Anna King Shahab's cup - and bicycle basket - runneth over on a delicious weekend away
The west coast is the birthplace of the Kaipara Harbour, it's sprawling estuarine network combining to make it the largest harbour in Aotearoa, and one of the largest in all the world. The Kaipara's watery brushstrokes spread from Auckland right up to Whāngārei and the Kaipara District, which the harbour gives rise to, extends right over to the east coast to include Mangawhai.
We knew our night's accommodation was remote, so picnic dinner supplies were needed and Kaiwaka provided. Bread from the Italian bakery, wedges of Meyer gouda, local salami, and olives from Kaiwaka Cheese Shop and Dutch Deli. Our afternoon recce in Dargaville took in Matich's fish shop and restaurant, boasting excellent original signage. We ordered Northland snapper and chips to eat beside the Wairoa River, as well as a tub of ika mata and smoked mussels for our picnic dinner. Also on offer: fresh and smoked fish, pots of Kaipara oysters, and fish meals to enjoy in the cosy dining room.
After detouring for an eyeful of Kai Iwi Lakes, we continued north to our haven for the night, Wild Forest Estate in Donnellys Crossing, an area once home to one of the country's most profitable railway stations thanks to the logging boom of the early 20th century. Our host, Jo Wickham, tenderly renovated a 1920 bushman's cottage and created the self-contained wing where we're staying. It's beautifully decorated in natural fibres with antique touches, and a sheltered outdoor lounge leads out to the hydrangea-ringed lawn bordered by a stream. More recently Jo added a glamping set-up, nestled in the bush.
After a wonderful sleep – it's utterly quiet out here, apart from screeching kiwi which I, much to my annoyance, slept through – Jo is up early to cook us breakfast on the barbecue. She has sourced juicy local home-kill beef sausages, eggs and sourdough bread all from neighbours, and has made a hash with orange kūmara, a nod to this being kūmara heartland.
Saturday's first stop was Paparoa Farmers' Market, where a dozen or so stalls proffer things grown, raised, caught and/or made locally. There are flounder and oysters sold by the fisherman's wife, amazing patisserie by Sweet Delights (Paris-trained Vicki Kelli), crisp white onions and carrots from 92-year-old Trevor Bryljevich, who also grows champion dahlias, and verdant fruit and veg seedlings (a Morunga Scorpion chilli we bought is about to start fruiting as I write this).
Lunch at The Thirsty Tūī came with a side of gloriously retro atmosphere – the longtime owners of the Paparoa Hotel have kept things period and it's a treat to peruse. We'd been itching to sample the famous Kaipara Harbour flounder. Here it came baked whole with lemon parsley butter and za'atar, served with salad and Ruawai kūmara wedges. The flounder was sweet-fleshed, with deliciously sticky skin. Kaipara oysters and G&Ts rounded out the occasion.
A brief and pleasant road took us over to Mangawhai on the east coast, for our second and final night in the district.
Dinner at The Dune was a hearty affair – chefs here do two slow cooks in the smoker each day: lamb shoulder, sirloin, brisket, pork ribs sending out an impossible-to-ignore aroma.
After a comfy sleep in our pristine, bedecked one-bedroom apartment at Tūī & Nīkau, we're raring to go for our day on e-bikes. Coastal E-Bikes' Chris Mennell guides us through the workings and we're off, using that nifty pedal-assist to get us up the hills up the back of the township – inland Mangawhai is gorgeous, with rolling farmland, old dry-stone walls, olive groves, pockets of native bush, and towering eucalypts.
We coast all the way to Mangawhai's wine country, calling in for an olive-oil tasting at boutique producer Cove Olives along the way and coming away with a bottle of their award-winning leccino. (Olives on the Hill is another producer with a tasting room up this way to check out).
Our furthest port of call is nestled in the foothills of the Brynderwyns: Millar's Vineyard, a small, family-run vineyard. Owners Ross and Jennimay Millar greet us like old friends, which we are, sort of, as the couple also run the popular Ross Millar swim school our kids have been attending for years back home in Auckland. They take a break from chores to take us through a tasting of all their varieties: pinot gris, gewurztraminer, viognier and syrah grown on their 1ha block. We decided on three bottles to take home (feeling thankful Chris added front baskets to our bikes before we set off).
We were having such a great time on the bikes that our visit to Bennett's for a late lunch was just a little too late, the cafe kitchen was just closing so we ordered sandwiches and coffee to go, and did a bit of shopping in the chocolate wing . . . treats to take to the kids back home, and a few for us of course. A sweet ending to a fulfilling weekend getaway.