Arts, crafts, history, the natural world and jam and cream play important roles, writes Nicola McCloy in her new book.
Driving north out of Mangōnui brings you onto the southern reaches of Doubtless Bay.
The townships of Coopers Beach and Cable Bay seem to merge into each other as you head west on State Highway 10 towards Awanui.
About 5km out of Taipa, you'll see a sign for Matthews Vintage Collection. This is a great place to have a good poke around, especially if it's a rare rainy day in Northland, as it's mostly under cover. The Matthews of the collection is Win Matthews and he's amassed an amazing array of old tractors, specialising in Farmalls, along with a wide range of stationary engines and vintage cars. If you favour something a little more domestic, Win has plenty of household appliances on display too — just listen for the cries of "Oh god, we used to have one of those!"
Back on the road and up the coast a little bit, you'll see a sign pointing off down the Karikari Peninsula. If you've got time, go and explore it. If you're in a hurry, keep driving but make a mental note to come back; it would be a shame to miss out on this little slice of Northland.
After a refreshing swim at Karikari, we found ourselves briefly back on SH1, but thankfully that didn't last long — we hooked through Kaitāia and out to the coast at Ahipara. All musings over whether we should be heading north to Cape Rēinga were muted as we sat at the Awanui intersection watching a convoy of campervans head north.
Ahipara sits at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach and is an old-school beachside haven. It has a permanent population of around 1000, but that swells during the holiday season. There's a mixture of traditional baches, modest homes and grander dwellings that hint at the diverse range of people who spend their time here.
The beach clearly dominates life in the town, and the day we visited a large group of youngsters were out learning to surf while their parents watched on from the sand. There's a famous left-hand surf break just off here, so those kids are bound to be absolute pros in no time.
After a good stroll at the beach (complete with sand exfoliating treatment; it was quite windy) we stopped in at the North Drift Cafe. Their cabinet food was something to behold, but we went for what we thought was a fairly modest choice — a date scone. When I say "we", this thing was too big for one person to tackle alone. It arrived warmed with jam, cream and butter, and even shared, it provided a challenge. It was delicious, but it did make me worry a little how mammoth their burgers must be.
From Ahipara, we went bush, quite literally — the road from here winds through the massive Herekino Forest. The forest is managed by DoC and is snaked with walking tracks that may just see you encounter North Island brown kiwi, long-tailed bats and kauri snails.
Passing through the small townships of Herekino and Broadwood, the road winds its way bumpily towards the Hokianga Harbour. The signs pointing towards former school sites along the way hint at the area's previous, bigger population.
After skirting along a mangrove swamp for quite some time we arrived at the historic village of Kohukohu. The town has a gallery featuring the work of local artists and craftspeople and a cafe I'm told is excellent; we didn't have time to find out for ourselves as we'd cut it fine to make the ferry across the harbour to Rāwene. We made it onboard with moments to spare and enjoyed sitting upstairs taking in our first proper view of this magnificent harbour.
Rāwene was bright and bustling with people. Apparently the third oldest European settlement in New Zealand, Rāwene seems quite at ease with its history. The old post office, the courthouse and several heritage homes have all been beautifully maintained.
On the corner of the main street sits No. 1 Parnell, a gallery and cafe that features the work of local artists as well as housing Buddha Books, a small secondhand bookstore. The gallery also hosts exhibitions, openings and other events so it's well worth popping in to find out what's happening in the local art world.
Another local gallery worth a visit is the Tony Bridge Gallery — the artist produces exquisite photography and digital art. It's just along from the popular (but sadly closed when we visited) Boatshed Cafe. Clearly inspired by his local landscape, Bridge is a master of his craft. For keen photographers, he also runs workshops around the country to share his invaluable knowledge.
Leaving Rāwene, we wound our way towards the mouth of the harbour and the twin townships of Opononi and Ōmāpere. The two towns each have a distinct character, Opononi being a bit busier and Ōmāpere a bit more chilled out, despite the fact it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. They both sit looking out towards the magnificent sand dunes on the other side of the harbour.
These dunes can be reached by water taxi from Opononi and a favourite pastime for visitors is flying down them on boogie boards into the water. Given I'm a bit accident prone, we decided to see another wonderful local site — the Waipoua Forest. Before we get there, though, we decide to have a bit of a splurge with our accommodation and book into the Copthorne Hotel and Resort Hokianga. The hotel sits right next to the Ōmāpere wharf and along a sweep of beach. It's the perfect spot from which to explore this part of the Hokianga.
Karikari Peninsula is probably best known as the home of Carrington Estate, which has a vineyard, a golf course, a restaurant and a luxury hotel. If your budget doesn't stretch to a stay here, the next best thing is a visit to the Carrington Winery, where you can enjoy a platter of regional produce while sampling the estate's wines.
The peninsula's coast is dotted with beautiful beaches and bays. You pretty much can't go wrong out here. We headed to the end of the road to the twin horseshoes of Mataī Bay and Waikato Bay. There's a small DoC campground at Mataī Bay if you can't tear yourself away from the blue water and golden sand of this stunning spot. There's a short walkway between the two beaches so you can take your pick of whichever is more sheltered or less busy.
• Edited extract from Let's Get Lost, by Nicola McCloy, published by Penguin Random House, $45