Time stands still at Mangonui

By Liz Light

The very picturesque Mangonui Harbour. Photo / Bay Report
The very picturesque Mangonui Harbour. Photo / Bay Report

We're standing in the middle of Mangonui. The wharf with its fishing boats is on one side and the pub on the other. We dither about whether to start the heritage walk with a visit to the Mangonui Hotel or to leave the pub until the end.

Sam says there is nothing like a cold beer on a hot day to inspire you to go walking. I fear that one beer may lead to another and possibly a change of plan and feel we should reward ourselves at the pub at the end of the walk.

The locals claim the Mangonui Hotel, built in 1905, is the most beautiful old hotel in New Zealand. And beautiful it is. It's a classic two-storied kauri building with wraparound verandas and a busy, cosy - and tempting - bar. The location is glorious with the harbour and its fishing boats across the road, seagulls lined up on the sea wall, beaks windward, and ancient pohutukawa dwarfing the hotel and the surrounding old buildings.

The decision is made. Walk first. The beer has been cold for 105 years so it will wait another hour and a half, the estimated time for the 3km trail.

The hotel, we learn, is a relative newcomer. There were Maori pa on the hills above town for hundreds of years before Captain Cook sailed past in 1769, naming the larger area Doubtless Bay. By the early 1800s Mangonui was a busy whaling port and trading post and in the 1840s, a thriving mill town.

Mangonui's heritage ambience isn't compromised by concrete, expanses of glass and aluminium joinery. Even the boats moored to buoys complement the historic tone. Tarquin, Stargazer and Tryal are all proper-looking old-fashioned fishing boats.

The 1892 courthouse is now a craft collective and a rhythmical car-thunking noise lures us inside where we watch a woman weaving with a large loom. For a small fee you can learn to weave here, and in just a few hours create a wool scarf. This is what our ancestors did, spinning wool, weaving it into blankets, scarves and shawls, or knitting it into garments. I admire the concept and suspect weaving may be a more interesting occupation than sitting at a computer to earn the money to buy winter woollies made in China.

The 1894 Mangonui Hall is now home to the library but meetings are still held here just as they were 115 years ago, and no doubt the locals adjourn to the pub after the official business is over.

We walk west towards Mill Bay passing a cluster of classic cottages on both sides of the road. Most have been tastefully spruced-up, but one beauty is calling out for love and I fear its kauri boards are gently rotting away. A swathe of white roses clamber over the broken gate. They smell stronger and sweeter than modern roses.

Mill Bay was once the main trading port and the home of the mill. We have heard that there are good pickings for sea-smoothed glass and other ancient collectable detritus on its low-tide shore. We stroll around the bottom of the bay looking for treasure but don't see anything special.

The trail hooks back to a steep walking track that leads uphill and above town. It's fun looking into peoples' backyards, at their glorious subtropical, gardens and surmising who lives there by the kind of laundry on the clotheslines.

There are terrific views of the mouth of Mangonui Harbour and then, higher up, of Rangikapiti, Rangitoto and Moehuri Pa sites.

Cicadas sing and dark blue convolvulus, golden wattle and other unwanted but beautiful invaders thrive among sturdy second-growth kauri trees.

On a large flat area on top of the hill there is a plethora of historic buildings. St Andrew's Anglican Church, 1860, functioned as a combined school and church until the single-room school was opened in 1877. The stained-glass windows in the church have a local slant - St Andrew fishing, and settlers milling and whaling. That first old schoolroom is now the library for a much larger primary school.

It's fortunate that, for the past 60 years or so, advances in transport allowed urban development to focus on the beaches Coopers Beach, Cable Bay and Hihi on the other side of the harbour so the housing on the hilltop area is still mostly old villas with big rambling gardens.

The map shows the heritage trail dividing in two and we choose a steep, stepped pathway that drops down to the waterfront. Little cottages, without road access, cluster around a Methodist church whose glory days appear to be over. Presumably this is the area where the working-class lived 100 years ago while the wealthy had the hilltop villas.

Soon we are back in the town centre, on Waterfront Drive, where most of the shops are in heritage buildings.

The Mangonui Hotel, taking pride of place in the middle of town, and the most beautiful building of many, is beckoning. Country music mixes with the crack of cue hitting ball, and occasional rumbles as one tumbles down a pocket of the pool table. There are mutters of, "Good onya mate," "Coulda done better," laughter and chat. And the cold, cold beer is a treat.

FACT FILE

Mangonui Heritage: The one-and-a-half-hour Mangonui Heritage Trail passes 22 heritage buildings. Pick up a guide from the Information Centre, (09) 406 2046, 124 Waterfront Road, Mangonui, or download one from the map section of doubtlessbay.co.nz.

Mangonui Hotel: It's an old beauty with 13 rooms that have been tastefully redecorated. The price is right at $100 for a double with waterfront balcony and bathroom. Backpacker accommodation is available for much less. Ph (09) 406 0003 or go to mangonuihotel.co.nz.

Mangonui Fish Shop: Built over the water next to the wharf, this famed outlet has veranda tables, fresh fish at reasonable prices, and is licensed. Ph (09) 406 0478.

Mangonui Motel: Great views over the town, harbour and wharf from six one-bedroom apartments. From $95 per night, ph 0800 46 26 46 or go to mangonuimotel.co.nz.

Matthews Vintage Collection: Winston Matthews has collected and restored 50 tractors (built from 1920 to 1950), 18 vintage cars, more than 30 vintage stationary engines and too many other fascinating heritage knick-knacks to list. Matthews Vintage Collection is an attraction that's slightly eccentric and truly fabulous. Open every day except Christmas and Good Friday. Aurere, SH10, 10km north of Mangonui, ph (09) 406 0203.

- Herald on Sunday

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