Less than an hour and a half's drive from Auckland, Mangawhai Heads is an unexpected gastronomic delight. We visited thinking we might get a beach walk and pub lunch but instead found award-winning wine to taste, gorgeous olive oil to sample and an authentic French eatery going incognito.
The Frog and Kiwi has to be one of the country's most incongruous restaurants. Tucked on the lower floor of what looks like an office complex in the central township, it's so unexpected that we drove right past at first. It's run by a French couple, chef David Bonometti and his partner, Nathalie.
David settled in Mangawhai for the lifestyle and though he says he has had to change his menu a bit for Kiwi tastes, the food is as French as I have ever tasted in New Zealand, with a wine list to match. We visited twice - the first time for a gorgeous cheese platter with the best gooey brie I have encountered, and the second for lunch. All our mains were excellent, from the fish cassolette to the tartine, a selection of pates and spreads served with fresh bread.
There are no gimmicks - just excellent French food, very good service and a chance to step into a true French cafe for a couple of hours. It's not until you leave the restaurant and find yourself in a nondescript New Zealand carpark that you come back to reality.
A little way down the road, we stopped in to try some local wine at Lochiel Estate. Gary and Liz Cameron, inspired by their winemaker son, Rob, have been growing vines on the land for almost 10 years but only moved to live on site full-time in 2004. Their winery was finished in 2005 and what was meant to be a retirement hobby has taken on a life of its own. The vineyard produces four varieties: pinot gris, chardonnay, merlot and syrah. Gary said: "Our son said 'I'll show you how to make wine, Dad' and it took off."
Their chardonnay has won two gold medals in previous years and a silver this year. One of their most sought-after wines is a fortified malbec, called The Laird. Gary said: "It's in the style of vintage port, only sweeter, with more oak."
The Camerons recommended that after leaving their vineyard, we stop in at Echo Valley Olives, run by Don Windley and Teresa Anderson, for an olive oil tasting.
The couple decided in 2002 that olives were where their future lay. Teresa said: "Don was working on a olive grove in Kumeu, and went to the New Zealand olive producer's conference, came back and said 'we're growing olives'."
The couple searched from Auckland north for the right place to do it but fell in love with their block at first sight, even though it was overgrown "and like a safari trek".
"We planted all the trees in Easter 2003, then we had a party," Teresa says. "And then it rained until November." Like the Camerons, the couple commuted from Auckland for three years before moving up full-time. Teresa does not regret the move. "Being in Mangawhai is like having a weekend all the time."
The olives are sent to a press in Wellsford before being bottled back at EVO. The finished product is mostly sold at growers' markets around Auckland and Northland.
We settled in for an olive oil tasting under the vine-clad pergola in the garden. Although it was late winter, with the sun on our backs, a glass of wine in hand and a plate of olive oils before us, it could have been a summer afternoon in a European olive grove.
EVO produces several different varieties of olive oil: koroneiki, a frantoio/koroneiki blend, pendolino, frantoio and marino. Deciding which olives to grow was not a very scientific process. "We just tasted the ones we liked and decided what to grow, " says Teresa.
I was surprised at the difference in the tastes, from a hint of watercress in one variety to quite a nutty flavour in another.
All the olives are processed under the highest level of quality assurance.
Don and Teresa were told early to aim for the boutique, specialised end of the market because they would not be able to compete price-wise with the mass-produced cooking oil sold in supermarkets.
The EVO shop is open throughout summer."People come out, have lunch at the table, go for a walk around the trees and have a tasting."
If you're in the area for the weekend, check out the market on Saturday morning in the centre of town, and the Mangawhai Meat Shop, a boutique butchery and deli. If you have children in tow, or just a sweet tooth, chocolatier Bennett's of Mangawhai is also well worth a stop.
Mangawai is 90 minutes from Auckland, take the turn-off from Kaiwaka.
On the way:
Stop in at the cheese shop at Kaiwaka. It's not just the "last cheese for miles", as the sign proclaims but the best place to buy some really unusual cheeses.
Echo Valley Olives: 59 Echo Valley Road
Lochiel Estate: (Vineyard and B&B) 60 Brook Lane, Mangawhai
Frog and Kiwi restaurant: 6 Molesworth Drive, Mangawhai email@example.com