The trip to Riverhead Tavern is all part of the experience, writes Cate Foster.
There's a lot in a name. I somehow feel it would difficult to get excited about visiting a Pratts' Bottom or a Bleak Hill, but Riverhead; that's a different story. Redolent of romance, the name fairly invites exploration and that is exactly what I intended to do. Situated on the furthest navigable reach of the upper Waitemata, since earliest times Riverhead has been important for both Maori and settlers alike as the narrowest portage point between the Waitemata and the Kaipara. To us in the 21st century who no longer need to drag a waka 12km across country, we can only rejoice in the fact that our forebears decided that a watering hole was a necessity after all that effort, and in 1876 built a tavern on the spot and issued the second licence in the country to keep things legal.
Today, after many years of neglect, the newly renovated Riverhead Tavern stands proud on its promontory. This hasn't always been the case, as new owners Paula and Stephen Pepperell discovered, when looking for a hospitality business to buy into a year ago. Subject to a mortgagee sale and in dire need of total refurbishment, the building itself, to say nothing of the re-creation of the business, was a daunting prospect. Rather than being put off however, they rolled up their sleeves and pitched in. Eventually, with the help of old family friend, Garry Dunn, they have produced an institution which, only a few weeks after reopening for business, is well on the way towards reclaiming a position in the local as well as wider Auckland community as a happy place to wile some leisure hours away.
On the day I visited, from the moment I embarked on Cath Meehan and Paul Meyer's quaint green and white Riverhead Ferry in the Viaduct for my 1 1/2 hour cruise up the harbour, everything conspired to make this a memorable occasion. It was a miraculous Indian summer's day, with the sun shining, the wind non-existent and the tide perfect. This last point is surprisingly crucial because Riverhead is the furthest point up harbour a boat can travel and even then only if the tide is high.
Chugging at a steady eight knots we saw a perspective of the Auckland waterfront many of us never imagine. Under the harbour bridge we went, past the Chelsea Sugar Works and up into the reaches of the Upper Waitemata with very little on the water apart from us, the tall ship Soren Larsen and a jet-boat full of tourists looping the loop. Shags, seagulls and even a pair of godwits crossed our bows, though the bronze whalers who used to hang out at what is now called Kendall Bay have long passed into history.
Docking at Riverhead I was met by Paula, and while Stephen went off to talk boat talk with Paul, got a quick guided tour of the tavern. I wasn't disappointed. Although 14 tonnes of gib was needed to make the building fireproof, faded painted kauri weatherboards reused as indications of cladding and Garry's sculptures of recycled machine parts retrieved from the building site somehow link the past to the present in a very pleasing way.
Pleasing too was my lunch of breast of duck salad and glass of rose on the deck overlooking the river, but all too soon the tide called and we all scurried down to the steps to re-embark for our journey home. I was so happy with my day that I've already booked the same table for Mother's Day. I've got a feeling it will busy.
Riverhead Ferry: $38 adults, $20 children, free pre-schoolers. Times and dates are tide dependent, every second weekend from May 7. Call Cath Meehan on (09) 376 0819 or 021 171 1346; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Riverhead Tavern: The Landing lounge, bar and restaurant, The Portage sports bar. Open Mon-Sat 11am-late, Sunday 9am-late. To book a meal or for an ever-changing range of events phone (09) 412 8902 or contact email@example.com.
Other things to do around Riverhead:
Riverhead Hall Market Day Held four times a year at the Riverhead Citizens Hall. 1011 Coatesville-Riverhead Highway. The next one is on June 5, 9am-1pm.
Kauri Gum Store Cafe, 22 School Rd, Riverhead, ph (09) 412 9555. The place to go for a country-sized breakfast among a variety of locally sourced objects of interest.