Much as I love city bars, there is something magical about wandering into a country hotel. New Zealand is lucky to have these lovely historic buildings dotted around the countryside. Often they are the only building visible from the road when passing through the sort of township that is marked on maps but falls short of reality.
The South Island has any number of fine country hotels, each beautifully painted and with hanging baskets on the veranda. Up north, too, we have some excellent examples. The White Swan in Greytown is a charming spot, as is the fabled Martinborough Hotel. Further north, the Cheltenham Hotel just north of Feilding is the only one I know that had to bring in an exorcist.
The Rangitaiki Tavern between Napier and Taupo is a regular stop for me along that road and, closer to home, the Rangiriri Hotel is a landmark on State Highway 1.
I took a trip to Cape Reinga recently and marvelled at the beautiful old hotels along the way, including the Hukerenui Hotel, the Pioneer in Waipapa and the Towai Tavern.
We decided to take the scenic route through the Bay of Islands and pulled over to stretch our legs in Mangonui. As it turned out, there was a fantastic pub right beside where we parked, so I felt duty bound to check it out.
The Mangonui Hotel is the sort of place that transports you back in time. It's a country tavern in a very real sense, with posters up for a forthcoming pig hunt and table tops inlaid with ferns and shell casings. It has a TAB and a pool table and locals discuss the burning issues of the day over jugs of ale.
What really took my fancy was the cockatoo sitting atop his cage in the corner of the bar. At first I thought it was stuffed, but then it turned its head, looked me up and down a few times and croaked: "Ello darling". Clearly it was either blind or affected by beer fumes, but it was exactly the sort of odd incident that happens in a country hotel.
Increased intolerance of drink-driving and hard economic times have hit country pubs hard, which is all the more reason to pull over and check one out whenever you get the chance. They offer filling food, coffee and great prices and add something truly Kiwi to any road trip. Visit one and see some of the country's living history and hope it doesn't fade away to a mere memory.