Scandrett Regional Park, just 10 minutes' drive from Warkworth, is Auckland's newest. This curved finger of land, pointing into Kawau Bay, was sold to the Auckland Regional Council in 1998 by George Scandrett, whose family farmed here from 1863.
When Sam and I drive into the park and see the bay with its pohutukawa trees and rustic farm buildings, the spring-green paddocks surrounding it and the sea twinkling in the morning sun, I am immensely relieved that old George sold the property to the council and not a developer. It's safe, now, from the less-than-mediocre suburbanism that afflicts nearby Algies Bay and Snells Beach.
The homestead bay is still in the shade, so we walk uphill to the sun, inadvertently disturbing a family of paradise ducks who honk indignantly.
The farmed paddocks end at a ridge that drops away precipitously at a bush-covered cliff with its feet in the sea. High above Hauraki Gulf, with tuis chortling in one ear and magpies cooda-loodaling in the other, we look at the wide panorama of islands, ocean and headlands.
Above the top of nearby Kawau Island, Little Barrier wears a cloud cap on an otherwise blue day and to the south, Motuora and Moturekareka islands float on a shiny sea.
The water rumples below us and a large pod of bottlenose dolphins, heading south in a hurry, pass by. We're thrilled and congratulate ourselves on our perfect timing. It was worth getting up early for the drive.
The dolphin buzz stays with us as we walk to Mullet Point, where 200 years ago local Maori, whose pa site is still visible as indentations under grass, caught fish. They called this place Purahurawai - expansive, sparkling waters - a much more poetic epithet than Mullet Point.
Back at the bay, the Scandrett house and farm buildings are charming relics of small-farm life from decades past. The barn, built in 1864 and the park's oldest building, held hay in the loft and saddles and farm gear below. In its first few decades it doubled as a community hall, and on Far left: Scott's Landing on Mahurangi harbour was once a hub of timer milling and boat building.LIZ LIGHT
Left: Gregor Kregar's angular, gleaming sculpture, Brick Bay Polyhedron, reflects the soft lines and dappled textures of grass, bush and sky.
The park's curved finger of land extends into Kawau Bay.
Heritage farm buildings add charm to Scandrett Regional Park's natural attractions.
social occasions guests would arrive by horse or boat and stay the night.
The house, a square villa with a veranda along the front, was built in 1885, and four generations of Scandretts were raised under its roof.
The garden feels appropriately old-fashioned, with japonica and jonquils growing between fruit trees. And there's a cowshed, cream shed and boat shed, all still functional, fixed up but not tidied to the point of losing their character.
On the beach, pohutukawa trees lean to touch the water and tiny waves lap the shore. If the spirits of generations of Scandretts, and Maori who lived here before them, lurk in these trees, I sense they are happy in this picturesque place.
The road along the north side of the Mahurangi Harbour ends at Scott's Landing. Lovely though it is, the two-storeyed 1877 Georgian house that belonged to generations of Scotts and is now part of Mahurangi Regional Park has been restored to a white-picket-fenced properness that it probably didn't have originally.
One hundred and fifty years ago, Scott's Landing was the hub of a harbour busy with timber milling and boatbuilding.
The Scott family, who settled here in 1849, built boats, and the house, which started as a family home, then became a boarding house and, as the kauri was milled out and industry and people moved elsewhere, it morphed into a pub, Richmond Arms, with folk coming up from Auckland by steamer and staying for the weekend.
The Scott who planted the macrocarpa trees that shelter the property from the south wind needs congratulating. The trees are hugely beautiful now; bigger than the planter could have ever imagined.
We sit at a picnic table and, over a hot cuppa, watch activities on the harbour. A gannet plummets from high into the water. An elderly man launches a dingy loaded with fishing nets. He says he's off to catch flounder and he has been doing this from Scott's Landing on sunny Sundays for 40 years. A lovingly restored old launch chugs out of the harbour, passing a classic yacht towing a dinghy.
Closer to the shore, two men are bums-up over a motor while their boat quietly drifts and, nearby, two others fuss and fiddle with their boat while it's still tied to the mooring buoy.
It's well into the afternoon when we arrive at Brick Bay Sculpture Trail where, luckily, lunch lingers for hours. This winery, cafe and sculpture trail is unabashedly modern, a nice contrast to the heritage buildings we have just visited.
The cafe is cantilevered over a lake and it's pleasant to soak up the sun, sip wine and share a plate of antipasto while dragonflies helicopter by. The sculptures in and beside the lake, take advantage of the reflection, make an interesting backdrop.
The sculpture trail is 2km of up-hill-down-dale and it takes us more than an hour to complete it. I love it and Sam, who's not usually an arty kind of guy, is impressed, too. It has more than 30 pieces, with work by New Zealand's most acclaimed sculptors, and each piece is generously spaced and appropriately placed.
We have favourites and, as we walk from one to the next, the order of them changes slightly.
For me, the winners are Leon van den Eijkel's giant windmills based on the bright, colourful fairground windmills on a stick that we used to enjoy in the fun-filled days of childhood, and Gregor Kregar's Brick Bay Polyhedron. This 5m mathematical sculpture looks like a blown-up molecular structure. It's hard-edged and geometric and its many shiny, flat surfaces reflect the soft lines and dappled textures and colours of grass, bush and sky.
On the drive back to Auckland, we delight in the fact that a relaxed day trip on a sunny Sunday can include frolicking dolphins, heritage buildings, modern art, fine wine and heavenly beaches. And, finally, Jacob's ladders and a peachy-pink sky as the sun goes down.
If you go:
Brick Bay Sculpture Trail and Cafe: Open 10am-5pm, $10 adult, $8 student. Ph (09) 425 4690
Scandrett Regional Park: Walking, swimming, fishing and a pretty bay with heritage farm buildings. The road to the park is 3km beyond Algies Bay off Ridge Rd
Scott's Landing, Mahurangi Regional Park: Swimming, sheltered bays, native bush, a historic homestead/hotel and great walks. Drive to the end of Ridge Rd
Mahurangi and Scandrett are two of the 26 regional parks dotted across the Auckland landscape from the coast near Wellsford to Hunua in the south.
A new book by Graeme Murdoch, commissioned by the Auckland Regional Council and called Dreamers of the Day (Random House, $60) documents the history of the parks and those who championed them.
It's a fascinating in-depth study of a very specific part of the region's history, from the recognition of the need for green public spaces by officials as far back as the late 19th century.
It carries on through to the opening of the Hillary Trail in the Waitakere Ranges last year, taking in the political and social hurdles encountered along the way. And, with the Auckland Regional Council's dissoluton with the move to the Supercity, it's a timely release which finishes with a warning from Sandra Coney, chairwoman of the ARC parks and heritage committee, of the dangers in overlooking the unique nature and function of the parks.