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Taylor St. John explores, Raglan, a famed North Island surf village, and can’t resist staying a while
When the bus first drove me into Raglan, I forgot to get off. Or rather I hadn’t thought the short string of shops we had just passed amounted to the entire business center of the famed North Island surf village. After a year of living in New Zealand, a country built on a string of one-horse towns, this shouldn’t have surprised me. But the Number 23 bus swung back towards the hilly neighborhoods, and there I was still on it.
By this time I’d spent 12 hours of my day on or waiting for public transport, traveling from the Bay of Islands in the Far North, through Auckland, down to the city of Hamilton. After missing my first connection from Hamilton to Raglan and waiting another two hours, I finally boarded the last bus of the day, shoved my suitcase and backpack onto the racks and road the hour out to the coast.
The last month and a half had been a nonstop zigzag across New Zealand’s North and South Islands at the tail end of my year working holiday. The road, with all of its ups and downs, was finally beginning to wear on me. The day before I set out for Raglan, I drove a rental up to Cape Reinga at the very tip of the North Island, where I left the boy I loved as he began a six-month hike down the length of the country. I was flying home to the States in just a few weeks and didn’t know when—or if—I’d see him again. When that bus pulled back through Raglan’s center a second time, I climbed down onto the sidewalk of the sleepy beach town with the weight of a heavy heart and a year’s worth of luggage.
I had come to visit friends, a couple I’d worked with in Queenstown that winter, for just three days. But Raglan has a way of keeping you, and three days would turn into ten. Jordan met me at the bus with a big hug and threw my bags into the back of Christian’s Toyota Corona. The mid-November night was warm and we drove with windows down past the turquoise harbor. You could drink in the coastal air and feel instantly calm.
Raglan sits at the meeting point of fingerlike Whaingaroa Harbour and the Tasman Sea on the North Island’s West Coast. It’s accessed almost solely via the grittier city of Hamilton to the east. Surf and yoga retreats, organic gardens, artist markets and activists all thrive here. The area was made famous for its left-hand surf break, and for decades world-class surfers have come to ride the waves at Indicators, Whale Bay and Manu Bay. Still, the town remains a community of less than four thousand.
I imagine Raglan looks today like how many American beach towns must have looked in the seventies. Transport of choice is a beat-up campervan, which serves as home, storage unit and ride to the nearest surf break. If you happen to stand on the roadside with a thumb out there will almost always be a ride. Many of the businesses in town open late and close early. Nine-to-five is not a widely celebrated concept. In the afternoons clusters of barefoot school kids hop off the bus and walk home along the bleached sidewalks and gravel roads.
One day we were driving through town and were halted by two passing cars that had stopped in the middle of the road. I watched as the woman driving one jumped out, shoeless, lifted a small child out of the backseat, and ran around to deposit the passenger in the other woman’s car. The first woman waved a quick thank you to her friend for taking the load and both were on their way again.
It doesn’t take long to feel like you’re a part of Raglan. My hosts had just moved here, and I watched as they started conversations with strangers on the street, the owners of the local surf shop, one of the artists in a funky co-op boutique in town. There were invitations to barbeques at a friend of a friend’s house we’d just met. One night we went along to an event at the wharf, an open mic happy hour protesting seabed mining (when the bar ran out of drinks and the crowd grew too large for the studio space we made a quick exit.)
I observed the general easygoingness that seemed to settle over the whole of Raglan and knew this was the place to find the R&R I’d been craving. It’s a town that envelops you into its fold the moment you arrive. Maybe there’s a clan of born and bred Raglaners who take issue with the passing travelers and the tourists—I’d heard a few comments of, “Oh, that’s the true locals bar down there”—but if there was I didn’t meet them during my stay. In front of me was a wide open window of time and a hopeful feeling that when it was time to leave, it’d be as a reenergized, happy traveler once more.
Part 2 can be found here.
Photo credits: All photos by the author except numbers 2 and 3, by Jordan Newberry.