Mangonui is the perfect base for exploring the Far North, and as Janetta Mackay finds, the fish and chips are pretty good too.
Four-and-a bit hours is a long drive to get "New Zealand's best fish and chips", but with the cold closing in on Auckland we thought we'd put the claim to the test and also check out a weekend in the "winterless north".
Friends promised we wouldn't be disappointed, so we headed to Mangonui with high expectations, a bit of scepticism and a jersey or two for good measure.
Verdict: a mighty fine feast in the sort of location designed to feed a winter-weary soul.
It was also, thankfully, quite a bit warmer than home, and without the summer crowds, the queue at the Mangonui Fish Shop anointed by Lonely Planet was no worse than the local chippy.
The fish tasted like it had just leapt into the fryer which, given the business has its own catch quota, is pretty much true, and explains why over Christmas you might queue for an hour-and-a-half to get near the counter.
We were in pole position from the time we checked into the homely Mangonui Motel, which has an unmatched view over the little harbourside town and is just a few minutes' walk up the hill from the historic buildings and fishing wharf below.
From our lounge window we looked out to sea towards the Karikari Peninsula. Turn the other way and the kitchen vista of the upper harbour was framed with hills, some planted in olives.
Our daughter was much taken with the translation of the town's name as "big shark" - based on the story that a shark led legendary chief Moehuri's waka into the harbour.
We were woken the next morning by excited cries of "I see a shark", which we wearily dismissed, before being roused with "No, it's dolphins, lots of them". And so there were, a pod of about a dozen frolicking in front of us the first morning and more again the next day.
Mangonui is a good base for exploring the Far North and is conveniently home to the Doubtless Bay information office to give you a headstart on where to go.
Captain Cook passed by in 1769 with his dismissive "doubtless a bay" comment, but he missed a lot. For starters 35 beaches are within 30 minutes' drive.
Within an hour north is the Karikari Peninsula, with the country's northernmost vineyard. South is Whangaroa Harbour, the Bay of Islands and Kerikeri and the Puketi forest with its kauri stands just past Kaeo.
It was already arranged for us, as first-time visitors, to take in Cape Reinga. It's obviously on the must-do list, and with Gordon Williams at the wheel, our four-wheel-drive round-trip up Ninety Mile Beach and down SH1 via some beautiful bays was made more than just another tourist experience to tick off.
Williams, whose family company runs a 20-seater bus and 4WD vehicles, has driven the route for 10 years and knows it, and the history along the way like the back of his hand. His wife Bev packs a mean seafood lunch for the all-day, individually tailored journey, which in summer means swims and picnics at secluded beaches, while in winter it's homemade scones and a thermos of tea in a sheltered spot.
We tracked the hoofprints of wild horses for kilometres up the deserted beach, which despite its name is actually 95km long. Along the way, we gained a new understanding of the eco-system.
What looked like brown sea scum, was, we were told, plankton coating the wavetops, and it accounted for the richness of the beach's bird and fish life.
A stopoff for toboggan rides on the giant Te Paki sand-dunes up Quicksand Creek is on most itineraries before the climb towards Cape Reinga, the traditional departing point of spirits to the afterworld.
On the way home, via lunch at Tapotupotu Bay, an icecream stop, a look at the Ratana church at Omeka, and the amazingly white silica sand at Rarawa beach, there's time for a shop at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom in Awapuni, while Williams hoses down the vehicle after its splash through salty streams.
If you want a new table and chairs with a 50,000-year antique rating, this is the place to find them.
From the 1830s, at the height of the kauri trade, thousands of men dug swampy soils for the kauri gum used to make varnish and linoleum. Huge amounts were exported for a century or so.
It was a tough business and tough men crossed the globe to join the hunt. Many of their Dalmatian names still grace the letterboxes of the north, and the legacy lives on every time a New Zealander pulls on "gumboots".
After seven intriguing hours - pity the people shuttled up from the Bay of Islands who have a much longer day - we head back to Mangonui for a meal at the Waterfront Cafe, which has city prices and quality in another of the township's old buildings.
Next day after a leisurely lunch - yes, fish and chips again at the over-water Mangonui Fish Shop - it was time to head back to Auckland, with a sense we'd left plenty unseen.
Mangonui is worth more than a quick stop - a long weekend at least. "It just gets away from the stress and the rat race and people go back revitalised," says Williams.
It may not be as activity-packed as the Bay of Islands, but its quiet charm is the appeal. As our motelier Rich - Canadian-born, well-travelled and a proud long-term New Zealand resident - says: "It retains the flavour of New Zealand when I first came here; it's peaceful here."
Perhaps testament to the area's pulling power is that a town with just one general store has four real estate agents jockeying for position with its handful of craft shops and cafes.
Even Rich is in the business, looking to sell a unit title or two to his motel to plough the rest back into his little slice of paradise.
There's plenty of development going on in nearby Coopers Beach and Taipa, but Mangonui's geography limits its spread, and for the locals that's just the way they like it.
As fish shop owner Alan Wright says: "You get really rich folk sitting by beneficiaries and there's really no difference in here."
Armed with permission to expand his all-weather picnic-style eatery an extra 6m over the water, he is determined to keep the approach casual. Though he may have to up his special order of Agria potato chips from the tonne that gets put away every week over summer.
Getting there: The quickest route is State Highway 1, then on to to SH10. The drive takes less than 4 1/2 hours from Auckland, but allow five hours for a leisurely trip, including lunch and a comfort stop at Kawakawa's famed Hundertwasser toilets.
Accommodation: The Mangonui Motel at 1 Colonel Mould Drive. Ph/Fax (09) 406 0346 or 0800 462 646.
What to do: The Heritage Trail is a signposted, 3km walk past 22 historic sites, including Maori pa and colonial buildings. Brochures from the information office.
Butler Point House, Museum and Gardens, an 1840s house, garden and whaling museum, is just 15 minutes around the harbour at Hihi. Open by appointment only. Ph (09) 406-0006 or email: email@example.com
Excellent guidebooks on Mangonui and Doubtless Bay by Neva Clarke McKenna, a resident historian and mother of comedian John Clarke, are available at Mangonui Stationery and Lotto.
For Cape Reinga Tours (and other destinations by arrangement), see paradisenz.co.nz or phone 0800 494 392.By Janetta Mackay Email Janetta