Danielle Wright walks through history in a picturesque seaside village in the Far North.

The last time we visited Mangonui, we came to try the world-famous-in-NZ fish shop. It didn't disappoint, until, on our way further into town, we saw the second fish shop - the more famous one. Darn it!

This time, after watching the fishing boats unload their catch, we head straight for the Mangonui Fish Shop where there's a wall of celebrity signatures and even a photo of Sir Peter Blake enjoying his fish 'n chips, giving it the thumbs-up. We know we're in the right place.

On a summer's day, the shop must be heaving with hungry holidaymakers. Today, however, stormy weather means there are only a few of us, playing a sort of musical chairs to stop getting dripped on.

A lady nearby tells us about the water coming through the floorboards at high tide and about a friendly seal who falls asleep and knocks into the building. At night, kids are able to spot fish and stingrays in the water from the window. It's not gourmet, but it is fun.


After dinner, we head to our accommodation, Mabel's, a tiny cottage on the waterfront at Mill Bay. It's almost 150 years old, but thanks to owner Richard Dunbar, it is spotlessly clean, flawlessly renovated and so charming.

It's named, like the street it sits on, after Mabel Thorburn, who was the granddaughter of Margaret Rosieur, known to all as "Granny Rosieur", a local midwife who lived in the cottage in the late 1800s. It's nice to see the cottage has been as well-loved as its past inhabitants.

Mangonui has a fascinating history and a quick drive around the bay to the Butler Wharf Whaling Museum will give you some understanding of the significance of the region and its place in lighting the cities of the world with sought-after whale oil.

It's here whalers from France, Britain, Australia, America and Portugal swapped pipes, beads, mirrors, blankets and fish hooks, while waiting for a man at the top of a boat's mast to spot a whale's blowhole, signalling the start of an often dangerous, yet thrilling, whaling adventure.

To find out more about the town's history, we walk the heritage trail. There are many viewing seats, interesting signs pointing out quirky facts about historic buildings and beautiful views of the pa sites across the water. We reach St Andrew's Church and the little cemetery, where we notice one much cared-for grave with a photo of a lady in the snow with two dogs and the inscription: "You did make a difference." Next to the grave are flowers and a colourful pinwheel, spinning furiously in the wind. Even still, I am glad to finally get free and make it to the Mangonui School next door, where our children are amazed to see one room housed the whole school, with juniors taught at one end and seniors at the other.

Today, the school is much larger and has everything a child's imagination could want - a giant whale coming out of the sandpit, a whaleboat playground, a well-stocked library, a fruit and vegetable patch and climbing frames under giant pohutukawas.

It takes us three hours to walk the trail, a great way to get to know the town - so much more than a fish shop on the main street. You could do it in an hour and a half, but we stopped to skim stones and climb rocks, as well as for the luckiest lucky dip at the local newsagents, a milkshake at The Baker Man and a look at the art and craft market, where our kids are given free jaffas (we don't mention we're from Auckland).

Before we leave, we take Mabel's little white rowboat out into the bay and collect large, perfectly shaped shells, while planning our return visit.

There's something about a quaint fishing village that always captures my heart and, as the lady behind the counter at The Baker Man says: "It's nice and quiet: peaceful, just the way we like it."


Stay at Mabel's, 14 Mabel Thorburn Place, Mangonui. Ph (09) 406 0040

Eat at Mangonui Fish Shop, 137 Waterfront Drive, Mangonui. Ph (09) 406 0478.

Buy handcrafted New Zealand greenstone by Cliff Ashby at the Mangonui market in the hall every Saturday. Ph (09) 406 2096.

Visit Butler Point Whaling Museum, Hihi. Ph 0800 MUSEUM, viewing by appointment only.

Danielle Wright travelled with the help of Destination Northland.