Rule number one, get on the Internet.
There are a number of sea kayak websites in New Zealand which are regionally based.
There is not a lot of information in one central location on sea kayaking in New Zealand, however I suggest you e-mail Max Grant of KASK (Kiwi Association of Sea Kayakers) and ask how much it would cost for him to send you a copy of the KASK Handbook – you will be able to read up on most areas worth exploring. Max Grant’s email address is email@example.com.
My edition of the KASK Handbook has good information on Northland, the Hauraki Gulf, Marlborough Sounds, Banks Peninsula, south-east Southland and Fiordland. I believe there is a more recent edition available and this may also include some other areas such as Abel Tasman National Park, Rotorua Lakes, Lake Waikaremoana, Lake Taupo, Coromandel, Stewart Island and possibly the Wellington region.
What follows is a brief resume of key areas for sea kayaking.
Bay of Islands
Situated in Northland about 4 hours drive north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands offers plenty for the sea kayaker. Lots of interesting islands to explore, generally good conditions, dolphins, history, but lots of people. Also, there is no free camping on any of the islands unless you carry a chemical toilet! I suggest you consider the Northland coast but don’t focus too much on the islands in the Bay of Islands, they are overrated.
The Northland Coast
Other parts of Northland worth exploring include the coast between Whangarei (start at Nunguru) to the Bay of Islands, Bay of Islands north to Doubtless Bay and even onwards to Cape Reinga. Prevailing winds and currents generally dictate a north to south route in the summer months. Great places to explore include Nunguru, Tutukaka, Matapouri Bay, Mimiwhangata, Helena Bay, Whangaruru Harbour, Bland Bay to Cape Brett. Missing out the Bay of Islands, the area from Matauri Bay to Doubtless Bay is excellent and includes the Cavalli Islands and Whangaraoa Harbour which has some very good sea caves at its northern entrance.
Auckland is situated on the Waitemata Harbour which opens into the Hauraki Gulf. The inner gulf (near Auckland) has lots of islands within easy paddling distance from the city. North (about 40 minutes by car) is the Mahurangi which is another collection of wonderful islands and interesting coastline. The outer limits of the Gulf is marked by Great Barrier Island – best got to by barge (takes all day, but it is worth the effort). The eastern side is open to pacific swells but the Western coastline is dotted with islands and small harbours. Few people go or live there. Great beaches and walks. It takes 4 to 6 days to circumnavigate Great Barrier Island.
The Coromandel Peninsula
Due east of Auckland, the western side of the Coromandel Peninsula has islands and harbours galore and is tidal and sheltered. The eastern side is open to the Pacific, has some wonderful beaches, great sea caving in places with plenty of stretches of desolate coastline. The coastline between Hahei and Hot Water Beach has many good sea caves that can be explored if an onshore swell isn’t running.
Possible Expeditions From Auckland
Auckland to Tauranga is typically 7+ days and takes you across the inner Hauraki Gulf to the Coromandel, up its western coast and down the east coast to Tauranga. You also have the option of crossing to Great Barrier Island instead of going to Tauranga.
Dead north from Auckland up the east coast, into the Mahurangi (look for Kawau Island on the map) and on to Whangarei. This is a four day trip however the journey from Cape Rodney to the Whangarei Heads is across open coastline and not much to see.
Three hours drive south of Auckland this is a volcanic area with a number of lakes that offer great sea kayaking. The best is Lake Tarawera which has a beach where hot water comes out of the sand. Build your own sauna and sit back while the strains of the day are eased. Lake Taupo (one hour south of Rotorua) is also worth a visit especially the north western coastline. All this area has some excellent trout fishing and many excellent walks. If you are into tramping (trekking) go to the Tongariro National Park one hour south of Taupo. Some wonderful walks, good system of huts to stay in but be prepared for sub-alpine conditions – it snows all year round. Currently, Mt Ruapehu, which is part of the park, is erupting.
This lake is situated in the Te Urewera National Park and the track that circumnavigates the lake is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It takes about three hours from Rotorua over some very rough roads to get there. The lake is prone to sudden storms and wind can be a problem. It is in a very remote part of the North Island and not too many people go there.
The Marlborough Sounds
Cross by ferry from Wellington to Picton and you are in the Marlborough Sounds which (they tell me) is a sea kayaking paradise. The long, narrow sound makes for challenging wind conditions, however there will be people in the area to advise you on where to go and what to do. You can kayak from Picton down the Queen Charlotte Sound and at Torea Bay find someone to portage your kayaks over to Kenepuru Sound. Currently I am translating from French a very interesting trip report of an expedition undertaken by two Paris based kayakers who voyaged from Golden Bay to Havelock at the head of Kenepuru Sound.
Abel Tasman National Park
A national treasure with some extraordinarily beautiful coastline to paddle and forest to walk. Can get very crowded in the summer months but worth the effort. The tramping is crap however. My wife and I went there last summer but gave up in disgust, we got sick of being passed by joggers! However, there is some incredible tramping in the upper South Island including the Mt Arthur Tablelands, Nelson Lakes and New Zealand’s most popular track, the Heaphy Track which attracts 20,000+ trampers a year. I strongly recommend you get the Lonely Planet Guide to tramping in New Zealand as it is very good.
Includes Lake Wakatipu (Queenstown), Lake Manapouri and Lake Te Anau. Long narrow lakes formed by ancient glaciers – miles and miles of unspoilt coastline, few people, lots of sandflies, cold and wet and at times challenging conditions.
Our biggest, coldest, wettest, most desolate national park which boasts the wettest place in the world; six to ten metres (yes, metres) of rainfall a year. Only very experienced sea kayakers travel in this area. Few places to get in and out of; once there, you are committed!
If you are seeking some remote and challenging coastline to explore, Fiordland, Stewart Island, parts of the Marlborough Sounds, possibly Great Barrier Island and the far north, Cape Maria van Diemen, Cape Reinga and North Cape are interesting and not well populated. The north weather is much warmer although the area would only occupy you for a few days. For a big trip, try the South Island areas.
New Zealand is situated in the southern trade winds and being long and narrow, the weather is changeable. Wind speed in Auckland for example averages 15 knots, with 20+ most afternoons. It is for this reason that all sea kayaks come equipped with rudders. It is a wet climate but generally warm with summer temperatures being 15-25 Celsius and in the winter 8-15 Celsius. However, this is not some sub-tropical paradise. Always have polyprop long johns and polar fleece stowed in your boat. If you do paddle in the deep south, consider a wet/dry suit.
The West Coast
With the exception of Fiordland, you may have noticed that we tend not to paddle on the West Coast on New Zealand. It is very open and exposed with very few harbours to explore and not many towns. The entire coastline is exposed to swells that come from the Southern Ocean, mainly from well south of Australia and the prevailing westerly winds makes for large, dumping surf.