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  • Luke @ Time 2 Go!

The classic Kiwi beach holiday

Originally aired by Radio New Zealand with Jesse Mulligan

We really enjoyed this and wanted to share it with you! Enjoy! - Luke @ Time 2 Go!

New Zealand has 15,000kms of beach and it is hugely varied. Historian Grant Morris of Victoria University looks back at when a beach holiday became the norm and why some beaches become so famous at the expense of all the others?


Jesse: Is it hot where you are?

Grant: It is for a Wellingtonian! It's about 25 degrees which is very hot down here.

J: And appropriately you're looking at the history of the New Zealand beach holiday today

G: Yeah. I thought since so many of us have come back from spending time at our wonderful New Zealand beaches we should perhaps reflect on this concept of "the classic New Zealand beach holiday"

J: Because a friend of mine just came back from Australia and she said "you know it's a funny thing, Australian's don't all kind of head to the beach in their cars like New Zealanders do". Obviously some of them go to the beach, but it's not quite the same tradition.

G: Yes, I think New Zealand has developed something which is quite distinct. It's been a combination of a number of different cultures, but also I think you can look at different era's in our beach holiday traditions. It hasn't all been the same over time.

J: Where do we begin?

G: So, I thought we'd begin at the idea "when did we actually become a beach nation"? Can we look back at a date where we can say New Zealanders identify as beach people?

The reality is, we can go back hundreds of years, because in Māori culture the beach has always had a fundamental importance. Of course that is where the early waka (canoe) landed; it was vital for survival; for recreation; and in so many different ways, so that is a culture which of course is a beach culture which has developed over hundreds of years.

Whangara Marae is a beautiful example of the beach having fundamental importance to the Māori that live here. Photographer: Ian Trafford (www.iantraffordphotos.com)

And even when we get our first European settlers and explorers in New Zealand, the beach plays a vital role in terms of travel; in terms of exports; and so many different ways as well.

But when we look at today's beach tradition, we're really looking at the development of what came with large scale European immigration in the late 19th century, in particular the British tradition of beach going.

J: So, what was going on around that time in terms of holidays?

G: What we can look at, when we look at the late 19th century is a whole lot of people coming from one particular place, which was Britain, and bringing with them their traditions and often those traditions clashing with the existing traditions such as those of Māori, New Zealand.

But what was happening in Britain at the time in the late 19th century, is this idea of going to the beach as an occasion, but really as a backdrop. So people might be thinking of Brighton and Blackpool and those famous English beaches where people would go and there'd be amusement parks, and people would promenade along the pier, and there'd be picnics, and the beach was somewhere that you went to, but you didn't go in. So the water was there, but it wasn't necessarily something that you would engage with as a swimmer. The kids might go for a paddle but that might be about it.

And so that tradition, in terms of recreation, and for the European mainly British immigrants was how our beaches were often treated. When we get into the late 19th, early 20th century we also get the popularity of the beach is a place to go for a picnic. So large scale picnics, small family picnics. But still it's this idea that you go to the beach, you dress up, but you don't necessarily go any further. We can see that in some of our early beaches in pictures that we can source of our early beach resorts, or popular spots like New Brighton in Christchurch. Note the name New Brighton, named after the English beach.

New Brighton beach (1927) Photo: http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Heritage/Photos/Disc8/IMG0075.asp

J: You've sent us a great photo where there are lots and lots of people on New Brighton beach and that's almost 100 years ago

G: Yes, that's 1927, so at that stage our concept of the beach is starting to change from somewhere where you go to, and you stand beside, or you do another activity with the beach in the background, to one where you actually utilise the beach itself, the sand, the surf, the sea.

But still if you look closely at that picture, and you zoom in, people are very much dressed up - there's a lot of protection, and there's not necessarily a huge amount of people in the water, compared to on the actual beach.

But of course, New Brighton has its famous pier; Days Bay in the Wellington region (Hutt Valley) had its famous water slide; so there were reasons to go to the beach, apart from actually going in the water. That's very different from our modern holiday at Whangamata (The Coromandel) or Piha (West Auckland) that we tend to think about today.

Lion Rock commands centre stage at Piha beach in West Auckland

J: Well, where did that modern beach culture come from?

G: So, a lot of it at this point is about New Zealand's changing culture, and also a more informal or relaxed approach to the outdoor activities. But also, transport and transport networks, because so many of our wonderful beaches are quite inaccessible. Even today, some are quite difficult to get to, but pre-World War II very difficult to get to.

In terms of that relaxation of beach etiquette, we can see that happening before World War II, but in particular after World War II. We can see it in a number of different ways.

Food and the beach have always had a strong connection in New Zealand over hundreds of years, but in terms of the more pakeha New Zealand tradition the formal picnics become barbecues.

The way people dress - formal swimwear, the one we look back on where people dressed up and it looked quite ridiculous today - but that became shorts and bikinis

And the activities changed as well - swimming and surfing became much more popular; and of course sunbathing - which is part of a cultural change as well, not just in New Zealand but in other places where to have tanned skin is considered to be something sought after, rather than something which potentially would mark you out as being a particular class, lower class in the British context, because working class people might work outside for long hours.

And so, a lot of those activities that we think are quintessentially beach activities are actually for most people quite recent. So that idea of how we use the beach is changing over time as well.

Whangamata Beach is the image that comes to mind to many New Zealanders when they think of a beach holiday

Once we get into the late 20th century we've got the idea that the beach is the place you go to drink and for a while there to riot over those New Year periods in Whangamata and Mount Maunganui they had major problems, and that became another association with the beach - which again is very different from a hundred years earlier.

J: Interesting you mention those beaches back in the U.K. I understand their demise began when people stopped getting in their cars and boarded cheap flights instead. But the car was one of the things that opened up beaches to New Zealanders.

G: Absolutely. And so with the rise of the automobile and people being able to afford one car, or two cars, people could drive out to Piha, they could drive out to Whangamata. Places which are very inaccessible - even today Whangamata is quite difficult to get to, but still has proper roads. That opened up a lot of opportunities in terms of the beach.

Because if we look back further, the popular beaches were often ones that were linked to the major towns or the major cities because people could go to them. New Brighton with Christchurch. Sumner is another one; Days Bay and Island Bay was Wellington City; Judges Bay, Auckland City; St Kilda, Dunedin; Tahunanui, Nelson City. All old settlements with those popular beaches being ones that you could get to.

Where today, we tend to think of Whangamata and Piha, Paraparaumu down here (Kapiti Coast), one's that have traditionally been less accessible.

J: So these days, as we look at New Zealand's most popular beaches, what are we talking about?

G: Yea, so things have changed. One point I want to make is I think part of the changing beach culture has been the rise of the bach or the crib in the South Island, where people have gone beyond just saying "we're going to go and have a day at the beach", and that's how we use the beach to "we can own a property at the beach", and it might not be flash, but it will be a place that we will regularly go and come back to it. We'll use it as part of our annual retreat. So that rise of the Kiwi bach plays an important role, as does tenting and caravans. And that's kind of cements the beach holiday in New Zealand culture.

Mount Maunganui is a popular beach escape for Kiwi's

But in terms of the popular beaches today, we've talked about accessibility, but it's the one's that also fit the classic beach ideal - golden sand, big surf, warm sun - and that's not just New Zealand cliché either, that could be California, that could be east coast of Australia. Those beaches of course are Mount Maunganui (Western Bay of Plenty); Whangamata and the Coromandel; beaches around Gisborne - places like that I think have become very popular because they're beautiful and amazing, but also because they fit that ideal. Where perhaps some of the older beaches which were once popular, are not as popular today.

Again, it's something that's changed over time. We still have this love affair with the coast, and with our physical landscape that's seen through the beach holiday, but it is one that's changed. And I imagine it's going to change again as New Zealand becomes more diverse and different cultures that come to New Zealand will treat the beach in different ways.

J: Well, we'll have a large immigrant population. It's getting bigger and bigger. What might our Asian community make of this so called 'Classic Kiwi beach holiday'

G: I was at Paraparaumu Beach last week and I was looking at different ways people were using the beach. There were Māori New Zealanders using it in a traditional Māori way; there were pakeha New Zealanders using it in what might be called a Kiwi way today, but one that's derived from the British use of the beach; and there was a large tour group from China and they were using it in a different way as well.

Now is that going to converge into one 'Kiwi' way of using the beach? Or will there be continued - kind of run parallel - different ways of using the beach? Because I don't think that it's so simple as "we go to the beach - we surf, we swim, we stay in our bach". There are actually many different ways and part of it is to do with culture, and as our country becomes more diverse, the way we use our beaches might become more diverse as well. And then of course, we've got the affect of our beach on climate change and environmental issues on our beaches and how that might change.

J: Also, a big issue about access to our beaches, but that might be one for another time...