Deb Faith enjoys a perfect winter getaway in Northland.
If you're fond of sand dunes and salty air ... well whenever we head up north there's always a soundtrack - for me Herbs or Crowded House usually does it. Beethoven or Bee Gees for my partner.
There is always a sense of returning and this time we're headed to Coopers Beach in Doubtless Bay, about four and a half hours' drive north of Auckland. And to the best box outside the square - a motel called San Marino Motor Lodge. It's a smallish, two-storey concrete block, more a rectangle really; and right on the beach.
Irene and Graeme moved in as managers in October last year and Graeme was hosing down his new boat when we arrived this time- he'd just taken it out fishing and got an amazing feed.
Irene takes you down to your room; you round a corner and there's the sea. Wide blue and enough sparkles to knock your socks off.
In fact that's the first thing that goes - socks and shoes. Then unpack... books on bedside table, food and wine in fridge. Look around. It's a box: kitchen, bathroom at one end and ranch sliders opening on to the view at the other.
Best place to look at it all: the bed. Positioned unashamedly in the middle of the box - facing seaward. We survey our inner kingdom.
Now, food gathering. Irene's given us directions: 10 minutes' walk along the beach, cut through the kids' playground and you're at the new Four Square. It's an amazement - artisan breads, dips and sauces, organic this and that, great fruit and veg. Busy as.
But if you can't be bothered, just across the road is Out Of The Blue - highly recommended by Irene. It's a fish 'n chip shop, kind of, but there are no fish prices on the board or fish on the menu. Burgers, toasties, oysters, paua and potato fritters, steaks and salads.
We watched the locals coming in while we got the hang of it. Fish by the weight from the counter - whatever had been caught that day. You can eat in, with wine or beer from the bar; but we opted for the paper-wrapped takeaways on the beach. Tasted sensational.
Then a slow amble home and collapsing in bed early with ocean soundtrack. Up here we both sleep deeply for 10 hours or so every night. Bliss.
Next morning we're keen as mustard tourists and head straight to Mangonui for coffee. The old post office there has had many incarnations as a cafe and this current one is really good. Great homemade cakes and goodies and excellent coffee.
Mangonui's lovely to wander around. The old village winds along the sheltered little harbour and still has many of the old buildings.
On Saturday mornings there's a local craft market and we always stock up on handmade cards and plum jam. Just ask for Dorothy. There is of course the world-famous Mangonui Fish Shop and my best time for that is early evening with a half of dark ale.
But today we're headed to the northern end of Doubtless Bay: Karikari Peninsula. Both of us have seen this area go through many changes over the past few decades. Must haves for me always: Rangiputa with its glaringly white sand; and Puheke where we walk for over an hour.
Then on to Karikari Estate Vineyard and Winery for views and lunch. We had the wine-tasting platter with ours - mini amounts of gorgeous wines suggested and served by knowledgeable staff. You invariably sit outside wherever you go in Northland 'cos it's so warm; and our table looked out over where we'd just walked.
Time to hit the road again and we meander home for a lie down before dinner. Well why wouldn't you?
Dinner tonight is exotic and one of our favourites - the Thai Chef's Restaurant in Mangonui, a few minutes' drive. The food is mouth-wateringly good and they do big helpings so we always over-order and swear not to next time. We get doggie bags.
Back home at San Marino the night sky is chokka with stars and we decide to have the next two days just sprawling around at the motel.
Coopers Beach is long and lined with pohutukawa trees. I imagine in the summer it'd be packed as it's a perfect beach for kids and families - you just set up camp under a tree and that's you for the day.
We're here in winter and it's wonderfully quiet. There's something that happens when you have a peaceful ocean to stare at. Nothing. For hours on end.
Yeah books to read, things to eat; you know the groove. Sleeping like lazy cats.
If you want to explore there's tonnes to see and we've done just that on other trips. Once you're up this far, everything's close - even Cape Reinga is less than a day there and back.
But if you want something a little outside the square and you're on a budget, for my money you can't do better than to hole up at San Marino for a few days. It's heaven.
AT THE BAY
Where to stay: San Marino Motor Lodge, San Marino Dr, Coopers Beach, Doubtless Bay. Phone: (09) 406 0345 or 0800 726 627.
Where to eat: Thai Chef's Restaurant, 80 Waterfront Drive, Mangonui. Phone: 09 406 1220.
Karikari Estate Vineyard and Winery, Matai Bay Rd, Karikari Peninsula. Phone: (09) 408 7222.
Out of the blue, Coopers Beach Shopping Centre. Ph: (09) 406 0002.