When I was a kid, Matakana was just a bend in the road on the way to, well, nowhere in particular. Now it's a destination in itself, with its market and cinemas, as well as being a service centre for the upscale bach community at Omaha. (You know you're not in any old small town when the Four Square stocks freeze-dried raspberry powder.) It's also a lot closer to Auckland than it was in the 1980s, making it super-accessible for a day trip or, as we did, an easy overnight getaway.
With a weather window opening up between winter storms, we decided to escape the city for a school holiday family mini-break. Armed with a couple of Grab One deals and two preschoolers, we headed north late morning, in time for lunch at Plume.
Fortunately it's warm enough to sit outside and let the children run ever-so-slightly riot in the gardens while we enjoy a glass of Runner Duck syrah - produced from grapes grown just down the road by restaurant manager Farida Cooper's husband Clyde - and a superb meal, with views out over the Matakana countryside. The shower clouds miraculously pass by on all sides without landing one drop on us.
It's time to put our feet up and recover, so we head for our accommodation, at Riverside Matakana on the other side of the Glen Eden River. We are spending the night in one of their cleverly designed "baches" - fully equipped standalone holiday homes built very much in the Kiwi vernacular, with dark-stained ply exteriors. There are great rural views, and the kids and I head down to the river to throw sticks in the water, look for crabs and cockles and spot mangrove-monsters.
After our sumptuous lunch we almost don't need to eat dinner, but head down to Matakana Village for a light meal at the pub. Built in 1903, apparently from the timber of a single kauri tree, it's a sophisticated establishment now, with a tasty tapas menu as well as heartier mains. It's wonderfully dark and quiet when we get back to our "bach", and the kids enjoy the chance to see some real, unadulterated stars, the Milky Way brightly smeared across the sky.
The next day dawns beautifully fine, with dew sparkling on the grapevines around us. We eventually drag ourselves away and off for a yummy breakfast at Bramble, at the Matakana Country Park. The best find here is the super adventure playground, including a castle and a lighthouse.
We have a date with the 10.30am Royal Mail Run cruise to Kawau Island, so head to Sandspit. The large ferry isn't running today so we get the bonus of going around in one of Kawau Cruises' speedy water taxis, much to our son's delight.
After dropping a party at The Beach House resort we head off on the mail run around the island's bays and harbours. The kids love helping with the mail drop-offs and collections, and we get a chance to check out the homes and baches and find out about the island's long and interesting history.
There is something special about Mansion House Bay. Sheltered and north-facing, it is sunny and peaceful, the grace of the historic house offset by exotic trees and the hungry peacocks, which greet us at the end of the wharf, hoping to scavenge some lunch. We enjoy a delightful picnic at the water's edge - sharing just a little with handsome Mr Peacock and his harem - then head up the valley to explore and search for wallabies.
Our 2pm pick-up comes around quickly and we are soon speeding back to the mainland. We don't feel ready to head back to town just yet, so visit Charlie's Gelato Garden, surely a reason in itself to visit Matakana.
We head back to the city against the traffic, feeling as if we have been a lot further away from the city than just 45 minutes. The Matakana area has changed a lot, but it has retained its charm and beauty, with the positive addition of good food, wine and coffee and plenty of things to do.
Need to know
49a Sharp Rd, Matakana, plumerestaurant.co.nz. Open for lunch Wednesday-Sunday and dinner Friday and Saturday nights.
Riverside Matakana: 170 Green Rd, Matakana,
The Matakana Village Pub: 11 Matakana Valley Rd, Matakana,
Matakana Country Park/Bramble Cafe, playground and other attractions: 1151 Leigh Rd, Matakana
Kawau Cruises: Royal Mail Run cruise departs daily 10.30 from Sandspit
Charlie's Gelato Garden, 17 Sharp Rd, Matakana. Open Friday-Sunday, 10am-4pm during winter.
• Sarah Ell was a guest of Riverside Matakana, Plume and Kawau Cruises.