It's still Auckland but proudly moves to its own beat, writes Alexia Santamaria
The area where West and North Auckland converge is a glorious eclectic mix of art, wine, good food and magical coastal scenery. All this makes it absolutely perfect for a quick getaway for Aucklanders, but also for those who visit Tāmaki Makaurau regularly and are looking for something different to do. It's quite amazing how you can be just 40 minutes from downtown but feel like you're in a totally different city. If you've never spent the weekend in these parts, here's a personally road-tested itinerary with some extra options, to give you some inspiration.
Pack your weekend bag and hit State Highway 16 heading west. Motorway will soon become rural Auckland and you'll feel the city's clutches loosen as green pastures and rolling paddocks replace busy arterials. Keep driving till you get to the coast - Muriwai Beach to be precise - there's no better way to blow off the cobwebs than a rugged-up walk along the charcoal-coloured sands of this west coast beauty.
It's also the perfect way to work up a good appetite for a pint and some food truck action at the Beer Spot in Huapai afterwards. Check their website for which truck is currently in residence - Jo Bros Burgers, Pasta Masta, Crate Kitchen, Pioneer Pies and Manila Eats all feature and are unanimously excellent Friday-night comfort food options alongside your IPA, hazy, stout or lager.
The perfect place to stay for the weekend is Vineyard Cottages, originally built by New Zealand sauvignon blanc pioneer Bill Spence (one of the original founders of Matua wines) and his wife, Eileen. Now in the capable hands of Elle Armon-Jones - of Big Foody Food tours fame - and her husband Barry, it's the perfect place to hunker down in privacy and feel you're a million miles away from anywhere. If you let them know what time you're coming, the fire will already be lit when you arrive at your cosy, secluded cottage.
Despite the cottages having everything you need for a cook-your-own breakfast, you would deeply regret not making the 12-minute trip up the road to The Real Bread Project at some time in your stay. While their baguettes, croissants and sublime pastries could make you believe you were in Paris, their less-frenchy numbers - like an impossibly good cheesy-mite scroll or old-school cream doughnut - should not be overlooked either. Do yourself a favour and buy an olive sourdough for the road too.
Head another 15 minutes north to Kaipara Coast Plant Centre & Sculpture Gardens. The name could possibly make it sound like a garden centre with a few bits of art out the back but this 1km trail is so much more. Meander around at your own pace, enjoying the lush green surroundings and gorgeous views, play the giant versions of Connect 4 and checkers, and marvel at the impressive outdoor sculptures that change out every year.
There are so many options for a great afternoon - if you're feeling active, hit up Woodhill Forest for some mountain-biking action or if you're more in the mood for lounging and lazing, Elle does a cracking high tea back at the cottages. She'll set up in your kitchen so you can indulge in sandwiches, homemade scones, sausage rolls, and sweet treats before whiling away the afternoon over that book you've been meaning to finish forever.
There's also The Hunting Lodge right next door if you fancy a tasting and some platter action. In fact, if wine is your thing, there are plenty of vineyards nearby and the cottages can provide a driver if no one in your group wants to cart you around the cellar doors. If you want takeaways for dinner it's only 10 minutes back into Huapai, where there are plenty of options - including the very popular Hapunan for modern Filipino takeout.
You may need to head back to your responsibilities early on Sunday but if you're there on any of the Helensville Art Trail weekends (third Sunday of every month), you should not miss the opportunity to meet the extremely talented artists of the area and have a peek inside their studios. There's a fabulous mix - from the large-scale corrugated-iron sculptures of well-known Jeff Thomson, to the beautiful mixed-media treasures from Jacky Pieper, to paintings by William Robert Boyd and Michael Rowland, to fanciful hats crafted by Myra Lloyd - it's hard to say what's more of a treat, seeing the process of hat-making or meeting this vivacious local character herself.
Stop at Liberty Brewing Company's taproom or one of the vineyards on the way home, do some gourmet food shopping at Boric or take one more magical walk along the beach before heading back to reality. You'll return home with your soul full and your energy renewed by the creative vitality of this part of Auckland. Best thing is, you won't be even remotely tired from the drive.
CHECKLIST: WEST AUCKLAND