By ALEX STONE

Whatipu Lodge is little more than an hour's drive from downtown Auckland, just a short jaunt to a place that is definitely out of the ordinary.

At first glance it is hard to believe this wild, remote spot is so close to the big city. It is an astonishing wilderness of near-mystical natural beauty, steeped in history.

Whatipu is on the northern side of the Manukau Harbour heads, and although the lodge is now almost a kilometre from the sea, the presence of this tempestuous waterway is all pervasive - you can hear the surf thundering in the distance. Inside, the lodge is filled with mementos of shipwrecks, stranded whales and great fish caught.

But it's the dynamic landscape that makes Whatipu fascinating. Fifty years ago the sea lapped at the foot of the lodge. Thirty years ago a great sand blow threatened to engulf one side of the valley. Now a build-up of new sand has pushed the shoreline away.

Huge caves can be found where the sand meets the cliffs at the foot of the Waitakere Ranges, one containing the remnants of a 1920s dance floor buried under tonnes of sand. And the remains of a coastal railway, which once carried logs from Piha and Karekare to a wharf in the lee of Paratutai Island, can be seen around the rocks.

Behind the lodge are spectacular bush walks, especially up the Karamatura Valley a few kilometres away, where a great kauri log-jam can still be seen. A few days at the lodge could satisfy cravings for bold adventure and total, chilled-out relaxation. There's a fantastic library with all the stuff you'd expect from a classic old bach collection: entire shelves of Readers' Digest condensed books, and old hard-cover novels and memoirs with rich titles such as Exit Dying, The Sea Shall Not Have Them, She Fell Among Thieves and Horrie the Wog-Dog. Plus newer additions that make it a truly eclectic and absorbing collection.

With no TV reception, time is passed on wet nights with a grand, full-size billiard table, installed in the 1940s and obviously the repository of many memories - if only it could talk. Daytime activities include tennis (bring your own rackets), or you can relax in the comfortable, lived-in lounge and watch the world go by.

The historic buildings, which date from between 1870 and 1920, are in themselves of great interest. The lodge owner (the Auckland Regional Council) and proprietors Marnie Hunter and Alison Anderson are busy restoring the buildings, painting over the maroon exterior walls with a paint mix of whale oil and ochre which will restore the lodge's 1950s colour scheme.

So you're thinking these old buildings may be spooky? I took a never-fail ghost detector, my wife Lesley, and she pronounced the premises a spook-free zone ...

And so we returned to the city a day later, feeling we had been transported far away and back in time.


Where to find it:

Whatipu Lodge is just inland from the northern head of the Manukau Harbour, at the end of the road past Little Huia, 25km from Titirangi. The lodge is also accessible by walking at low tide along the beach from Karekare (9.5km), good for a "meet you there" scenario. Ph (09) 811 8860.

What it costs:

One night: $30 adult, $15 child.

More than one night: $22 adult, $10 child. Bach (sleeps four): $100 a night, $15 extra person.

Bring bedding (linen can be hired) and food. Group discounts available

Getting there:

From the roundabout just past the Titirangi shops, take the Huia Rd to Huia and then Little Huia, where it veers inland over a bush-clad mountain for 7km and snakes down to Whatipu Lodge at road's end.

Warning: the Whatipu Road is a narrow, winding gravel road that should be driven with caution.

Access:

Not suitable for wheelchairs.

Smoking:

Definitely no smoking (or candles) indoors or anywhere near the lodge buildings.

Children:

Sure. No dogs or other pets though.

Food:

Bring your own. Some basics are available at the lodge's small shop. The last shop on the road in is 10km back at Huia.

Where to eat:

This is strictly bring-your-own. The kitchens have been restored with top-of-the-range commercial gas cookers. A great feast is possible. Or take a picnic out in any direction.



* Alex Stone was a paying guest at Whatipu Lodge.