Hobbit' formation.
When you tire of being an action hero, head to The Shack: an iconic spot for meeting other travellers and making friends with locals. Here, you will be welcomed by waiters who will flood you with pleasantries and menu options.
For brekkie, try the Shack-made pastrami with potato waffle and mustard hollandaise or egg-dipped brioche with vanilla mascarpone. Hungry surfers will not be the only ones stoked with the steamed local green-lipped mussels at Orca Restaurant and Bar. And let’s just say it, and get it over with, the best fush ‘n’ chups in town is at Raglan Fish.
You’ll also want to rock down to Electric Avenue to Juantanameras, the food caravan that is open subject to surf conditions. Do order Mexican quesadillas and Venezuelan arepas and sugar-coated churros. The best place to get a drink in town is YOT Club (where all the gigs happen) or on board the Wahinemoe cruising in the Whaingaroa Harbour at sunset.
Raglan's artistic undercurrent
When the surf is not running in Raglan, which has a population of about 3000, the town can appear as silent as a photograph. But scratch the surface and you will find that Raglanders are as arty as they are sporty, with galleries, exhibitions, live gigs – everything from reggae to rap to spoken word – and workshops on weaving, carving, yoga and storytelling.
Jet Collective is a funky gallery and shop outlet for Raglan artists producing works that range from metal, ceramics, sculpture to photography and painting. The monthly Raglan Creative Market also reflects the emerging talent in Raglan with wares ranging from woven flaxware to original fashion and delicious kai (traditional Maori food).
As far as accommodation goes, you can also check into a caboose or tipi at Solscape eco retreat, book a bach or truly escape at the five-star rated Waoku Lodge.
Speaking a bit of Maori in New Zealand goes along way. When it’s time to go, say E noho rā (goodbye) or, if you really want to impress, Kī tōnu taku waka topaki i te (‘my hovercraft is full of eels’).
Getting there: Driving to Raglan from Auckland takes about two hours. From Hamilton, the driving time is about 45 minutes along the SH 23.
When to go: According to the Wavehunter website, Raglan’s waves are remarkably consistent and surfable in a variety of conditions.