Mangawhai has always been beautiful. Now, with fine food and art, it's cultivated too, finds Liz Light.
Ten years ago, Mangawhai was a cross between a rural outpost and a beach-bach village. Now it's a trendy seaside town. Some of the locals don't like the reinvented Mangawhai and grumble that they can't park near the beach and that the town is full of big shiny cars belonging to Aucklanders.
It's easy to see what attracts those Aucklanders. The area is physically stunning, with a wild surf beach, a clear, clean estuary, dramatic dunes and vast expanses of tawny sand.
There is plenty to do in a small package, with fishing in the harbour and ocean, rural and beach walks, a gorgeous golf course and a funky old-time harbour-front pub that's on the band circuit in summer and holiday weekends.
And, I discover, it boasts Bennett's Cafe, where I savour one of the best meals I have had this year. Smoked fish salad doesn't sound glamorous, but this is. It has salmon and trevally - smoked to perfection and plenty of it - with purple urenika potatoes, baby beetroot, fennel, mustard cress, a soft egg and aioli.
The cafe is two years young and Jen Perry, a chef who cooked on the international circuit with Peter Gordon, presides over a kitchen where nearly everything is organic and locally sourced.
The vegetables come from three gardens surrounding the cafe and an organic farmer who grows specifically for it. The seafood, straight off the boat, is supplied by Apatu Aqua, a Northland fishmonger, Happy Hens down the road supplies eggs and a local baker makes the daily bread.
Jen says that using seasonal and local food has its challenges - menus have to be changed often - but it's fun dreaming up delicious ways to cook fresh ingredients.
Bennett's Chocolaterie, Mary and Clayton Bennett's first foray into gourmet food, is across the courtyard from the cafe. Mary is from Ireland and Clayton from Northland. They met at a Dublin disco back in the day, and Clayton, who has a PhD in chemistry, stayed on in Dublin, running a pathology lab.
But Clayton hankered for home and, having spent time in Belgium learning the science and art of making chocolate, the couple moved to Mangawhai 13 years ago and started a little chocolate factory.
The Bennetts wanted a more relaxed lifestyle, but it hasn't turned out that way as Clayton, with his scientific attention to detail, makes superb chocolate that sells all over New Zealand and has won numerous awards. The Bennetts' little chocolate factory has grown into a big one and now French patissier, Remi Le Levier, is the chocolate-maker, though Clayton oversees production. It's fun to watch the process through large glass windows from the adjoining shop.
I'm visiting Mangawhai with my friend Karen, who is a glass artist. She has an appointment with Smashed Pipi Gallery around the corner, through which she sells her work. Smashed Pipi specialises in pottery and glass art and belongs to an extended family of potters. Barbara and Barry Hockenhull started potting 40 years ago and their three children, Melissa, Arran and Scott, all caught the potting bug.
Besides selling their own individually distinctive pottery, they sell that of 10 others. Smashed Pipi also sells the work of 14 glass artists, as well as jewellery and textiles.
While Karen is doing business, I potter around the gallery and make imaginary lists of the beautiful pieces I would buy if I had more money and a bigger house to put them in.
Barbara, who does the buying, says she commissions only New Zealand artists' work and looks for things that are different. Originality and variety is what keeps her customers returning.
We dally on the estuary bridge admiring the beauty of earth, water and sky in double; it's such a perfect day that the water is precisely reflecting everything above it. Carl Douglas is fishing for kahawai, dexterously casting from two different rods. I suspect there are better places to catch kahawai, but fishing is an excuse for him to bask in this divine day.
The road ends at Mangawhai Heads, where the estuary butts against a tall, rocky headland and turns to the sea. Wild waves roll in and thrash against beach and rock. It's a complete contrast to the gently rolling dunes and softness of the estuary.
The contrasting land and seascapes have always been here, but the civilising effect of a terrific restaurant, a bundle of nice shops and the golf course make Mangawhai a seductive place.
Those Aucklanders will keep visiting until their job chucks them in, or they chuck in their jobs, and then they will move here so they can do what they really love - be it golfing, fishing, potting or eating chocolate.
IF YOU GO
Mangawhai is on the east coast, 90 minutes' drive north of central Auckland.
Bennett's Cafe and Bennett's Chocolaterie: Open daily for breakfast and lunch, and Friday and Saturday nights, 52 Moir St, ph (09) 431 5070.
Smashed Pipi Gallery: Open daily, 40 Moir St, ph (09) 431 4849.