Helensville weaves its historic origins into a modern-day paradise, writes Cate Foster.
Helensville, situated on the crux between west and north and at the southernmost reaches of waterborne access to Auckland and the Waitemata, might be a mere hop, skip and a jump from its big neighbour down SH16, yet in mood it could be as far away as the Hokianga.
In fact, Rawene on the banks of the Hokianga, and Helensville share more than a passing similarity. Both have long histories linked intrinsically to their waterside locations, and both have somehow segued into latter-day post-hippie paradises with brightly painted Victorian buildings and a never-ending parade of quirky small businesses dominating the outward face of commercial activities.
Why exactly these two far-apart towns should end up like this might be hidden in the rose-tinted worlds of some of those who head to the country for a better life, however the results are charming. Even in the relentless rain of the day we visited, it was still appealing. Perhaps it is something to do with the way the main street, Commercial Rd, winds down a shallow hillside rather than just anchoring a grid plan. Perhaps it is the history that permeates the place.
Whatever the answer, Helensville rocks.
Starting at the northerly end I took refuge from the rain and made a plan of attack over a coffee and a piece of the ginger crunch celebrated by the cafe of the same name. Set in part of the restored Helensville Railway building, the Ginger Crunch Cafe has a courtyard for sunny days; today all around me I could see people contentedly tucking into huge all-day breakfasts. The coffee was great and the service was country friendly.
Across the road I picked up a loaf of nutty bread from at the stall outside The Grand Hotel and poked my head inside the newly restored lobby, lounge bar and Rosso restaurant of this historic landmark. The proprietor, Didier Debae tells me all 12 bedrooms upstairs will be complete in time for the Rugby World Cup (10 are ready now) and when the public bar opens in late July they will be hosting live music events every Saturday night. They also have plans for a regular farmers' and craft market in the carpark come summer.
"This hotel used to be a real hub of the town and a stopping place for people travelling north," Didier tells me. "Our ambition is to make it that again."
Wandering up the hill I couldn't resist fossicking among John Perry's collections at Second Hand Land in the rear of the old Regent Theatre. A museum curator in a prior life, John sees himself as a collector with global tastes.
"It's a complete amalgam, a smorgasbord from the Pacific, Africa, Asia and of course Europe."
On a retro roll now, I dropped in on to Monkee Business where I chatted with the owner, Tipene Ryan-Smith, and managed to resist a 1960s performance hula dress from Rarotonga. I only wished I had more time, and of course more money, to fritter. Crossing the road to The Paua Room I found New Zealand-made fashions and covetable jewellery, but I'd spent up so I managed to content myself with their view of the winding Kaipara River which began it all.
Returning home I found I had bought two eccentric vases which will look great somewhere, I feel sure, and a green ukulele. Now, where that will fit in I'm not at all sure, but that's what Helensville does to you. Next time, it won't be raining and I'll make sure I get to what I'm told is a great little museum. I'll even walk the Riverside Walkway.
It pays to phone ahead for opening hours for these little businesses. It is 50km from the CBD and travelling time is 40 minutes.
Ginger Crunch Cafe: Is in Helensville's restored railway station at 2 Railway St, ph (09) 420 9133.
The Grand Hotel and Rosso Restaurant: 1-3 Railway St, ph (09) 420 7683 or 021 135 2990.
Second Hand Land: (with Global Village and Collectables) 14 Garfield St, ph (09) 420 9149.
Monkee Business Collectables and Kiwiana: 7 Commercial Rd, ph 022 638 4174.
The Paua Room: 6 Commercial Rd, ph (09) 420 9898.