A trip to Whitianga is an adventure with wheels like these, writes Estelle Sarney.

"Pick me up after school," said Jed, 15, who normally walks the 500m home but, on this occasion, I could understand why he wanted a lift. And sure enough, as I sat waiting in the shiny black Toyota FJ Cruiser, with its white roof and mini-Hummer vibe, every teenage schoolboy within a 100m radius looked the vehicle up and down, grinning. A few walked past and commented, "Geez, Miss, nice car," or words to that effect.

To be honest, I felt like I should have been a 20-something guy to be driving this vehicle, and it would be the perfect 4WD to hire for a boys' weekend away. Toyota designed it as a Rugged Youth Utility, or RYU, that tips its hat to the original LandCruiser FJ40 with its white roof, upright windscreen with three wipers and circular headlights.

Apparently, hordes of this latest model are seen in the likes of Hollywood and Miami Beach.

But when Avis offered it for trial, I knew it would also be perfect for a family road trip somewhere with a couple of gravel roads to explore.


So the four of us stowed our gear in the generous boot, climbed into the high, comfortable seats and set off for Whitianga.

The FJ Cruiser drives like a dream. The steering is light and responsive, and an anti-lock braking system and brake assist means you're confident it will stop on cue. The V6, 4-litre engine handles hills with ease.

Inside, all the controls are chunky; Toyota says that's so you can adjust them while wearing ski gloves. There's an eight-speaker CD system, a 4.3-inch LCD screen and Bluetooth. But the gadget we liked the best was the trio of compass, outside temperature gauge and inclinometer stationed on the top of the dashboard. If you ever wanted to know the "longitudinal and lateral inclination" of your vehicle, ie, how much of a lean it's on, this will tell you.

The only thing that takes a bit of getting used to are the rear doors, which open towards the rear from the middle of the side panel via a handle on the inside, and only after the person sitting in front has reeled in their seatbelt. They're a bit awkward, but they look cool.

Adjust the 4WD gear lever and the Cruiser is ready for action on gravel road. We took it over Black Jack Rd from Kuaotunu to Otama Beach, and could have continued on this scenic stretch to Opito Bay. On the way home, we cut across country from Coroglen to Tapu over the beautiful Tapu Coroglen Rd, a trip I would never have attempted in my city sedan.

Having the ability to take gravel detours in such a fun vehicle made the journey an adventure, and added a road-trip element to the weekend.

It would be worth leaving your family car at home and hiring one of these for a weekend just for the heck of it.

Jed was just sorry that I took it back on the Sunday, and couldn't drop him off at school the next morning in front of his mates.

Go fish

If fishing or diving is your bag, Catch Charters offers half-day or full-day trips from Whitianga Marina. Owner Garry Buchanan skippers Grey Ghost, a 10.2m launch with a generous back deck and powered by twin 225hp outboards. If the fishing's a bit slow at one spot, you'll get to the next very quickly.

Mercury Bay and its surrounds are dotted with dozens of gorgeous islands, which are great natural environs for snapper and also lovely to gaze at.

All bait and tackle is provided and Garry can bait your hooks and remove your catch if you're not much of a fisho.

* Half-day fishing rates are $135 a person - ph 0274 788 960.
Soak it up

The Lost Spring is almost that. Tucked over the back of Whitianga village, you'd never know it was there, and many people I mentioned it to in Auckland had never heard of it. But I think that's less to do with trying to keep it exclusive for tourists than the lack of marketing savvy by its somewhat eccentric creator, Alan Hopping, who spent 20 years transforming a campground into a wonder of the hot pool world. It's a bit like the Magic Kingdom at Disneyland, with its lush tropical gardens, swing bridge, fake hills and waterfalls, except here you can swim in the pools. And what lovely pools they are, warmed by thermal water drawn from 667m beneath the ground. They vary in temperature and depth. There's even a cave with mood lighting and fake "glow-worms". Friendly waiters bring drinks to you poolside and there's a restaurant and day spa. The prices sound steep, but set aside a day to enjoy all the facilities and it would be the best escape you've had for a long time.

* 121A Cook Drive, Whitianga, ph 07 866 0457. Open 7 days from 10.30am, $30 for one hour, $60 for a day pass, minimum age 14.
Where to eat

There are cafes dotted all over Whitianga village. Cafe Nina is one of the most charming. Set in an old cottage, it opens out to tables on a lawn or on a covered deck. The staff are lovely and its seafood chowder went down a treat.

Most of the dinner restaurants look on to the marina. We chose Wild Hogs for its family-friendly menu and, although we had to wait for a table, the staff fussed over us until they had us seated by the fire. Four well-cooked steaks later, a chap came out to stoke the fire, introduced himself as the dessert chef, and asked us to try his pumpkin pie. We could soon tell why he was rightly proud of it. I wish pumpkin pie was offered as a dessert more often.

Where to stay

Flash car, flash digs. We opted for The Admiralty Lodge looking over Buffalo Beach and Mercury Bay. We could have squeezed into one unit, as each had a separate bedroom and two single beds in the lounge but, instead, we had adjoining units so the kids could spread out and watch their own TV. Fully fitted kitchens allow you to cook, and the bathrooms are spacious and well-specced. The spa bath in ours was a touch of luxury. Friendly manager Ambuj Uppal will take your order for breakfast, which is delivered to your room at your chosen time. We ate ours on the deck looking out at the gorgeous view.

There's an attractive pool and water feature set in well-kept gardens, and even an artificial putting green.

There are lots of nice motels in Whitianga, but if you really want to treat yourself, this is the place to go.

* 69 Buffalo Beach Rd, ph 0508 236 472. Rates range from $165-$280 for a studio and from $175-$295 for a one-bedroom unit, depending on the time of year.
Estelle Sarney and family travelled to Whitianga courtesy of Avis. You can hire a Toyota FJ Cruiser for about $128 + GST per day, although this rate varies depending on location and duration of hire.