By Jodi Bryant
In December 1769 Captain James Cook of the 'Endeavour' sailed past the entrance of an east coast Northland bay, recording in his journal that it was 'doubtless a bay'.
The subsequent-named Doubtless Bay has several small settlements stretching in a horseshoe from Coopers Beach and incorporating Cable Bay, Taipa, and around the long sweeping Karikari Peninsula expanse of Tokerau to Whatuwhiwhi.
Towards the south end, Mangonui, meaning 'large shark' after it is believed a shark once guided a canoe into the bay, is the main harbourside town for this area and boasts historic buildings which can be discovered by walking the heritage trail.*
Since 1792 Mangonui became the port for whaling ships from all over the world. Across at Hihi, at the very southern end of Doubtless Bay, is the Whaling Museum and Butler Homestead. Captain William Butler, as English whaler, settled here in 1839 and established a trading post for American and European whalers. The museum displays a restored and fully equipped whaleboat and a comprehensive collection of whaling artefacts.
The Butler homestead is recognised by Heritage New Zealand. Extensive grounds include a pohutukawa tree approaching 1,000 years old and claimed to be the world's largest.**
Alongside the whaling, three other local products were highly valued in world markets: flax, kauri trees and kauri gum. Settlers in the 1830s began cutting kauri trees that grew in abundance around Doubtless Bay, rafting logs down the Taipa and Oruaiti rivers. Whalers bought the timber for refitting and repairs to their ships and whaleboats in the harbour. In 1880 a large kauri mill was built at Mill Bay in Mangonui Harbour, eventually covering ten acres, where the logs were cut and shipped overseas.
With its varied and plentiful enticing beaches, Doubtless Bay has long been our annual summer holiday destination. But being winter, I was keen to stay for once in the heart of Doubtless Bay and soak up some of the atmosphere of this popular historic town so we set off during the school holidays, destination: Mangonui Hotel.
Dating back to 1905, the hotel is one of several local historic watering holes popular with the ships' crews calling at the then-busy port, and has been at the social centre of the town for most of its history. Heritage New Zealand considers the two-storey building to be the most beautiful old hotel in the country. While the exterior of the building remains unchanged, the accommodation has been renovated over the years, retaining the elegance of the original structure and keeping its character. There's something comforting about walking into a cosy tavern on a winter's day and the Mangonui Hotel is no exception. We were enveloped by the warm, wooden old-world charm and ambience of a pub well-frequented. The bar staff and punters alike were welcoming and friendly, calling out quips to one another and it's the kind of place where you could rock up by yourself and not feel alone. Aurora the resident Macaw parrot is also good for bringing strangers together.
The hotel had long had a popular resident cockatoo Barney but, with his sad passing last year, two-year-old Aurora was introduced and has quickly made her mark. Bar staff disclose that she is friendly and loves 'cuddles' but she also doesn't like them to end and can get a bit feisty, in the form of a sharp bite and loud squawk in the ear. Probably just as well she holds her own for some of the punters like to wind her up.
She is quite the character and just adds to the atmosphere of this charming historic establishment. Despite being early in the week, the pub was constantly humming right from 11am opening and, besides Aurora keeping a watchful eye on things from her perch, there is plenty to keep families entertained. My kids were drawn to the toy vending machine game and enjoyed a game of pool and watching sport on the big screens.
There is also a large garden bar with sea views, a pokies room for a flutter, TAB corner and plenty of hunting and fishing and historical memorabilia adorning the walls to keep one amused. After settling into our room and taking in the impressive view from the communal balcony overlooking the harbour, we went for a stroll past the boutique shops along the waterfront.
Over recent years, I've often heard locals talk about their 'go-to' for dinner – The Thai Mangonui restaurant so I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. We met a local friend and her kids there and enjoyed a night of fantastic food in great surrounds where there was a constant flow of diners for early in the week.
The next day dawned a stunner and we popped next door to Little Kitchen for brunch which, as far as al fresco dining (or wining, as it is a fully licensed bar) is concerned, would likely be the best seats in town. Co-owned by two local ladies, chefs Cherie Town and Tissa Kamlade, this popular waterfront café opened in 2017 and, I would imagine, locals would now be a bit lost without it. Drive past in the summer and the outdoor frontage is always packed. But inside is cosy on a winter's day and it was hard choosing from the brimming cabinets and menus.
As well as using eco-friendly products where possible, Cherie and Tissa pride themselves on the fresh, locally-sourced, tasty food made on the premises daily.
My coffee and the kids' hot chocolates were yum, as were the eggs – both poached and scrambled, and filling – a great start to an action-packed day. On this magical morning with the waters gleaming, I couldn't think of a nicer place to enjoy brunch.
After taking a stroll along the boardwalk, my friend picked us up and took us on a sight-seeing tour of Karikari Peninsular. Although I frequent this area every summer, there were still a few places we hadn't been so, first stop was Coca Cola Lake.
Despite its red/brown colour, due to the natural peat and tannins staining the water, Coca Cola Lake, officially known as Rotopokaka, is usually safe to swim but is not recommended at the moment due to algae. True to its name, it does look like cola but you might want to warn the kids they won't need to bring a straw as, besides, being currently undrinkable, it does not taste like Coca Cola.
Next stop, another place I hadn't been, Puheke and I'm not sure I would have tackled this had I not been with someone keen to climb to the top of the hill. I'm glad we did. Although very steep, the sweeping views from the top were amazing. And here we met some ultra-friendly locals, originally from Hawaii who have settled in and love the area and have an art gallery at Mangonui. Here Mark Daniells continues to paint the beauty of the islands and local scenery and some notable owners of his artwork include Bill and Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood and Anthony Hopkins.
Next we popped over to Rangiputa, and, although, like Puheke, not part of Doubtless Bay, being on the other side of the peninsula, it's always a favourite place to have a picnic lunch at a table overlooking the Fiji-like white sands and clear water where we swim in the summer. There is also always plenty to watch and this day there were paddle boarders, boats, and surfcasters.
By then it was high tide and time to return to Mangonui for some wharf fishing, a must-do experience, if not just a stroll and observe. My friend's son Kurt, one of the Savvy fishing columnists and a regular at the wharf, hadn't seen it so busy and this day in particular, but for a few octopuses caught, none of the school holiday crowd seemed to be having much luck. However, Kurt had caught snapper earlier which we later took along to the Mangonui Fish Shop and had cooked up for dinner and enjoyed with beer battered chips on the closed-in jetty overlooking the bay.
There are other places that cook your fish, including Fresh & Tasty, the Mangonui Hotel restaurant and takeaways, which, reading the reviews, has a fantastic reputation.
However, this was the one night it was closed. Back in January, we also took our fish along to the Cable Bay store where the takeaways cooked it for us before we took it across the road to the golden beach to enjoy.
Despite our fun-filled day packed with tourism adventures, the kids had been asking throughout if they could go back to the bar (and WiFi had nothing to do with it!). I had promised them we would so, after dinner, we all traipsed back and happily whiled away the rest of the night playing pool with locals and daring each other to be Aurora's next perch.
The next morning, I went to Beach Box at Coopers Beach for a takeaway coffee, from where you can walk down to the long expanse of sand – perfect for some exercise in stunning scenery before the drive home.