A leisurely lunch at a family cafe and an information-packed scenic boat trip on Lake Karapiro opens Cate Foster's eyes to the joys of the Waikato region.
Fine weather tends to bring out the wanderlust in me, and on one of the first fine days of January I collected a mate and headed south to the Waikato for a cruise on the hitherto unexplored waters of Lake Karapiro, courtesy of Mike and Sandy McKenzie's Karapiro Cruiser.
For me, a born and bred Northlander, anywhere south of Hamilton starts feeling like a distant country, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.
Hamilton itself is now a mere one hour 45 minutes from the Auckland CBD, and as the Grey Street Kitchen in Hamilton East had been highly recommended by a friend who lives locally, this is where we headed first.
Even for out-of-towners it was hard to miss. On one of the main north-south roads in what we were told had, until four years ago, been a mower repair shop, all the outside tables were full with customers, eating animatedly. Inside we found out why. Every item on the menu is prepared on the premises by Bob McGowan, co-owner of the business with her son Jacob and his partner Michelle. Jacob keeps the coffee cranking, and the jokes coming, while Bob (wo)mans the kitchen.
We shared a chorizo risotto and a hot smoked salmon salad and though satiated and happy couldn't resist trying the macadamia toffee cake, which was a taste sensation to remember. Bob passed over the recipe and we somewhat reluctantly pushed on.
This was where we almost came unstuck. Without a map in the car and glued to my Google Earth App for directions we took an undoubtedly scenic but much longer route to where we were going, and as a result had to phone to ask for directions.
Nothing could have made me feel sillier when I realised how close to SH1 and Cambridge our destination was. But being electronically led to the opposite end of Maungatautari Rd meant we lucked on one of the prettiest valleys you could ever wish to see.
Alternately winding on ridges above the dam and through lushly pastured valleys running west of the river I saw the Waikato as the land of plenty it truly is. SH1 might be the direct route but pretty it is not. So allow an extra half hour for this deviation and you won't be disappointed.
Once on the lake itself the beauty of the day revealed itself. Sandy served up teas, coffee and a home-made chocolate cake while Mike pointed out the replanting taking place along the shores. Black swans with trains of fluffy cygnets hugged the shores, and shags dived and sunbathed.
Mike's commentary told me more than I had ever known about the history of the lake, and about the damming of the Waikato, the "mighty river" that gave the power company its name. Between Lake Taupo and Karapiro, a distance of a bit less than 200k, there are eight hydroelectric dams, Karapiro being the lowest.
But although it might be a man-made lake, it is a beautiful one, and one that is hugely appreciated by water users of all kinds. This is where the World Rowing Championships were held in 2010 and maimais attest to the popularity of the area in duck shooting season. Trout are fished for and in the weekends lakeside reserves like the Hora Hora Domain, which is the base for Karapiro Cruiser, are full of picnickers and boaties.
An effortless two-hour journey back to Auckland completed our indulgent little getaway to the sun, and had me vowing to spend more time here in the future.
Getting there: Karapiro is two hours' drive from Auckland.
Karapiro Cruiser: Hora Hora Domain, 2308 Maungatautari Rd, (just off SH1), Cambridge. Ph (07) 827 2055. Cruises daily at 10.30am and 1.30pm for minimum of 4 adults. Adults $45, children 5-14 $22.50, under-fives free.
Grey Street Kitchen: 355 Grey St, Hamilton East, (07) 959 1854.
Cate Foster and friend were guests of Karapiro Cruiser and Grey Street Kitchen.