I am told there are people who go to Hawkes Bay for reasons other than the food and wine, but I don't know any of those people.
A glorious summer jaunt, years ago with young children, cemented our foodie memories - icecreams at Rush Munro's, sun-warm cherries from a roadside stand - but every time my husband and I go back we make new finds (and friends). It has got to the point where we now block out the calendar for an annual week of feasting there in November for the summer Food and Wine Classic (FAWC), coming up for its third year. And we have the badge to prove it (a natty silver fork brooch by local jeweller Bruce Jackson).
Last year the greedy bliss was complete when the FAWC folks added a winter series, all roasts by the fire, hearty syrah and foraging road trips, perfectly timed for that lull in June between comedy and writers' festivals and before the film fest season starts. We're still furiously circling events and weekends for this June - commitment is scary, the show has ballooned to 48 events over four weekends.
Our summer week was a great way to sample the region - from the top of the top chefs and lodges to some wonderful street fare. We won't start on about the local politics that has less than 150,000 souls supporting some five (or is it six?) local authorities (the buildings! the salaries!), but the whole region pulled together to showcase the best of old Art Deco Napier, emerging hipster 'hoods, country orchards and vineyards, plus the wineries on which the district built its reputation.
I've never loved staying at soul-less motels - you could be anywhere - so was delighted when the energetic Nick Patterson of John's House arranged for us to sample what seems to be the local speciality, character-filled cottages on the edge of town. Nick's own place nails the best of modern architecture - a 1990s house by John Scott and a new pavilion by Pete Bossley - right by the riverside bike trail into Havelock North village - but he also found us the quirkily named Love Shack. The 20s bungalow, all lavish wallpapers, looked vaguely familiar.
Turned out it was moved from next door to Rush Munro's icecream parlour. Our third spot was in the hills above the Tukituki River, a turn of last century shearer's cottage, although the poor old shearers probably didn't get Persian rugs and good art.
Owners Van and Linda Howard admit to a wee problem of over-collecting cottages - a "spare" was being sold for removal as we were there - but they have a good eye and plenty of land, so it seemed like a mighty fine hobby to us and something we think is sorely missing on the fringes of Auckland.
Craggy Range is always a perfect setting for showing off the best of Hawkes Bay. In winter it was roast dinner by the huge fire but the summer delight was a forage in the chef's garden at tables around the huge estate.
Our first trip to Cape Kidnappers was as spectacular as we'd hoped, with cooking demonstrations from all the chefs at the Robertson properties: our only quibble is that we'd wish the family had found a spot for one of their lodges closer to Auckland.
But it was the quirkier treats that really excited us: a bus tour of small-scale artisan producers (including the Havelock North butcher who'd just won the national sausage award), Martin Bosley's fabulous pop-up burger bar in the carpark of Avintage wines, a Pimm's party under the veranda of the magnificently restored Emporium Hotel and a pasta-making class with the dude who supplies all the local chefs.
It was fun to meet very interesting people, both locals and travellers, who have also carved FAWC in stone into their food calendars.
Can't wait to see them all again in June, then.
Four Weekends of Winter
Plot your weekend escape around two-and-a-bit days of eating, wine tasting and exploring. From Friday, June 6 to Sunday, June 29, pick from 48 events with wintry themes: whisky by the fire, winemakers' long lunches, farmers' market delights with Martin Bosley, emerging craft beers and combined works of chefs and artists. Some events are already sold out, so book now. Sign up for early notification for summer here.
Catherine Smith was a guest of Hawkes Bay Tourism.