By Jodi Bryant
According to Lonely Planet: "Around 15 years ago, Matakana was a nondescript rural village with a handful of heritage buildings and an old-fashioned country pub. Now the locals watch bemused as Auckland's chattering classes idle away the hours in stylish wine bars and cafes."
I decided to get amongst it and, within 1.5 hours, had arrived to the Matakana Markets in midday full-swing. With the smell of bacon wafting from the nitrate and sugar-free bacon stand and live music drifting across the cheerful chitchat, patrons were enjoying the cuisine at tables, standing and lounging riverside. Stalls include waffles, macadamia nuts, hand-crafted chocolates, cheese, bohemian cider, sauces, oysters and aloe vera shots.
The village itself hosts a selection of independent specialty shops. You won't find chain stores in Matakana Village; retailers are passionate about their carefully curated collections of art, homewares, fashion, jewellery and gifts.
Across the road from the markets, I had spotted a cool-looking place that many were making a beeline for and was stoked to discover it was the Matakana Pub where I had a late lunch reservation.
Built in 1903 from the timber of a single kauri tree in what has become the heart of Matakana Village, The Matakana Village Pub has been a local landmark and a pivotal part of the village life since. Revitalised and upgraded within the last decade to become a relaxed and family-friendly (including dogs) village pub, it is now in the hands of a group of enthusiastic owners who run a range of weekly events, such as open mic night, Sunday roast and various bands, while continuing the traditions of the pub.
There is every type of seating option available and I opted to soak up the atmosphere in the front courtyard. Kelvin, the manager, was super-friendly and, although I ordered the paua and prawn risotto deep-fried arancini with Kaitaia Fired mayo, he got the chefs to rustle up a huge spread which probably left those around me wondering if I thought I had imaginary friends!
The salt and pepper gluten-free calamari with rocket, chilli, coriander and miso mayo would have been completely satisfying alone but I had to leave some to polish off the paua as this delicacy is not to be wasted.
But there was more… and it was next-level. Kelvin also suggested I sample the Squid Ink Linguine which comes with pan-fried Leigh snapper, mussel, prawns and herb oil and chilli. The sight of this colourful dish is a feast for the eyes alone and discovering hidden succulent seafood under the linguine was a treat. This was ridiculously delicious, as was the pork belly, which had an aromatic, yummy sauce.
Impressive and, apart from wishing I had worn looser clothing and non-horizontal stripes, I thoroughly enjoyed the food and atmosphere with its constant flow.
Was it always this busy? I asked Kelvin.
"I'm finding that people are broadening their weekends, taking Friday off and coming up Thursday since lockdown," he explains. "Then they're lingering on Sundays as Sunday is just as busy."
Next it was onto something a little different; the Reptile Park at Ti Point. I can't say I am into reptiles but this had been recommended and I ended up enjoying this place way more than I thought! Ti Point is just before Leigh and the park is situated on around 7ha of land which has been in Myfanwy's family for generations. Myfanwy married Ivan Borich who established a small zoo there around the 1980s before it evolved to his true passion - reptiles. Sadly, Ivan died last year, aged 85, and the dedicated local icon was still working to finish his last project – a huge polyhouse – and on the roof no less, until just weeks before he passed. His legacy lives on in the reptile park he carved from the steep terrain of native bush.
With breath-taking views across the Hauraki Gulf, paths and steps meander towards enclosures containing surprise after surprise. The unique collection of both native and exotic species is a one-of-a-kind in New Zealand and includes a range of lizards (both small and huge!), turtles and tortoise, dragons, tarantulas, tuatara and, just when I thought I'd seen it all, I chanced upon an American Alligator basking in the sun!
A bit of education from their website: "The term cold-blooded refers to the fact that reptiles do not have the internal mechanism to regulate their body temperature to one that will allow their bodies to function effectively. Reptiles must find a warm place for basking to raise their body heat and some cooler spots to move to from time-to-time to prevent overheating. This means they must spend some time lying in the open and exposed, especially the smaller ones, to possible predators. To protect themselves against this, most reptiles are able to blend in with their surroundings and, by keeping quite still, can be hard to detect."
So as well as being educational, the lovely walk was some much-needed exercise after all that driving and eating, and I left the park with an unexpected sense of well-being which I can only pinpoint to it being good for the soul. Try it.
Further on is Leigh and, while researching things to do for this trip, I had come across Clearyak and had been looking forward to this the most. Clearyak is a local family-run business with 100 per cent clear kayaks which allows you to marvel up close at the marine life swimming in the clear waters just below your kayak around the Goat Island Marine Reserve, without getting wet.
However, due to high winds, the owner had emailed to say they would have to postpone that day. As the kayaks are tandem, I am looking forward to bringing my kids back for this adventure!
As well as its association with the Goat Island Marine Reserve and snorkelling and kayaking opportunities, the small coastal settlement of Leigh is known for its live music courtesy of the Leigh Sawmill. The former timber milling factory is now a sprawling complex that includes a restaurant, newly-renovated accommodation, garden bar and a concert hall which plays host to many New Zealand bands throughout the
"It's one of those iconic venues that everyone wants to play at when first starting," says Leigh Sawmill general manager Samantha Beeston.
Its Saturday night gig was, in fact, largely responsible for the sell-out accommodation in Matakana and surrounding areas that weekend. With the addition of café services as of this week, it's a true destination in itself.
Warkworth-bound, the trip is peppered with unique stopovers, such as Matakana Oysters and a candles and gifts shop. However, if you spot them too late, as I did, it's quite hard to turn around so keep your eyes peeled.
I arrived at the Bridgehouse Lodge and was immediately tempted to join the jovial punters enjoying a drink in the late Saturday afternoon sun amidst upbeat music at the front of the establishment.
The Bridgehouse is situated when you first drive into Warkworth from the north and a bar leaner lines the long front terrace where punters can perch with a drink or sit at tables and soak up the riverside ambience while watching the Warkworth world go by. This is flanking a stunning bar and restaurant facility with accommodation behind.
The first building in Warkworth, since 1854, the iconic Bridgehouse has served generations of the local community.
The founder of Warkworth, John Anderson Brown was a builder and an entrepreneur. He was attracted to the Mahurangi area by the abundance of Kauri trees. He set up a timber mill in the 1850's on a site just below the bridge on the riverbank. He lived at the Bridgehouse with his house-keeper with the original building he built replaced by a larger one around 1900 and extended and renovated over the years.
Overlooking the Mahurangi river, it now offers its patrons high-quality food and drink, along with recently renovated accommodation, a modern bar and restaurant, outdoor dining, open fires, a sports bar, big screen tvs, gaming room, a separate function room with own bar and outdoor garden.
That night I had a reservation booked for the second oldest building – the picturesque Warkworth Hotel - down the road. Established by one of the 'fathers of Warkworth' John Southgate settled in Warkworth in I848.
He was one of the first people to recognise the potential of limestone, later establishing a small hotel on the site of his early kilns. In I862 he moved his hotel business to the centre of Warkworth, building the Warkworth Hotel with adjoining horse stables. The Norfolk pine tree he planted in front of the hotel was in tribute to his son and continues to be a prominent feature in town.
Today Warkworth Hotel has recently re-opened after an 18-month extensive refit and furnish. Owners Woody and Kim have mindfully and tastefully brought the hotel back to its former glory.
"We wanted to bring back the charm of that error," says Woody, of the 1862 establishment.
Punctuating the refit are antique furnishings and décor sourced, both locally and abroad, to take patrons back in time, such as the tiffany lampshades, the grandfather clock and the baby grand piano. The establishment now offers two unique options of dining: the Lobby, for drinks and carefully-crafted sharing plates, and the Dining Room, for a more formal experience presenting its own contemporary multi-course menu.
Since opening its doors in October, the restaurants have been flooded with curious locals having long been awaiting its reopening. It would be safe to say the makeover was a success and it was no coincidence; Woody and Kim also own The Stables and Smiths restaurants in Matakana, which had grabbed my attention enroute back from Leigh that afternoon with a wedding taking place outside the impressive, sprawling establishment.
In fact, in 2015, after purchasing The Stables, situated on an equestrian park, amidst the rural Matakana landscape, they turned it into such a popular wedding venue - with 60 annually – that the following year, they built a second restaurant, Smiths (a combination of an old Blacksmiths and a '60s bach - industrial yet retro), next door, so the locals still had somewhere to dine when there were weddings.
Both are quite opposite in terms of cuisine, Woody tells me; while The Stables is traditional dining, Smiths is more international fusion cuisine.
"We've brought that concept here," he says. "Two dining experiences in the one venue. It's been very busy since opening in October. I guess you could say 'The old girl is back in town'."
The hotel was packed and humming and I ordered the lamb, which came with courgette, cherry tomato, crisp potato, pomegranate, hotel basil, feta and pesto. The lamb was succulent and aromatic, the potatoes, melt-in-your-mouth, with a delicious dressing – all a lovely blend of flavours.
Classy and professional – the Matakana Hotel is the new-old happening place in town.
Back at the Bridgehouse, a party was in full swing in one of the private function rooms, and a few men had snuck out to watch the rugby on the big screens in the bar.
My room overlooked the river so a river walk was on the cards for the morning. However, the weather had turned so I headed back into Matakana for brunch at Plume.
This seemed to be a popular place but I managed to get a table at peak time and the friendly waitress apologised profusely over the delay (which I hadn't noticed), before bringing me a second complementary coffee! After some yummy eggs bene and with plans to return on two more occasions – one with kids and one with friends - it was homeward-bound.