Birds of a feather ...

Pretty as a picture, historical, ornithological and close to home, Miranda gets two thumbs up from Elisabeth Easther.

Watching the migratory birds at Miranda enthralled us.
Watching the migratory birds at Miranda enthralled us.

Let the good times roll - that's what we sang as we trundled towards Miranda in our gleaming, new four-berth Maui campervan. My knuckles gradually loosened as I learned the vehicle's idiosyncrasies and my driving confidence grew.

Campervans really are super; our only complaint is that our home away from home didn't have an amusing name stencilled on the cab, like the privately owned ones. We dubbed ours "The Roamin' Emperor" but restrained ourselves from daubing it on the paintwork. We didn't want to lose the deposit.

Setting a course for Miranda, this little gem at the base of Coromandel Peninsula, on the Firth of Thames, which is often referred to as the Shorebird Coast. "And barely an hour from Auckland," we exclaimed giddily, the first of many times. At Miranda Holiday Park, we knew we'd hit the jackpot - seriously well tended, it's clean as a whistle, with lovely grounds and so much to do. There are tennis courts, bicycles to hire and a cycle path right outside the front door and walkways. It's hoped the Hauraki Rail Trail will start from here, linking with Thames and Paeroa. There's even an on-site massage therapist.

As for the thermal pool, at night with the steam and lights, it's a magical grotto beneath the stars.

We woke the first morning to a world blanketed in a dusting of white frost, a sharp contrast to the sky's brilliant blue. Rugged up, we migrated to Miranda's famous Shorebird Centre, where ornithologist, artist, author and all-round good guy Keith Woodley showed us around. Armed with binoculars and a ludicrously large telescope, we set off on foot through the marshes and past the mangroves to take a gander at the birds that winter round here. What scenes we saw at the lovely new hide: plovers, swans, red knots (which commute all the way to Siberia to breed), black-billed gulls and pied oystercatchers, darling dotterels, plus wrybills (the only bird whose beak bends to the right) spoonbills (their bizarre beak like that of a platypus), a rare sanderling.

Keith told us the young godwits that are too small to breed are smart enough to know there's no point flying all the way to Alaska until they're bigger.

All the birds at Miranda have thrilling tales, but I particularly admired the godwits'. Imagine this - they double their body weight in around four weeks, fly to the Yellow Sea (between mainland China and the Korean Peninsula) to stop over, all slender again. There, they chow down for five more weeks before flying all the way to Alaska, where they set up little love nests, eat more, do some courting and make babies before returning to New Zealand along the same route.

One fetching flock of wrybill, we could have watched all day. They'd regularly reposition, en masse, forming a shimmering cloud above the sands. With their grey-topped wings and white undercarriages, they were like a school of glimmering fish in the sky whenever they changed direction. Such capable pilots, too. Keith has been at Miranda for 20 years and has never seen a mid-air collision.

The Shorebird Centre is a treasure, packed with books, souvenirs, and taxidermied birds give you a close up look at the wildlife.

There's more to Miranda than birds, though, so we trundled on to Rangipo Museum and Pa. Rob McCartie's family started farming here in the 1950s, and Rob now runs tours of the property, which includes five historic pa sites, filled with all manner of secrets.

The woolshed, built in the 1880s, holds relics from the past including Maori and European tools, some dating back 600 years. I especially loved the photographs of Rob's Dad, who was a champion woodchopper back in the day.

But it is the view from the top of Rangipo that will take your breath away, so tote a thermos and take your time gazing out over the Firth.

Fish'n'chips in nearby Kaiaua are obligatory. The battered gurnard was some of the best I've ever tasted, ditto the mussel fritter with hints of dill.

To delay the journey home, we made a quick detour to Ngatea's Water Garden. Talk about fruity family fun.

Glorious gardens, a castle, water features, signs everywhere, especially on things that don't need signs and practical jokes galore. Flocks of animals, eager to be fed, and a can museum that has to be seen to be believed.

What a trip. And, as we handed over the keys of the Roamin' Emperor, we exclaimed one last time, "Isn't Miranda amazing? And barely an hour from Auckland."

Fact box

Maui Campers: Stop wondering and try one for yourself.
Miranda Holiday Park: Hot pools, tennis, gorgeous grounds. Why leave?
Miranda Shorebird Centre: Great shopping, accommodation, outstanding birds.
Rangipo Museum and Pa site: Rich history, handsome vistas and a most personable host. Tours can be booked any time of year if you give enough notice.
Ngatea Water Gardens: Castles, cans garden, wildlife. Super quirky. Let the good times roll - that's what we sang as we trundled towards Miranda in our gleaming, new four-berth Maui campervan. My knuckles gradually loosened as I learned the vehicle's idiosyncrasies and my driving confidence grew.

Elisabeth was a guest of Maui Campers and Miranda Holiday Park.

- NZ Herald

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