The beguiling thought of what lies ahead is often all that keeps the frazzled holiday driver from losing it on hot, crowded summer highways. The children grizzle, the car overheats, long queues appear out of nowhere and sometimes even the most loving of relationships seems like just too much of a good thing. If the highway to nirvana gets too hard, kick back and take five at one of these cafes. They're not necessarily the latest or the slickest, just good places with nourishing food, great coffee and a pleasant atmosphere to help you rest and regather that holiday spirit while on the highway to somewhere.
The Railway Station Cafe
102 Gillies Ave, Kawakawa
Here's a tried and true favourite which has changed hands over the years but never seems to lose its welcoming air and excellent food and coffee. The old railway building it occupies is on a working platform and from Friday to Sunday you can catch a train along the restored track through the countryside toward Opua (see www.bayofislandsvintagerailway.org.nz for details.) Being down a siding (at the western edge of town) there are no fumes from passing traffic to spoil the home-made pies.
Children love running up and down the long platform and exploring the boat drawn up at one end. The station once belonged to local legend Frederick Hundertwasser, the Austrian architect of international renown, who lived locally and designed the famous toilet block in the nearby main street. Open Tues-Sun 8.30am-4pm; Mon 9am-3pm.
74 Kamo Rd, Kensington, Whangarei
Most drivers to destinations north head straight through Whangarei, but it's worth taking a detour one block off SH1 to experience what lies behind Cafe Narnia's mock wardrobe entrance. After being greeted with small town friendliness from the new owners, you'll find squashy sofas to kick back on and a good range of freshly prepared food. It goes without saying that the coffee is good or the locals that form the bulk of the year-round clientele wouldn't rate it so highly. Along with the standard cafe menu there is a range of gluten free, non-dairy food on offer. It even has air-conditioning to help you cool down after a long, hot drive. Children are cared for with a dedicated menu, changing facilities, a toy box and high chairs. Open daily 7am-2.30pm.
6 Mill Lane, Warkworth. www.chocolatebrown.co.nz
Because it's tucked down a side road off Warkworth's main street, Chocolate Brown has maintained a feeling of a much-loved local. Pretty wallpaper contrasts with the industrial funkiness left over from its previous life as a panelbeaters' shop. The neighbouring chocolaterie adds a nose-twitching touch of luxury. All food, including the to-die-for chocolate and fudge, is freshly made on the premises. The coffee is excellent and children are entertained in their own beanbag-filled TV lounge away from the adult dining area. Just ask a staff member to show you where it is. Open Sat-Sun 8am-4pm, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm.
ElleCee Cafe and Bar
23 Freyberg Rd, Ruawai, west Northland. www.ellecee.co.nz
Catherine Stewart has been garnering awards ever since she opened her busy cafe and bar in a disused service station almost 10 years ago. It's hard to imagine what the forecourt used to look like, as it's now a comfortable outdoor living space with gates to corral the children, toys to keep them amused and an array of umbrellas and tables of all shapes and sizes. The food here is a standout with Catherine devising a never-ending parade of seasonal and, where possible, locally sourced goodies, and the coffee hits the nail on the head. If you're heading north via Dargaville, don't miss it. Open daily 9am-4pm.
Mavis and Co
475 Grey St, Hamilton East. www.mavis.co.nz
The only bad thing I can say about Mavis and Co is that it's so popular you often can't park outside. But it's worth a short walk to enjoy this post-industrial space full of bonhomie and charm. It's small, but an enclosed courtyard provides extra space for families. I love it because it's cute, the food is great and the coffee superb. Open Sat-Sun 7.45am-4.30pm, Mon-Fri 7.15am-4.30pm.
Eat Urban Foodstuffs
55 Broadway, Matamata www.eaturbanfoodstuffs.co.nz
Eat's point of difference is its emphasis on preparing dishes using raw food, as well as the usual cafe fare. Vegans, vegetarians and those who want to eat gluten-or dairy-free will find good pick-me-ups here. It's not large but has that great atmosphere of small town New Zealand. Parking is easy on the street outside, and children are kept happy with a well-stocked toy box. The coffee is just great. Open daily 7.30am-3.30pm.
25 Princes St, Putaruru www.pausecafe.co.nz
Just one block off SH1 and all the better for it, is one of south central Waikato's hidden culinary gems. Just two years old, Pause Cafe sets its standards high. You only have to read the About us' page on their website to see that nothing but the best will do for this small but thriving cafe deep in the heartland. The menu is more akin to a restaurant than a cafe, although it caters to both styles equally well. All food is freshly made on the premises, specialist dietary needs are catered for and the Fair Trade coffee is reliably delicious. There's plenty of hassle-free parking, sidewalk tables, a children's menu and high chairs. Open Sat 8am-1pm, Mon-Fri 8am-4pm.
Cafe Paradiso Village@7
7 Clarke Rd, SH2, Te Puna, nr Tauranga www.cafeparadiso.co.nz
This large, bustling cafe on the outskirts of Tauranga is the place to head if you fancy a bowl of fresh-as seafood chowder, or just a divinely decadent wedge of carrot cake. With 100 seats and a busy atmosphere, Cafe Paradiso cannot be said to be intimate dining but the atmosphere is lovely, the food great and the coffee divine. Children have an easily supervised playground at the rear, and parents get to kick back and enjoy. What more could you want? Open daily 8am-4pm
57 Te Kumi Rd, SH 3, Te Kuiti, Waitomo
Whether you're heading to the Waitomo Caves or destinations further south, the award-winning Bosco Cafe in Te Kuiti is a sure-fire winner. The food's fantastic, the coffee excellent, and for those who just wanting a place to relax this is hard to beat. Parents with children of all ages are catered for but in such a considered way that their needs are met without affecting the comfort of the wider clientele. A children's play corner and small child's menu plus changing facilities in the immaculate bathrooms all serve to keep both parents and toddlers sorted, while a kick-around with balls and frisbees provided by Bosco in the green spaces of Brook Park at the rear will use up any surplus energy. Open daily 8am-5pm.
MiHi Cafe and Food Store
4089 SH 5, Reporoa, Rotoroa District. www.facebook.com/mihicafe
There's a real 50s theme going on here, from the Formica tables and vinyl chairs to the menu complete with milkshakes and ice creams in cones. Retro pictures, toys and old china add to the impression that you've stepped back in time, supported by the ample parking and welcoming small town atmosphere. Great coffee, simple, home-cooked food and an eclectic range of merchandise in the associated shop all make this a worthy stopping off place not too far from Rotorua. Perhaps the real highlight (at least for those under-12) is the Two Towers playground out the back. Open Sat-Mon 9am-3pm, Tues closed, Wed-Fri 8am-3pm.
- HERALD ON SUNDAY