Takatu: Fork in the road

By Ewan McDonald

Dave hefted the boule from one hand to the other, as Daniel Vettori does when sizing up the opposition's potential. He was a large-framed, open-faced farming type. It would turn out in conversation that this was not surprising: he had been a Waikato dairy farmer.

The potential opposition was Jude, who is neither large-framed nor a farmer. "Have you ever played the game?" he asked her, as we sipped cold drinks on the poolside terrace at Sandpiper Lodge.

"Never," she said, turning to me. "Have you?"

Ah, new relationships. There's always something to find out about each other's past. "Once or twice," I admitted.

Perhaps I should have been more upfront and admitted that any game which can be played while holding a glass of red is quids-in to be my favourite sport. Whether you call it petanque, whether you call it boules. Dave's wife, and my partner for the afternoon, was called Christine.

Sandpiper Lodge lies just past where the tarseal runs out and the gravel (why do they call it metal?) kicks in on the last lap to Tawharanui Regional Park.

Someone wrote, in the Letters column recently, that the road was a death-trap. Cobblers: it's a perfectly fine example of what the Kiwi countryside used to be about, but if that sort of publicity keeps the SUVs away, you'll get no argument from us.

Which means that the weekend hideaway is 20 or 30 minutes past Matakana, which likes to promote itself as the Provence of New Zealand. With all the wineries, artisan food producers, olive growers, and Jamie Oliver knows what-all else that are scattered about our rural neighbourhoods these days, anywhere in provincial Aotearoa can make the same claim.

We're not going there, for two reasons: one, you can read about it in just about any travel feature and two, we got away late from Auckland so we all but missed the Saturday morning market.

We were in time for the last whitebait fritter on white-bread and butter and a cursory stroll around the souvenir tea-towel shops before heading to the lodge to drop bags and get lost on the beach for an hour or so.

Robyn Langwell, of the Herald on Sunday, describes Tawharanui in such lyrical words that I'm sure she won't mind if I borrow some: "Tawharanui's gem is Anchor Bay, the park's main beach with an 800m marine park sprawling towards Little Barrier with its ever-present cloud beret.

"The bay has honeycomb cliffs draped by pohutukawa, rock fingers reaching out to sea, warm rock pools for small children to paddle in, caves to explore and the most benign champagne surf ...

"Here there is always life and laughter: happy trampers and bikers heading for the peninsula hills; excited kids mastering the beneficent waves; the excited babble of squadrons of tui; and offended oystercatchers shrieking at the dotty dotterills busily defending their nests in the spinifex."

And millions upon trillions of tiny orange shells. Jude kicked off her shoes and collected some, with thoughts of making a necklace.

They do something a little bit different at Sandpiper Lodge, which put it on the route-map for this column about weekend getaways with a taste for food and wine.

The previous owners, Robin and Louise Fisher, began a tradition of degustation dinners several times a year: food from the lodge's hand-picked chefs, using as much local produce as possible; wine from neighbourhood vintners; and 36 hungry locals.

On our visit, they were holding hands with Robin and Marion Ransom, whose boutique vineyard is a little further south, near Warkworth.

Across champagne cocktails and canapés, couples tell their stories. Dave and Christine are marking their 40th wedding anniversary; another couple, their first. A third couple was given the weekend as a present from their adult children.

Some have come because they've been told about earlier events; others have dropped in from around the neighbourhood.

Seven courses, five matched with the Ransoms' vintages, each explained by one or both in an unscripted double-act that is the evening's floor show.

The new owners are Bruce and Sue Wells, who are hosting dinners every Saturday night. Not only hosting: cooking and dining with the guests, co-opting their two daughters, who live locally, to round out the family atmosphere.

Good not to have to drive home after the feast: merely toddle down the corridor to bed. Better to wake to a full breakfast on the terrace, Sunday papers, stirring only to pour another coffee.

Revived, to the beach again, this time to walk around and over the hills and farm. Thanks to a fence that keeps all but human and bovine mammals out, Tawharanui is an island on the mainland, so successful that DOC and local supporters returned kiwi to the bush last year: the Ransoms were sponsors.

Their vineyard is our last stop, an hour's respite among the vines with Marion's antipasti treats, some conversation about wines to take home, especially the rare Carmenere, the only one of its kind in New Zealand. Robin's pride and passion, Carmenere is an ancient Bordeaux grape once thought extinct that produces a rib-rattling red.

The only thing wrong with going north for a while is running into the road block at Orewa. Or Waiwera. Today it was Wellsford. We swung towards Kaukapakapa and into the city. Near civilisation, Jude reached for her shoes.

Millions upon trillions of tiny orange shells spilled out. Devils' toenails, we're told they're called. They make an artistic installation on the windowsill. One day they might make a necklace.

Sandpiper Lodge is at Takatu Rd, RD6 Takatu Peninsula. Ph (09) 422 7256, www.sandpiperlodge.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

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