Hot springs, museums packed with Maori taonga and a demolition derby immortalised on film — there's plenty to love about Kaikohe, finds Elisabeth Easther.
Where is it? In Northland on SH12, 260km from Auckland, an hour north of Whangarei and just a hop, skip and a jump from the Bay of Islands and Waipoua Forest.
Home to: The Ngapuhi iwi.
Origin of name: Inter-tribal rivalry in the early 19th century saw fugitives from the area hiding in bush, and surviving by eating leaves from the kohekohe tree — hence the region was named Kaikohe, kai for food and kohekohe for the tree — although this was subsequently shortened to Kaikohe.
Claim to fame: Florian Habicht's wonderful 2004 doco Kaikohe Demolition is a heartfelt tribute to the small town and the characters who are drawn to Kaikohe's famous demolition derby.
Town icon: The big old plough parked on the edge of town, a symbol of the town's agricultural past and a hint of the treasures found in the Pioneer Village.
Sometimes referred to as: The Hub of the North or Kaikohe: Our Place.
Old news: The railway used to pass through and terminate in nearby Okaihau, and today the sturdy old tunnels are treats along the Twin Coast Cycle Trail.
Famous locals: Hone Heke ruled this realm in the 19th century. David Lange lived here for a spell, Christian Huriwai, the 2010 world unicycling champion lives here now. Trish Muldrock (world champ masters weightlifter). Commonwealth Games medal winners Laurie Byers (cycling) and Peter Byers (hockey) are all from here as was All Black Johnny Smith.
Big business: Mainly farming, but tourism is growing thanks to the fabulous Twin Coast Cycle Trail.
School rules: Northland College has its own dairy farm and pine forest and is one of the few schools in New Zealand where children can receive a farming education. The school has been planting manuka on a commercial scale to support the growth of the honey industry.
Town fiestas: The Ngapuhi Festival, held every second January, is three full-on days of art exhibitions, food, sport, music, kapa haka, stalls and more. The annual A, P & H Show is a riot of rural wonders, tractors, merry go-rounds, livestock and wholesome country fun. Kaikohe Demolition Derby is another annual institution, ditto the Santa Parade.
Here for a short time: Put aside a decent whack of time to explore Kaikohe Pioneer Village.
Kids love: The skateboard and BMX park on the southern side of town in Memorial Park. It's just had $100,000 spent on it and is now one of the best in the country.
Best park: Memorial Park — there's lots of space to run wild and enjoy a picnic with big trees for shade and a neat playground.
Best facilities: The reasonably newish toilets in Library Square do the trick nicely.
Best walk: The Twin Coast Cycle Trail is also gorgeous for walking, with highlights including ancient train tunnels, wetlands and Lake Omapere.
Best view: From Hone Heke Monument, up the hill heading out of Kaikohe on the western side. The view is commanding and on a good day you can see all the way up to the Hokianga's sand hills.
Cultural outings: Taiamai Tours are based just outside Kaikohe and take groups out on 40ft waka taua (war canoes), while the guides tell stories of the land, the sea and the Ngapuhi people. Epic.
Best place to pull over: Rawiri Taiwhanga Park. Cross the little bridge to the garden area on the eastern outskirts of town and you'll find a restful place to stretch your legs.
Best swim: Ngawha Hot Springs has always been pretty rough and ready, but that's refreshing compared to the tourist attractions that have been over-refined and lost their charm. Entry is just $4, and for days after soaking your skin will smell like the side of a matchbox, an olfactory souvenir.
Best museum: The Pioneer Village is packed with wonder, the spacious grounds are dotted with historic buildings and bursting with Maori taonga, traction engines, tractors, kauri gum, vehicles, logging and milling equipment, the most astonishing begonia house and there's even a train to ride on. This living museum will exceed your expectations, so don't bypass it — plus the volunteers are real characters.
Nice arts: The town has strong artistic roots and Te Pu o Te Wheke Arts, on Broadway, is a newly opened collective of local artists passionate about bringing colour and meaning to their community.
Top glass: Cre8ive Glass create beautiful glass gifts including plates, fish, patu, tiki and waka.
Cream of the coffee: There are a few cafes in Kaikohe but Cafe Malaahi is considered the most consistent if you're fussy about coffee, plus they have an outlet at the Caltex Station. The Bakehouse Cafe also does the trick.
Baked: There are two bakeries in town — Len's Pies, who sell their product all over Northland, and The Bakehouse Cafe. Both will see you right when you're packing your cycle picnic.
Best food: Malaahi Cafe is yummy for a lunch of soup or lasagne while for dinner you can go to the good old RSA or The Bank Bar — neither is pretentious so if you want flash you'll need to head to Paihia or Kerikeri.
Best mountain biking: Pou Herenga Tai: The Twin Coast Trail is 84km of riding through farms, along rivers and beside lakes. The trail is soon to reach the Horeke Tavern, the oldest hotel in New Zealand, and one day it will join the Bay of Islands with the Hokianga.
On your bike: Visit Top Trail for everything you need to cycle around these parts, from bikes to accommodation, shuttling to guided tours.
Wildlife: On the trail you'll see heaps of native birds as well as peacocks, turkeys, pigs and horses.
Safety first: Ring your bell when going round tight corners on the cycle trail.
The verdict: This region is underrated and beautifully unspoiled.