There's plenty to see and do — and eat — in nearby Mangawhai, discovers Graham Hepburn.
As a cadet reporter with the Northern Advocate, I first visited Mangawhai in the mid-1980s when I wrote about the construction of the schooner R. Tucker Thompson.
Back then and on a subsequent visit to write about the tallship's launch, there didn't seem to be a lot else going on, but the surf beach was always a great place to stop off before making the drive back to Whangarei.
The beauty of that beach certainly hasn't changed but the townships around it — in the village and at the heads — definitely have. Like other parts of New Zealand, Mangawhai is tapping into its natural beauty and catering to the tourist market with cafes, restaurants, galleries, art trails, wineries and walkways.
All that became apparent when I was invited up to play a round at Mangawhai Golf Club and dragged the wife and kids along for a weekend away.
After a 75-minute drive out of Auckland on a Friday evening we arrived at our accommodation, Tideside Golf Retreat, in time to sit on the deck and catch the sun setting on the nearby estuary.
Well, not all of us were entranced by the view — the kids were too busy with the spa pool and the remote-controlled adjustable bed in the master suite.
On Saturday, I teamed up with a few others for a round at Mangawhai Golf Club. The championship course is sand-based, making it playable in all weather, and challenging with some tricky doglegs and heavily contoured greens. And, as I found out, devilish sand and scrub awaits the errant golfer.
It's fair to say my partner and I came out on the wrong side of our four-ball but that was all forgotten (mostly) after a couple of beers in the clubroom, sitting back and enjoying the view out over the course.
While this see-sawing battle went on over 18 holes, the rest of the family were enjoying the markets in the village, where locals flock to buy vegetables, fruit, fresh, bread, deli items and crafts. They also swung by some of the shops such as the Smashed Pipi Gallery, which sells arts and crafts and has a bar and cafe next door.
After my game I caught up with the family for lunch at Bennetts, the chocolate makers who have set up a factory in a Mediterranean-style building that also houses a cafe and gelato shop and has an internal courtyard where the Mangawhai Artists Association were displaying their work — photography, paintings, jewellery and a carver whittling away at a walking stick.
The kids' eyes lit up when we toured the factory with co-owner Clayton Bennett, whose passion for his work is highly evident. Bennetts produces some truly exquisite chocolates but our children were entranced by row upon row of chocolate bunnies and eggs as the factory was in full swing for Easter.
For dinner we headed out to the Frog and Kiwi Restaurant, where the chef delivers classic, seasonal and degustation menus of beautifully cooked traditional French fare such as snails, rabbit and duck a l'orange in a cute little bistro. While they do kids' portions of what is on the menu, I was pleased to see they don't do nuggets and chips.
With a few wineries around Mangawhai, we decided to check out Lochiel Estate the next day for a tasting. Here, they grow chardonnay, pinot gris, merlot, malbec and syrah over 4ha, with one of their notable wines being The Laird, an intriguing drop made from malbec in a port style. In a couple of days we barely scratched the surface of things to do in Mangawhai but a return visit is on the cards. I'd love another crack at the golf course.
Revenge might be on the menu.
Where to stay: Tideside Golf Retreat, Doris St, Mangawhai, ph (09) 294 8117 or 021 394 800. Two-storey luxury beach house that sleeps up to eight people. Downstairs sleeps up to four people, upstairs sleeps up to four people and has a spa pool and deck with sea views. Communal games room with pool, darts, table tennis and two kayaks.
Where to eat: Frog and Kiwi, 6 Molesworth Drive Mangawhai, ph (09) 431 4439. Superb French cuisine in a child-friendly cafe. Classic, seasonal and degustation menu. Sail Rock Cafe, 12a Wood St, Mangawhai Heads. Famous for its salt and pepper squid, this casual cafe has plenty of seating indoors and out. Child-friendly with plenty of gluten and dairy-free options available.
Where to shop: Arts, crafts and gifts can be bought at places such as Smashed Pipi Gallery, It's Meant to Be, Collectibles Old and New, and Celena's Gifts. Bennetts also has a gift shop.
Where to walk: Mangawhai has a network of coastal walkways and there is also an art trail during the annual Walking Weekend.
Where to taste: Wineries around Mangawhai include Lochiel Estate, ph (09) 431 4554; Estuary Vineyard, (09) 431 4750; and Millars Vineyard, ph (09) 431 4326.