Bream Head's stunning landscape is just hours from Auckland, writes Andrew Stone.
Some weekends scream "stay home". A peek through the blinds at leaden skies at 6am suggested this was such a weekend.
But we had an appointment not to be missed. There was nothing for it but to grab the wet weather gear and head to the winterless north and Bream Head - a place better known as Whangarei Heads - which we had often admired from afar on dashes up north.
In time that might change because this pretty but rugged tongue of New Zealand, just three and a bit hours from Queen St, harbours jewels which make the journey - on even the bleakest weekends - rewarding.
On this compact promontory it is possible over an energetic two or three days to wander for hours along a white sandy beach without encountering a soul, slog up a testing track to the top of an ancient volcano, take 823 sturdy steps (with a noisy native bird chorus for company) down to a classic ocean bay with pohutukawa dripping in the tide and cling to a windswept bluff, high above the Pacific, overlooking a bay where smugglers heaved tax-free cargo of whiskey ashore.
Best of all, you can do all this from the comfortable base of Bream Head Coast Walks, an all-inclusive venture run by Claire and Mark Pearson.
Bream Head was once part of a mighty volcanic belt which included the Hen and Chicken Islands, 12km offshore. This gives the headland its striking profile.
Though the area has a rich settlement history, from the ancestors of local Maori people to foresters and farmers, the occupiers left untouched a swathe of stunning native forest, with at least 380 plant species.
It is Northland's last remaining stand of coastal broadleaf forest and, protected by reserve status, destined to stay that way.
Birds like it. Spend time among the kauri, puriri and nikau stands which cover the headland and you may be rewarded with the sight of a kaka (possibly visiting from an offshore island), a striking red-crowned kakariki or a charming bellbird, or get brushed by a swooping native pigeon.
The Pearsons strive to put their guests in touch with this abundance of nature.
They run their enterprise from a comfortable new house which Mark, a builder by trade, constructed on a terrace that commands sweeping views across pastures towards Ocean Beach.
The house sleeps up to a dozen and is designed with separate lounges so that distinct groups can do their own thing.
Outside Mark has built a wooden shelter over a bath should anyone want a soak beneath the stars, all the time listening for kiwi which might shuffle through nearby bush.
Claire briefs guests on walks, offering tips and alternatives. The usual package involves a three-day programme, starting with the long stroll along Ocean Beach, before testing the legs on day two along a historic 7.5km trail which climbs up to the 476m high Bream Head.
Day three offers a circuit to the top of Mt Manaia and Mt Aubrey, two of the skyline sentinels that etch the horizon from as far away as the Brynderwyns. Physically the walks are a bit of a blowout but nothing beyond the range of moderately fit sedentary types eager to test their limits.
And to save time and tiredness, they also deposit guests at the start of walking tracks and collect you at the end in their van, saving the 3km hike along a gravel road back to base. For guests short on time, the couple offer a two-day option.
In her briefing Claire modestly mentions the food side of her business, which gets a fair smattering of rave reviews in the guest book. The deal is the former teacher prepares - and guests cook and consume, or pack away - a bit of tucker for the walks.
So what's on offer? Here's a sample dinner from our stay: courgette and pesto fritters, rump steak (from cattle on a neighbouring Taurikura farm), caper and herb stuffed mushrooms, pumpkin and black quinoa salad and fresh greens plus chocolate mousse for dessert. For breakfast there's free range eggs and local honey for your toast. No one goes hungry at Claire's place.
Though it rained off and on during our visit, we did manage to get out of the kitchen for a taste of the outdoor attractions.
Along Ocean Beach, which you reach by following a marked track though farmland and past herds of curious cows, nesting oyster catchers performed a diversionary dance to steer us away from their young. Beside a creek which cuts through the dunes a fenced-off area marks out a dotterel colony.
Two hours into our wander, the clouds lift and we settle down to a packed lunch in sandhills beside Ocean Beach surf club. Offshore wind gusts lift a kite-surfer off the foreshore and boardriders latch on to the Pacific swell.
We opted to head back past the little settlements which line Urquharts Bay and reached a natural stone jetty at Taurikura Bay.
Marsden Point refinery looms just across the water - an odd industrial complex in a spectacular natural setting.
Two walking companions did the hard yards and went down a testing track to Peach Cove, with its pretty sandy beach. To their delight, they saw or heard kokako, tui, bellbirds, fantails and kereru.
The next day it was pelting rain again. But time was short so Claire dropped us at the start of a loop track to Busby Head.
Bent over double in 40 knot gusts, we reached the shelter of a World War II gun emplacement and radar station at Home Point and staggered on up to a blustery lookout above Smugglers Bay.
Great views, but you had to hang on. After three hours, soaked to the skin, we pulled the pin. Claire's van was a welcome sight.
Our time was up. We left Mt Manaia, brooding under a grey mantle of cloud, for another time. The next day, Claire told us, was gloriously fine.
Getting there: From Auckland by car about 3.5 hours.
What to take: Day pack, walking gear, parka, swimming stuff, an appetite.
Further information: See coastwalks.co.nz.
Andrew Stone was a guest of Bream Head Coast Walks.