Call me ignorant, but I hadn't heard of Kawhia until 18 months ago. Interviewing an elderly kuia, I asked where she came from and was intrigued when she answered "the iron sand country, around Kawhia Harbour". It sounded like the kind of mystical land that pops up in Game of Thrones and I wanted to see it.
Kawhia isn't the kind of place you happen upon. It's an isolated, King Country coastal community that you have to aim very deliberately for. Given this, we decided our weekend away should be as much about the journey as the destination.
We could have taken the more direct State Highway route (about three hours from Auckland) but went instead via Raglan for lunch, the Waikato west coast, through Te Mata with a stop at Bridal Veil Falls, then south to Kawhia.
The back roads between Raglan and Kawhia are roads less travelled, probably because they're gravel, narrow and twist like a corkscrew.
Near deserted as the roads may be, there's a lot to take in. The views of rugged and windswept Ngarunui Beach, Manu and Whale Bays (regarded as one of the best surfing spots in the country) are stunning. We also made a stop at a look-out at the Te Toto Gorge, which affords a breath-taking panorama of the Tasman rolling in from Australia.
This route meant it took around six hours to reach Kawhia. With just 650 residents and a yesteryear appeal reminiscent of a simpler and less hectic time, the sleepy little port has a tranquil coastal charm and very friendly people.
For a small and isolated settlement, Kawhia can keep you surprisingly busy, depending on what you want to do. We stayed just outside the township itself in nearby Oparau at Amblecote Bed and Breakfast; not because there isn't ample and affordable accommodation but we needed somewhere that can take pets by arrangement.
The town's main street, Jervois St, faces Kawhia's expansive harbour and ends at the local fish 'n' chippie, boat club and wharf. Fishing off the wharf is a popular pastime and we chatted with a father and son who'd caught a sizeable snapper that morning.
There's also the option to head out on a fishing charter - names and numbers found on the wharf buildings - for a spot of big game fishing. If that's not your thing, you could take a harbour or heritage cruise.
Arriving early evening, we sat on the waterfront eating fresh fish 'n' chips while watching a number of small boats return from a day at sea. As the sun set, our girls played on the excellent children's playground at Omiti Reserve.
A sign at the reserve entrance explains how steeped in history Kawhia is. The town is of special importance to those of Tainui descent. In approximately 1350AD, the Tainui waka arrived in Kawhia Harbour after what must have been a gruelling journey from Hawaiki. The waka was hauled ashore, on to what became the site for Maketu Marae, with its impressively carved meeting house, Auaukiterangi.
Kawhia was also one of the first places where Europeans settled in New Zealand.
The now-quiet main drag was once a lively port town with shipping offices, warehouses and chandleries watched over from surrounding hills by flour mills and flax processing centres.
The former Kawhia County Council building is now a waterfront museum. Dinosaurs once roamed these parts and the museum has a fascinating collection of fossils, including moa bones that have been found locally.
We wanted to explore some of the sites where these fossils have been found.
Our first stop was the beach at Puti Pt, between Kawhia and Oparau, where the fossilised remains of marine animals, like giant ammonites and squid-like creatures, have been discovered.
We didn't find anything, but had fun fossicking around the shoreline.
Then we drove around the harbour's scenic shore, with its inlets and estuaries which reach like octopus arms into the landscape, south to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. This is a truly startling phenomenon with a natural bridge, consisting of two limestone arches which span the Mangapohue River, created when, millions of years ago, a cave collapsed leaving the roof and sides intact. You can see numerous limestone crops with layers of huge oyster shell fossils.
After a long and winding drive, we needed some fresh air. After lunch back in Kawhia at the Orange Dinghy Cafe, we headed to the forested sand dunes of Ocean Beach. This is the West Coast at its most majestic: big waves, black sand and near deserted coastline for as far as the eye can see.
At low tide, you can dig in the sand and sit in a hot pool where the thermal Te Puia Springs bubble up through the sand. Being a sunny April, the weather was perfect. A local tells me that in high summer, the sun beats down on the black sand making it too hot to walk across in bare feet.
That night, we returned to Amblecote and a near completely home-grown and home-cooked meal. It was a scrumptious end to a wonderful day of exploration. We headed back to Auckland the following morning, my curiosity about Kawhia sated.
That said, when I heard a friend's family had recently bought a holiday bach down there, I wanted to know if they'd take bookings. There are two big events, both in summer, I'd like to experience.
The Kawhia Regatta, on January 1, features kauri racing whaleboats, crewed by sailors from local communities and is organised by the Kawhia Rowing Regatta Club and Te Waitere Boat Club.
Five of these whaleboats were built in Auckland in the early 1880s and arrived in Kawhia around 1910. Four of them survive; one on display in the local museum and the remaining three to compete, alongside modern replicas, in the annual New Year's regatta.
Then there's the annual Kawhia Kai Festival, where visitors can experience traditional Maori food. It gets bigger each year - in 2012 around 10,000 people attended - and has now attracted international attention, with Lonely Planet including the festival in its Top 10 List of Indigenous Events.
Amblecote Homestay Bed and Breakfast: (07) 871 0508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Annie's Cafe/Restaurant: (07) 871 0198
Kawhia Hotel: (07) 871 0700
Kawhia Fish Shop: (07) 871 0712
Kawhia Boating Club: (07) 871 0842
The Blue Chook: (07) 871 0778
The Orange Dinghy Cafe: (07) 871 0030
Oparau Roadhouse: (07) 871 0683
Kawhia Museum: (07) 871 0161; admission free but koha appreciated; open 11am-4pm, Wed-Sun.