For most kiwis the words "Bream Head" are usually followed by Cape Colville and the weather forecast. Surprisingly, few visit this landmark - a towering ancient volcano, guarding the entrance to Whangarei Harbour. Most holidaymakers head straight through Whangarei to the Bay of Islands or Tutukaka coast.
Take a right turn in the centre of Whangarei, head south east and in 30 minutes you're in an area almost forgotten by the excessive coastal development of recent years.
The area would have remained off my radar had local teacher Claire Pearson not had the dream to launch and market Bream Head Coast Walks. Pearson realised that her place - a lifestyle block on the lower slopes of Mt Manaia, looking out over Bream Head (Te Whara) - would be an ideal retreat for trampers looking for some luxury.
Pearson and husband Mark built a lodge for visitors in 2008 and offer a three-day self-guided walk, which takes in a mix of farmland, unspoiled beach, sea bird nesting grounds and the "ring of fire", a ring of ancient volcanoes including Bream Head, Mt Lion, Mt Aubrey, and Mt Manaia, which make up the rim of a huge crater - stretching to the Hen and Chicken Islands offshore.
Bream Head Coast Walks is one of a number of private walks that have launched across New Zealand, details of which can be found in the book Hidden Trails, (New Holland, $24.99) by Walter Hirsh, now in its fourth edition.
Guests at Pearson's lodge arrive in the evening to one of her home-cooked meals, which would stack up well against many restaurants.
Next morning, we pack our lunchboxes from supplies prepared for us and set out for day one of our circular walk, which takes us across farmland, past bittern and dotterel nesting grounds, north along the beach to Kauri Mountain, then down over headlands to Ocean Beach.
Each day has a number of options so that trampers of all levels of fitness can enjoy the essence of what the area has to offer. Instead of calling for a pickup, we choose to retrace some of our steps to the lodge, which compared to a DoC hut (where I'd usually spend the night on such a trip), is luxurious.
Day two is the hardest of the three and starts at 8am on Ocean Beach, where surfers are already out on the water looking to catch the perfect wave. The first hour-and-a-half is uphill - the first half of that on hot open grassland. Compensation comes via the cacophony of bird noise from thousands of nesting gulls below us on a small island, and the uninterrupted views north and out to the distant offshore islands. As we enter the bush for the final push to the high point of Bream Head, it's a shock to hear so much birdlife. Never in my life have I seen and heard so many tui in one place. We see kaka feeding on berries, and later soaring off the cliffs.
The Bream Head Scenic Reserve is known for having some of the best coastal rain forest in Northland and, thanks to a project by DoC, local Maori, the Bream Head Conservation Trust and the community to rid the area of predators, birdlife has returned from the offshore islands.
After scrambling the last few metres up rock to the top of the 476m Bream Head and stopping to enjoy the view, we spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon traversing the ridge that leads to Mt Lion and then drops into Smugglers Bay. There we stop for a swim before doing an extra loop around the Smugglers Cove/Busby Head track and dropping down into Urquharts Bay, a popular boat launching area.
Less fit trampers can either head out along easy Peach Cove track, half way along the ridge, or simply drop the Smugglers Cove/Busby Head loop.
This is real live kiwi country and after dark we go outside to listen for their characteristic screeches.
Day three dawns and we choose the option of walking up the 420m Mt Manaia, with its views back to Bream Head, Whangarei Harbour and the Marsden Point oil refinery, before taking a circular loop around Mt Aubrey to check out the remains of a ruined turn-of-the-20th-century freezing works at Reotahi, which was once a bustling hive of death. The day ends with an icecream stop and then back to the lodge for a quick shower before hitting the road for home.
If you go
* Bream head coast walks:(09) 434 0571; coastwalks.co.nz
* iSite - Whangarei Visitor Centre: (09) 438 1079; whangareinz.com
* Whangarei Heads Tourism (09) 434 0801; whangareiheadstourism.co.nz
* Hidden Trails: 25 private walks in New Zealand: whirsh.ww.co.nz
* Department of Conservation: doc.govt.nz
* Breamhead Conservation Trust: breamheadtrust.org.nz
* Also available in the area: longboarding, a protected harbour for boating, and kayak hire.