Danielle Wright discovers the dramatic drive to Manukau Heads Lighthouse along a winding road through Awhitu Peninsula.

The sea is unsettled where the worst shipping disaster in New Zealand's history took place. We're at Manukau Heads Lighthouse overlooking the spot where almost 190 lives were lost when the HMS Orpheus ran aground in 1863.

Back then, you didn't need to know how to swim to join the navy and drowning was known as the "New Zealand death" or "colonial death" because it was so common. Sadly, the average age of the sailor was 25. Some were as young as 12 "learning the ropes" when the ship sank.

The lighthouse overlooks the wild Tasman Sea and the peaceful Manukau Harbour, protected by the peninsula. There are also views to the Waitakere Ranges and on a clear day, as far down as Mt Taranaki. If you're lucky, the world's rarest and smallest marine dolphin, the Maui dolphin, might be playing in the West Coast surf below.

The small, squat lighthouse was the first of its design in New Zealand. Many copied its wooden design in the years after it was built in 1874. It was also the first to burn kerosene, which meant its light source could be seen a great distance away, but it didn't blink until the 1920s.

The drive here is past pretty Pukekohe paddocks then through historic Waiuku until signs to the lighthouse clearly show the way to the tip of the peninsula. The Sky Tower pokes through in the distance and a whole new perspective on Auckland can be seen as we drive past trees so windswept they are growing almost horizontally and hills so green and so rolling they give us vertigo. Slivers of sea break through the green.

On arrival, a couple in a vintage car circles the car park. They call to us and tell us of an old sailing ship cruising up the coast.

"The lighthouse is a great place to view old ships as they sail out of Auckland," they shout through what was once a bustling passage.

On the way out, we drive back past around a dozen vintage cars of all ages and condition, as well as a group of bikies in black leather jackets crowded together taking happy snaps at the viewing platform.

Even on a winter's day the drive is worthwhile.

As Paul Dixon, a local historian who runs guided lighthouse tours, says: "Winter is lighthouse weather and Manukau Heads Lighthouse is the most amazing place to be in a big storm.

"It's also one of the only lighthouses in New Zealand that you can climb to the top of and pretend you're a keeper for the afternoon."

Awhitu means "place of longing" in Maori. With breathtaking views, good sealed roads and a historic, beautifully restored lighthouse to reward you at the end, it's no wonder it has become such a favourite Sunday drive destination, and a place we will be longing to return to.

* A special re-lighting ceremony takes place on Saturday June 18 at 5.15pm. Children will hold colourful lanterns and lead a parade. Or visit any time from 9am until 5pm. Dogs not permitted because of working farm location. Entry by donation. Call Guiding Lights for Paul Dixon's guided tour: (09) 235 1458.

* Stop off at the Pollock Co-op, a co-operative of six local artists that stocks paintings, glassware, fabric art, woodware, organic preserves and free-range produce. A sculpture garden next door has coffee and art for sale. Open during winter Thursday to Monday 10am-4pm.

Getting there: The lighthouse is 104km from Auckland CBD. Take the motorway to Drury, then through Waiuku. From there it's 45 minutes to the lighthouse. Signs are clearly marked and it's around 1 hour and 45 minutes one way.