FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Column

Where's a dingy, rural dive when you want one
Decades ago in deepest, darkest Hawke's Bay, at a little roadside inn called the Waikare Hotel, there once was a publican named Artie Ward.
Locals remember Artie for being gruff, grisly and dry as a bone, as a pair of female travellers happened to discover when they stopped by for a drink one day.
The old story goes that they walked up to Artie and ordered a couple of fluffy ducks.
Arid Artie took one look at them and delivered this now famous line: "You can have a jug ... or you can **** off."
I feel at home in pubs like The Waikare, where the pool is free, the bar snack menu is solely a Mrs Mac's mince and cheese pie that's been in the deep freezer for too long and the ghastly patterns on the carpet begin to swirl together when you've had too many handles.
My favourite rural alehouse in Taranaki, the Toko Tavern, is such an establishment.
There's a tattered dart board, a mounted boar's head, a few tables and chairs, a TV above a wood burner and a jukebox that gets cranked up when someone throws on Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire.
A mate once likened it to stepping into someone's living room.
It's about this time of year that the Toko's portly proprietor, guzzlin' Gazza, puts up his traditional festive frosting on the windows, but if you were to ask him to add a Christmas tree he'd probably greet you with the same enthusiasm as Artie.
There's been one of these gems in every province I've lived in, the previous being Carterton's Gladstone Inn, where on a Friday night you might find yourself swilling a lager with ex-Carterton mayor Gary McPhee.
Last Saturday was the first chance I had to seek out the Western Bay's own Waikare, which I suspected was hidden out there among the hills of Whakamaramara or Paengaroa.


My girlfriend and I hopped in the car and set off towards Waihi, our eyes peeled for faded signs pointing us miles off the highway to antiquated inns promising nourishing ale and a mean old badger like Artie manning the taps.
I wondered whether we'd found it when we pulled into Browny's Brewery, tucked off State Highway 2 about 8km south of Katikati.
But with an appealing lunch menu, cheesecakes in the cabinet and not a ripped old DB poster in sight, Browny's wasn't quite the kind of place we were looking for.
So we kept rolling north until we hit The Talisman in Katikati, where a nice bartender told us we weren't likely to find any pubs off the beaten track between Katikati and Tauranga.
The Talisman itself wasn't what we were after, either - there was a pleasant garden bar out the back and if I'd asked for a fluffy duck they would have politely served me one.
We swung the car around and pointed it back towards Te Puke.
After a few hours, it became clear our hunt for a grubby old country pub in the Western Bay was like trying to find a cowshed on a tropical island.
"Nah, none of them round here," said the duty manager at Te Puke's Highway Bar.
"If you like kiwifruit, though ... we've got lots of them."
And that was when it hit me that the Bay didn't need a Waikare Hotel or a Toko Tavern to give me what I wanted in a bar.
Here in Tauranga, you can get a cadillac margarita at Armazem, sangria at Flying Burrito Brothers, a glass of Belle-Vue Kriek at Die Bier Haus, gourmet pizzas at Za Bar, or cheesy Thames Trenchers at the Crown and Badger.
At The Buddha Lounge, you can dance like a crazed monkey and they won't ask you to leave, and you can't beat Imbibe for happy hour.
I might one day find my Artie out there in the Bay but, until then, everything's going to be, well, a box of fluffy ducks.

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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