Follow the wildlife to Tawharanui Regional Park near Matakana, New Zealand's first integrated open sanctuary. It's not just for the birds, as Danielle Wright discovers.
Back in the 1860s, scores of canoes would travel past Tawharanui Peninsula, using the point of land for navigation on their way to the bustling settlement of Matakana. Today, only a few leisure kayakers skim the sea at the peninsula's popular Anchor Bay.
Tawharanui, loosely meaning "abundant resources", today holds a special place in the hearts of those who have discovered its unique blend of conservation, recreation and sustainable farming. But its tidiness and beauty is no accident - volunteers from the Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society (TOSSI) are active in keeping it in top condition. On the first Sunday of every month, TOSSI runs volunteer activity days, involving work such as planting, weeding, nursery work and track maintenance. They also run talks and walks to help members get the most out of the sanctuary.
While Anchor Bay is the most crowded beach in the park, veer right and head further along the track, past the Discovery Room hut, where you'll find more shaded areas, rock pools for snorkelling and fewer people, to reward you for the extra 10-minute trudge.
To warm up for a swim, choose one of eight walking tracks, ranging in difficulty and length, through beautiful coastal forest featuring kauri and rimu on the ridges, and puriri, taraire, tawa, rewarewa and nikau in the valleys. Magnificent stands of pohutukawa forest are found on coastal cliffs.
We choose the North Coast track to Tokatu Pt lookout to see some of the Auckland region's most beautiful white sand beaches, rolling pastures, shingled bays, native forest and regenerating wetlands.
Soon, the clip clop of flip-flops competes with birdsong from any number of possible beaks such as tui, oystercatchers or New Zealand dotterels, among the 16 species of native land birds, or maybe one of the 15 species of native coastal birds that have been recorded here. If you're still here as darkness falls you might be lucky enough to hear kiwi.
Reaching the lookout, we stop to admire the rocky beach below from the greenest of pastures. With footsteps rested, the quiet hum of the wind against the grass and trees is as restorative as a dive through the clear ocean water waiting for us when we finish.
Throughout our walk, wildlife can be heard but not seen.
But just before the end of the track, the most beautiful brown eyes - 40 or so of them - test our mettle. A herd of cows with their offspring chew and chat about our presence without taking a wide eye off us.
We have no choice but to walk right through their brunch.
A pukeko (nicknamed by our 2-year-old as a "poo-kicker") pushes past as our 5-year-old becomes its namesake by walking right into one of the many brown blobs we have been so cleverly dodging.
Never mind, it's the cows (and sheep) that are as much a part of the park's charm as the birdlife, plants and views over the marine park, which stretches along much of the northern coastline and extends half a nautical mile out to sea.
And while it's a wildlife sanctuary, that doesn't mean your own furry friend will be welcome. Tawharanui Regional Park is a place of protection for all life, which means a "no take" zone for fishing inside the marine park and no pets allowed in the park (not even in vehicles in the carpark).
The new toll road cuts down the car journey but you'll find plenty of reasons to stop on the way home to make up the time.
Choose from vineyard wine tastings, the Honey Centre with its glass-fronted hive, handcrafted pottery from Matakana's Morris & James or visit the magnificent trees at the Parry Kauri Park near Warkworth.
There is also Warkworth's village charm, gourmet Matakana or historic Puhoi for an extended day out in the area.
But there will be other days and other chances to stop and try them all, because, as Tawharanui's rangers say: "You never come once and not return."
Get involved in a conservation project and protect Tawharanui by joining TOSSI for as little as $20 per year.