Drive down SH39 from Ngaruawahia to Otorohanga and you'll pass a prominent sign pointing to a small, relatively unknown coastal settlement called Kawhia.
I have passed the sign many times thinking that Kawhia must be very quiet and isolated, unlike the Big Kahuna, Raglan.
Today I'm breaking the pattern and making the right turn on to SH31 full of expectation and enjoying expansive views over the rough-hewn King Country landscape. The sealed road climbs over ridges and descends through native bush to lush green pastures that remain verdant even at the height of summer.
I'm surprised when I catch my first glimpse of the sparkling waters of Kawhia Harbour. It's a huge expanse and looks stunning at full tide.
Oparau Roadhouse appears without warning. It's an impressive structure billing itself as the "Gateway to Kawhia" and the town's one-stop shop. I drive past to the end of the main street and see a flurry of activity on the wharf, where a dozen dedicated anglers are reeling in sprats to use as live bait for kingfish.
One burly fisherman is struggling to haul up a weighty denizen of the deep. His rod is bent almost double. This causes quite a stir and people gather round to watch as the catch is revealed.
It's a long section of metal handrail from a launch, thickly encrusted with marine growth.
When the tide and sun are high, the wharf becomes the local gathering point and an important centre of daily life. A local man informs me: "Life is pretty good when you live on a peaceful, picturesque harbour and can wander down to the wharf to catch a kingfish or gather pipis, oysters, cockles and mussels. Twice a year a pod of orcas cruise past on stingray-hunting forays."
With a clear blue sky and a gentle sea breeze blowing, it's pleasant lingering around the waterfront. At the visitor centre and museum I'm intrigued by diverse treasures, including ancient fossils for which this coast is renowned.
I learn that Te Rauparaha, the famous Ngati Toa chief and "Napoleon" of the Maori world, was born in Kawhia in 1820. Later, Waikato tribes drove him southwards, where he composed the Ka Mate version of the haka before escaping south to Otaki and Kapiti Island. The first Maori King, Tawhiao, fought his final battle with the local settlers. Another prominent chief, Pourewa, also lived here.
An easy stroll along a coastal path takes me past assorted tractors, fishing dories and salt-laden paraphernalia. Out in the channel a stately ocean-going yacht rides at anchor.
The path leads to a gnarly old pohutukawa tree with many branches leaning out over the water. A local resident tells me the tree is venerated by the local iwi, as the famous Tainui canoe was moored here when it arrived as part of the great migration in the 14th century. The canoe's resting place is on a small hill above the nearby Maketu Marae.
Exploring a new town tends to work up an appetite, so I gravitate towards an eatery that is drawing in visitors and locals - Annie's Cafe and Restaurant, opposite the waterfront park.
I enjoy a dish of whitebait, kumara chips and salad. Scallops and mussels also feature on the menu.
Later, as I explore the town, I'm struck by the classic Kiwi baches lining the harbour; simple weatherboard and fibro-sheet-clad homes set among hills smothered with flowers and creepers. The main road into town also has continuous banks of morning glory, geraniums, nasturtiums and agapanthus.
Architecturally, the town is a freeze-frame image of how New Zealand coastal settlements were in the 1950s. The authenticity of this snapshot is enhanced by the front-yard decorations of driftwood sculptures, shell patterns and fossil-encrusted rocks. There are no high-rises, video arcades or golden arches - just pure peace and tranquillity. Few coastal resorts in New Zealand have retained this kind of old-world charm and character. Kawhia is definitely one of them.
Relaxing is obviously what this town is all about. Kawhia hasn't been "found" in the sense that Raglan has, with its trendy cafes and renowned surf breaks. It still retains its character as a timeless fishing village.
Life is unhurried by the seaside and the locals are easy to talk to. I'm already feeling the benefit of the easy-going atmosphere in this little diamond on the rough edge of the Tasman Sea. It has good karma and is destined for great things.
Just to reinforce the good vibes, as the day draws to a close I buy fish and chips from the shop opposite the wharf and sit in the park to watch the tide recede across several kilometres of shellfish beds, leaving only a few narrow channels behind. The fresh fish is very tasty. It's a different KFC here - Kawhia Fish & Chips.
I find a tidy en suite cottage at the Kawhia Beachside S-cape for my overnight stay and receive some good advice from the proprietor on how to spend the following day. The priority is to time my visit to Ocean Beach within two hours of low tide in order to enjoy a special spa treat.
The fashionable way to make the most of your stay is to take to the waters - an individually designed heat treatment in a glorious setting that is as therapeutic as the most expensive spas.
But here's the thing - it's absolutely free. Just drive 10 minutes to Ocean Beach, carry a spade over the dunes and dig out a full-body bath in the Te Puia hot spring bubbling up through the sand at the water's edge.
I leave this little gem of a town on the wild Waikato west coast, still tingling from my private spa. It would be hard to find a more relaxing and genuine Kiwi summer vacation experience.
IF YOU GO
Kawhia is a 200km, three-hour drive from Auckland. The town of 650 residents has every facility that holidaymakers need for an enjoyable time. Bring a spade if you plan to visit Te Puia hot springs.
Fishing, quad biking, horse-trekking, kayaking, blow-karting (sand yachting) and harbour cruises. Accommodation is available in motels, backpackers and several camping grounds.
WebsitesBy Paul Rush Email Paul