It's embarrassing to admit that I have spent a lifetime driving through the Hauraki Plains en route to the beaches of the Coromandel, whistling past the towns at 100kph with only the odd stop for fish and chips. Maybe I have been waiting for this moment: the Hauraki Rail Trail, part of the national Nga Haerenga cycle way.
No more excuses, the Trail opened last weekend and the husband and I were off on two wheels to finally get to know those plains towns, up close and personal.
We were helped by the newly transplanted trail boss Peter Maynard and marketing manager Carol Baker, who since January have been working with the three local councils, DoC, farmers and business people to turn this trail from a twinkle in John Key's eye to a reality.
They in turn were helped by a love of building local communities (Carol was an artist before working in commercial design, Peter a businessman), a love of good food and bucketloads of hard graft. Oh, and also by the short-sightedness of old NZ Railways who, in the 1970s, ripped out the rail hardware, but left lovely flat, offroad tracks ripe for conversion into smooth, offroad bike paths.
It felt exciting to be in on the ground floor of a tourism venture which will transform these pretty burgs only an hour and a half out of Auckland. The service towns still have their old-fashioned main streets and loads of pretty houses just waiting for love.
Te Aroha is the gem of the bunch: its soda spa bathhouses set around the mountain and immaculate parks are pure Victoriana. The Aroha Mountain Lodge where we spent our first night is the refurbished 1885 maternity hospital.
We were booked for a 9pm spa, but had time for a fresh dinner at Ironique - as befits its name it is full of hard-case recycled iron furniture from artist Adrian Worsley and with the friendliest country service. The spa water - soda, not sulphur - is silky and gorgeous. Next time we'll organise our itinerary to finish, rather than start, a day's riding in Te Aroha, for a muscle-easing soak.
Hosts Greg and Linda Marshall plied us with friendly breakfast - they are enthusiasts for building their town's tourism - before we headed out on the road with Carol and Peter.
We happily adapted to Peter's philosophy that tearing along at anything over 10km/h is a waste of energy, but there are sections of the track where it was no trouble to crank up with the wind on your back.
The 20km trail from Te Aroha to Paeroa is through rich dairy farmland. Central casting had provided plenty of photogenic rust-red barns, autumn poplars and designer chicken houses, not to mention the odd abandoned village hall or dairy factory we'd love to see become a backpackers. It had also supplied the friendliest folks in the L&P Cafe at the start of Paeroa - complete with L&P iced biscuits, of course.
Winding through the Karangahake Gorge to Waikino was so leisurely we had time for a huge lunch from Ohinemuri Estate. My magnificent venison pot pie did render the ride calorie-positive, but this body was not built for Tour de France performance anyway.
The hub and spoke nature of the trail means you can do the gorge twice, and with 14km of bush, fascinating old gold mining museum and the thrilling 1km tunnel it is worth lingering.
A food stop at the charming Waikino Station (an open fire, plenty of memorabilia, Peter and Carol have really picked out some foodie gems for the Rail Trail riders), a ride in the train on the last bit of rail into Waihi and we could call it a day. The hobbyists on the trains have dreams of growth and a shed full of vintage engines: a train trip is the perfect end or start of a ride.
An impeccably converted villa lodge, and classic German cooking at the Waitete Restaurant (chef-owner Roland trained at a Michelin starred hotel in Stuttgart) were more gems we'd never heard of for our night in Waihi.
We finished our return trip on Sunday back to Paeroa and through to Hikutaia (the trail will be through to Kopu and Thames by spring) where the very comfortable shuttle bus (blessed padded seats) took us from the Convenient Cow cafe back to our bags and cars in Paeroa.
I may have left it too long getting to know the towns of the Hauraki Plains, but I'm already planning another excursion on the Rail Trail. At 10km/h, not my usual 100, this time.
Where to stay:
Aroha Mountain Lodge and Te Aroha Hot Springs Lodge: 5-7 Boundary St, Te Aroha, Phone 07 884 8134. Doubles from $135
Clark Lodge: 74 Moresby Ave, Waihi. Ph 027 602 9902. Rates from $200 per night, minimum two nights' stay.
What to do:
Hauraki Rail Trail Bike: hire at Waikino railway station (ph 07 863 8640), Te Aroha Cycle Hire (ph 07 884 4545) and Paeroa L&P Café/Information Centre (ph 07 862 8636) $40 a day or $25 for a half-day. Shuttle bus $40 (including bike) and baggage movement $12 per bag per night. For maps, suggested riding itineraries, shuttle bus and accommodation booking phone 07 2193233.
Goldfields Railway: 30 Wrigley St, Waihi or Waikino Station. Ph 07 863 9020. Adults $18 return, $12 one-way; kids over 5 $10 return; $8 one-way, family concession $45 return, $30 one-way. Three trains per day, last one leaves Waikino at 2.30pm.
Te Aroha Mineral Spas: Boundary St, Te Aroha Ph: 07 884 8717. 30 minute private spa from $18 per person, Romance package from $75 per couple.
Where to eat:
Waitete Orchard Restaurant: 31 Orchard Rd, Waihi. Ph 07 863 8980 Winter hours Tuesday to Saturday Open Sunday night Mother's Day (13th May) (bookings required).
Ironique Cafe: 159 Whitaker St, Te Aroha ph 07 884 8489.
Ohinemuri Estate winery and accommodation: Moresby St, Karangahake, RD4 Paeroa, Ph: 07 862 8874. Loft apartment for four from $115 night.
The Convenient Cow: 8102 State Highway 26, Hikutaia.
L&P Cafe/Information Centre: State Highway 2, Paeroa. There is great parking.
Catherine Smith was a guest of Hauraki Rail Trail.