You don't have to leave the country to feel you've had a break, writes Pamela Wade.

Helensville

Heading out of the city on SH16, it takes determination not to be diverted by the liquid attractions around Kumeu. This wine country includes Nobilo, Soljans Estate, Coopers Creek and Matua Valley, as well as yeastier brews at The Riverhead tavern and Hallertau brewery - but there are good reasons to keep driving north.

A left turn at Waimauku leads to Muriwai Beach: black sand, big surf and the world's most convenient gannet colony, the birds neatly spaced on their nesting rock below the viewing platform.

Further along the highway is a turn-off to Woodhill Forest, where wannabe monkeys can navigate the high ropes course and swoop along 16 ziplines. Helensville offers more sedate attractions. The pioneer museum has an old courthouse and school room and the railway museum a large working model.

The irresistibly named Ginger Crunch Station Cafe next door is one of several eateries in this small town, an ideal base for exploring the surrounding countryside, which includes unexpected delights.

Real giraffes have to be one of them. Beyond Kaukapakapa lies the estate of Alan Gibbs, a multimillionaire with a predilection for big art and exotic wildlife. The property is mostly closed to the public, but it's still possible to see animals and some of the massive sculptures from the road - bizarre and beautiful.

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Back past Helensville are Parakai Springs, with hydroslides, spas and thermal pools steaming at 34C and 40C, perfect after a morning of horse trekking in forest, farm and beach. Near here, cruises depart on the Kaipara Harbour, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, and along the winding Kaipara River, retracing historic routes through sheltered estuary waters.

The many places to stay include campsites, B&Bs, motels and farmstays.

Great Barrier Island

Taking the SeaLink fast ferry means it is just two hours to go from the bustle of the city to the Barrier's laid-back vibe, 90km away. En route there may be dolphins, there will be birds and, at Tryphena Harbour, kids catching fish off the wharf. There will not be mains electricity or water, ATMs or street lighting. This is the Barrier, life is different here.

Mainly, it's slower. There's all the time in the world to appreciate the clear turquoise water lapping at the pebbles in sheltered bays and rolling in boisterous breakers on to long beaches of soft white sand.

There's time to watch and wait for cheeky kaka to squawk and chatter overhead, to loll in a natural hot pool in the bush, to glide in a kayak along a still river.

In a hire car or on a tour, follow narrow roads on old bullock track routes over steep hills past secret valleys and bays accessed only by tramping tracks. There's history here: kauri logging and whaling, shipwrecks and murder, a museum and an art gallery, sculpture and pottery.

And at Port Fitzroy on the Kotuku Peninsula there's passion: the late Tony Bouzaid's Glenfern Sanctuary, where 20 years of trapping has resulted in a 260ha pest-free haven for birds, including endangered black petrel, brown teal and North Island robin.

Get there on a cruise through the Broken Islands, fishing, diving or just sipping wine while the barbie sizzles and gannets arrow into the water around narrow Man O' War Passage where a 6-inch Howitzer was mounted in 1942. Or take a ride with Steve on the back of his 1600cc shiny blue Crazyhorse trike, spotting dolphins in Okupu Bay, having lunch in Claris or taking in the views from the highest point - your choice.

Stay at a campground, motel, bach or lodge.

Awhitu Peninsula

Although it's just 95km from the city, the only acquaintance most people have with Awhitu Peninsula is as their last view of New Zealand when flying to Australia: a long straight cliff above a black-sand beach where the Tasman relentlessly rolls in.

Up close, that dramatic scenery is balanced by sheltered beaches on the harbour side. Many species of seabird dart across white sand, backed by hilly green farmland and bushy valleys of kauri and puriri.

The fully restored Manukau Heads Lighthouse, built in 1874, overlooks the treacherous bar that claimed the Orpheus in 1863, our worst maritime disaster. A prettier view can be found at lovely Orua Bay - of Rangitoto and the Sky Tower beyond, the Waitakeres across the harbour.

Plus, at nearby Grahams Bay, is the boutique Awhitu Wines, specialising in syrah, chardonnay and rose.

There are lots of walks to explore, from the wild - such as Hamiltons Gap - to the tame, such as the historic Brook Homestead in Awhitu Regional Park, which has beaches, wetlands and picnic places.

Indoor attractions include fine arts, glass and jewellery at the Arts and Crafts Co-Op at Pollok, with its sculpture garden and coffee shop; and Waiuku has a cute little pioneer museum in the old fire station, as well as the country's oldest pub, The Kentish Hotel.

For the best food with a view, follow Karioitahi Rd to its end, where Agave Restaurant overlooks the Tasman - perfect for a sunset dinner but spectacular at any time.

Castaways Resort offers blo-karting, clay-shooting and 4X4 tours; in Awhitu, go horse riding or, for the less adventurous, beyond Waiuku is the Glenbrook Vintage Railway.

Other places to stay on Awhitu Peninsula: Orua Bay Beach Motor Camp and Big Bay Holiday Park ... or check out Bookabach.

Coromandel

The last part of the three-hour drive to Coromandel is agreeably slow, as the road creeps along the edge of the pohutukawa-fringed coastline from Thames then cuts across the hills to where the peninsula's capital sits beside the sea. That's the other way to come: over water on a two-hour cruise on 360 Discovery's ferry.

Footprints in the sand on the foreshore of stunning New Chums Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Photo / Alan Gibson
Footprints in the sand on the foreshore of stunning New Chums Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Photo / Alan Gibson

By whatever means, it's worth the journey to this small town of wild west frontages, where girls on horses clop along the main street. It's lined with restaurants, cafes and art and craft shops, and it's a great place to slip into the Coromandel vibe - but there's plenty in the countryside, too.

Appreciating its beauty is a given: blue sea, green hills, secret bays, gnarled forest. It's a landscape that brings out the artist, and potter Barry Brickell has spent nearly 50 years being inspired here.

At his Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, wind up the hill in his narrow-gauge track mini-train and climb the Eyefull Tower for extensive views of the Hauraki Gulf and the peninsula.

There's gold in them thar hills, and the still-operational Coromandel Gold Stamper Battery has the full story, as well as facilities to pan for some colour.

More water-powered machines can be found nearby in the Waiau Valley at The Waterworks, where an assortment of quirky watery inventions and inspirations guarantee huge fun for everybody: bikes, clock, cannons, music boxes.

For quieter entertainment there are horse-trekking and fishing, wild pigs to visit and Waitati Gardens to stroll through; but walking is the best way to appreciate the Coromandel's unique charms.

Stay in a campground or fancy lodge.

Waihi

Less than two hours' drive south of Auckland lies the North Island's golden heart: the town of Waihi. Things got busy here in 1878 when the Martha Mine was opened, and they've been scratching gold and silver out of it ever since. It's a huge, open pit that would now nearly hide the Sky Tower.

The wealth of all that precious metal shows in the town's historical buildings, most notably The Cornish Pumphouse, many of them converted to excellent restaurants and cafes most easily discovered by following the heritage trail.

Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway and Cycle tunnel loop. Photo / Greg Bowker
Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway and Cycle tunnel loop. Photo / Greg Bowker

Over the road from the Pumphouse, the Gold Discovery Centre explains in an appealingly hands-on manner how gold is extracted, refined and used.

The arts centre & museum a couple of blocks away gives a more detailed background to the industry and the town's history (prepare to see jars of amputated thumbs). Take a mining tour to get inside the fence, up close to those giant trucks.

Nothing beats standing on the edge of that massive hole, though, and from the Pit Rim Walkway you can peer down to where the trucks now look like toys, and take in views towards the coast and Mt Ruapehu.

Waihi Beach is only a short drive away, or go in the other direction, towards Paeroa's giant L&P bottle, travelling through the spectacular Karangahake Gorge. This is part of the Hauraki Rail Trail, a conveniently flat cycle route that suits all abilities - allow time for exploring tunnels and swing bridges and cooling off in swimming holes.

There's a good range of walking tracks around here, too, but if that's too strenuous, take the vintage train from Waihi to Waikino.

Stay at a range of accommodation, from motor camps to farmstays.