Colin McCahon's house reveals another side of Titirangi, says Liz Light.

In 1902 one could hire a wagonette and pair of horses, with driver, for a day trip to Titirangi to see giant kauri and view two oceans at the same time.

Describing the Manukau and Waitemata Harbours as oceans is somewhat grandiose, but I know what they meant.

Calling Hotel Titirangi, now Lopdell House, when it opened for business in 1930, a "castle on the fringe of heaven" also sounds overly exuberant. Though, if I let my imagination fly, the pink four-storey building, dominating the ridge, with its round pottery roof tiles and giant sycamore trees does, almost, resemble a small Spanish castle. And Titirangi, certainly, is the fringe of heaven, with cafe crowds dining at sunny pavement tables and tui filling the air with song on this still, blue day.

The grand vision of the owners of Hotel Titirangi was stymied by wowsers and the area remained stubbornly dry. Dances, balls and wild west-Auckland weekends were hard to attain when the pub had no beer. Though the accommodation part of the hotel ran at a loss, ends were met with the tearooms which, by the late-1930s, had seven tour buses a day arriving for afternoon tea.

World War II put paid to the hotel and the building became a school for the deaf, with 80 students. In 1960 the school moved to the city and Auckland Teachers College took over, using it for intensive residential courses. Hotel Titirangi was renamed Lopdell House after Frank Lopdell, superintendent of education.

For the past 25 years Lopdell House has been an arts and cultural centre with a theatre, conference centre, cafe and two excellent art galleries. Gallery exhibitions change every six weeks and there is a constant flurry of other activities; movie and music nights, poetry and literary evenings, art-house films, art workshops and funky courses on chocolate-making and creating jewellery from buttons.

The galleries are truly excellent and I have a fantasy about buying a granite and marble sculptural piece by Lauren Kitts. At $2100 it's a bargain, considering its beauty and the work that went into making it, but folk like me don't have money for art these days.

However, I do have the money for lunch at The Hardware Cafe. Here, imaginative food, including a terrific vegetarian selection, is surprisingly cheap and the barista enhances the ambience by tunefully singing to the reggae music that flows out the door. Plenty of others obviously think this cafe is terrific, too - it's buzzing.

Colin McCahon, arguably New Zealand's greatest painter, lived close by, down the hill near French Bay. He and wife Anne and their four children lived here from 1953 until 1960 and the house (open to the public) has been preserved much as it was when the family left it.

The house, down a steep path, dwarfed by surrounding nikau and kauri-filled bush, is tiny at 49sq m - not enough, I feel, for a family of six. There are three tiny rooms and a slip of a kitchen in the entry way. Poor long-suffering Anne; cooking was done on a little caravan oven with two elements and the small sink only had cold water. The children, who slept in the lounge when they were little, moved down a ladder through a hatch in the floor when they were older to bunks built under the house in what can't be called a room because it has no front wall. McCahon, apparently, thought that sleeping outside in all weathers was healthy, never mind the misery of Auckland's cold wet winters.

I'm horrified at the privations that living in this place would have entailed: these days, if children slept in such conditions the matter would soon be reported to welfare. McCahon painted in the lounge and, later, in a jerry-built roadside garage. In the early Titirangi years, word paintings with existential and religious concerns were prominent. Later, in the French Bay series, topics were more aesthetic and concerned with bush, hills, forests and water. These paintings were described by his friend and patron, Charles Brasch, as being "a kind of brilliant prismatic dance".

In 1958, with the help of a scholarship, McCahon and Anne went to the US for four months. Besides changing his art forever, the journey changed his feelings for French Bay. He wrote: "We went home to the bush of Titirangi. It was cold and dripping and shut in ... My lovely kauris became too much for me." Before long the family moved to the city.

I ponder that the cold, cramped McCahon house is a world away from the sunny, happy frivolity up on the ridge where it does feel as if it's the fringe of heaven.

Lopdell House, open daily 10am-4.30pm.

McCahon French Bay House, open 10am-2pm Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Hardware Cafe, 404 Titirangi Rd, open 7am-5pm Monday and Tuesday, 7am-10pm Wednesday to Sunday.