Make sure you have empty stomachs if you take the family out west to visit Helensville and South Head, writes Rachel Grunwell

My husband Damien thought we would have to head to Australia when I mentioned visiting a macadamia farm with our young boys.

Nope, I replied. There's one right here in Auckland.

MacNuts Macadamia Farm and Cafe is nestled near Helensville, about 50 minutes drive from Auckland City.

While driving out to the nut farm there are many things that scream out "stop and look at me", like all the bargain fruit and vegetable stalls, BeesOnline where you can eat and buy fresh honey, and all those vineyards.

It should be a criminal offence to drive past the latter without tasting a pinot or two.

Once at MacNuts, owner Cherie McGerty tells us how she came to run the place this year.

Then heavily pregnant, she sat down for a girls' lunch with her mum and expected a salmon bagel. But she ended up buying a dream too.

"I thought it was just so pretty out here and then I saw a 'for sale' sign and immediately thought 'bingo!"' she laughs.

An experienced chef of two decades, Cherie had finally found a way to live and work where her whanau is from. She and husband Matt snapped up the business.

The couple have since welcomed baby Ella to their combined four-boy brood, while also growing the existing cafe business.

Cherie crafts delicious treats in a High Tea in a Box for Auckland customers - an innovative way to enjoy high tea with the girls at home "that you can even claim that you made yourself", she jokes.

Another highlight is her pre-arranged picnics which boast goodies including locally-made merlot and black-pepper sausages, a baguette and strawberries.

These can be devoured in the park-like grounds or whisked away.

Or visitors can order from the menu in the cafe overlooking the gardens, like we did.

My boys Zach and Lachlan had hot chocolates with French toast, bacon and sliced banana; while Damien and I devoured short blacks with bacon and scrambled eggs. The eggs were butter-yellow because they're freshly laid by a neighbour's chooks. Locally-sourced fresh produce like this is the couple's focus.

And let's not forget that the star of this place is the macadamias: their husks pave the driveway, there are rows of beaumont macadamia trees to play hide-and-seek under, and the nuts themselves are in menu delights from scones to the MacNuts flourless chocolate cake, icecream and double chocolate frappes.

In season, visitors can pick their own nuts to take home.

They need to be dried in a warm place for a week or two (try the hot water cupboard), and they're ready to crack open when they rattle when shaken. They're delicious, and Cherie says they have the highest amount of beneficial monounsaturated fats of any known nut.

The cafe is cool for kids, but mine had the best time running around the giant lily ponds, bursting with fist-sized pink and white lilies. Cherie says many couples eat brunch while watching their kids circle the lily ponds.

Be sure not to leave the farm without taste-testing the nuts: wasabi, chocolate-coated and hickory smoked are just some of the flavours on offer.

We next headed for a drive around gorgeous South Head. We stopped at Frech Orchards Estate to marvel at endless preserves and picked up some just-laid eggs.

Our last stop was Shelly Beach - it is postcard gorgeous here and our boys loved scrambling around the playground on the water's edge.

TRAVELLERS' TIPS
MacNuts Macadamia Farm and Cafe: 914 South Head Rd, Helensville. About 50 minutes from Auckland along SH16. Follow the signs to Helensville, turn left toward Parakai at the roundabout. Go through Parakai and follow the main road for 11km until you see the sign for MacNuts. Closed December 20-25.

On the way: Buy some honey at BeesOnline, 791 SH16, just before Waimauku.

Cool off: At Parakai Springs (adults $17, children $9, toddlers $4, under twos free).

Have some free fun: At Shelly Beach, off the same-named road further along South Head from MacNuts

Buy fresh produce: At Frech Orchards Estate, 85 Shelly Beach Rd.