Shenagh Gleeson finds gorgeous beaches, fine art and good food on the northeastern Coromandel peninsula.
There's only one place to eat at night in Kuaotunu on the Coromandel, so we call into Luke's Kitchen when we arrive on Saturday morning to make a booking.
Luke's working in the tiny kitchen. They don't take bookings - just turn up, he says. Bring your own wine and glasses.
As it turns out, this typifies Kuaotunu. Unlike its flash neighbours, Whitianga and Matarangi, it's an unassuming, laid-back place. The main settlement nestles at the foot of the Black Jack Hill beside the lovely Kuaotunu estuary. Baches and houses are strung out along a white sand beach where the impossibly blue Pacific Ocean rolls in.
The day is heating up as we drive to our bed and breakfast accommodation high up on the hill behind Grays Beach, which is an extension of Kuaotunu. Jill Kaeppeli leads us down a grassy track to our unit and we feel instantly at home.
The comfortable furnishings and stunning view out to sea make us wish we could grab a glass of something cold, put our feet up and stay all day.
But we have art to see.
Kuaotunu and its environs are home to an intriguing array of artists. Once a year they join other artists on the northeastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula in the Mercury Bay Art Escape and open their studios to the public. It's a great opportunity to soak up some art, chat to artists and have a nosy at where they live.
First stop is Michael Smither and Gian McGregor at Otama Beach. The couple live at the end of the beach, one of the jewels of the Coromandel. With a lifetime of painting and acclaim behind him, he could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but Michael is as prolific as ever. Recent paintings range from works exploring colour and sound to reworkings of an old rock pool painting and a famous portrait of his mother. Gian is also an artist and is preparing several photo-montage works and some needlepoint for the Art Escape.
After a sublime dip in the water at Otama, we head back to Kuaotunu. Dinner at Luke's Kitchen is divine. We sit outside - there's only really outside to sit - watch the sun set over the estuary and dine on a very decent pizza and chips, sup on our wine from the glasses we brought with us, as requested, and part with $25.
Next morning, we wake to a gloriously fine day, and breakfast in a gazebo. Jill makes her own bread and jams and the eggs are from her chooks.
Knife-maker Lloyd Franklin is our next port of call on the art trail. He has the gift of the gab as well as extraordinary skill. We promise ourselves we'll buy one of his beautiful knives when we win Lotto.
Just down the road, Ian Webster is coiling pots. One of his works was chosen last year as the best 3D piece in an Art Escape exhibition and it's easy to see why. We drool over the work and eventually settle on an elegant, art-deco style vase.
A bit further towards Whitianga, we drive into the intriguingly named Try Fluke.
The former goldmine site is now a co-operatively-owned bush hideaway for a number of artists. It recalls the hippie hey-days of the Coromandel but these artists are all very serious about their work.
We find Bruno Gaebler, who lives and works in a caravan with a small deck, deep in the bush.
The former German/Wellington artist does large, expressionist paintings filled with movement and emotion, as well as outdoor sculptures made of recycled metal.
We head home replete with art and a taste of the laid-back life.
How to get there: Take State Highway 25 north from Whitianga or east from Coromandel town.
Where to stay: There are several B&Bs in Kuaotunu. We stayed at Kaeppeli's, double/twin $130-$190, single $95-$140, children and pets welcome. Kuaotunu Holiday Park has cabins, $65-$120 for two and caravans $80 for two.
What to do: Mercury Bay Art Escape (art studio tour) Feb 25-27 and Mar 4-6, 10am-4pm. Kuaotunu artists are David Bryant, Chris Charteris, Claire Elliot, Lutz Gaebler, Bruno Gaebler, Mara Hermann, Martin Jakowitsch, Lloyd and Dan Franklin, Gian McGregor, Tom Mutch, Michael Smither and Ian Webster.
Other activities: Bush and coastal walks at Waitaia and Rings Beach, the Stargazers Observatory, historic Kuaotunu Hall with its photo display, and the market at Kuaotunu Reserve on Saturday mornings.
Where to eat: Blackjack Art Gallery and Espresso for great coffee, Luke's Kitchen for al fresco pizza.