Hawke's Bay's bike trails are flat and hard-packed, making easy riding for all the family, writes Phil Taylor.
Two bikes on top, two more on the back, the golf clubs stowed (in case of a rainy day) and multiple bags and presents in the boot, a fresh selection of CDs loaded and we were off from Auckland to Hawkes Bay via an overnight in Rotorua.
We were visiting family for Christmas but also planned to make the most of the Bay's network of 187km of flat cycle trails, plus a few of its other delights.
These trails are as family-friendly as you will find among the 21 Great Rides throughout the country — ideal for daughter Billie, 11, to try out her first proper mountain bike.
Limestone from the hills behind Havelock North make for an excellent riding surface and the white grit looks great against the green land and pale blue sky. In fact, the surface was so good I could ride my carbon fibre road bike comfortably enough and at a pace only a kilometre an hour or two slower than on sealed roads.
On our first day, I did the 85km road loop, heading south along the Tukituki valley to the tiny town of Elsthorpe, past the road that leads to the late Sir Paul Holmes' beautiful olive orchard, and back north on the other side of the Tukituki River along Middle Road, which runs all the way back to the centre of Havelock.
In three hours I saw no more than a dozen cars; a perfect antidote to city riding. Three kilometres from town I spotted the family on their bikes swinging into Birdwoods Gallery and Sweet Shop, spurred no doubt by the famous family sweet tooth.
The gallery's home is the original church hall from St Peter's in Waipawa dating from the late 1800s, which Bruce and Louise Stobart moved to its new location in 2004.
The sweet shop is housed in a cute cottage alongside and stocks traditional confectionery such as aniseed wheels, while the gallery sells African and local arts and crafts. The Stobarts emigrated after being forcibly removed from their farm in Zimbabwe, but still provide work for people they employed on the farm by selling their sculptures at Birdwoods.
While the brood scoured the lolly jars, I opted for a well-earned coffee and cake in the beautiful grounds.
Next day, I hopped on to the trail near the foot of Te Mata Road and rode linking trails via Haumoana, Clive and west to meet the family 40km away at Taradale. From there we planned to ride the trail leading to the back-country Puketapu tavern for lunch.
I'd noticed the sky darken over the hills and sure enough, soon after we linked up, the heavens opened and soaked us to the skin just short of the pub. I skedaddled back to Taradale and the car via a sealed road leaving wife Jo with Flynn and Billie to make the most of the mountain bike conditions, which the kids did by belting through every puddle. Flynn made several runs through the deepest, raising an impressive rooster tail of water.
We loaded the bikes, spread towels on the carseats, picked up coffees and hot chocolates at the Golden Arches and drove off, warm, soaked and cheerful.
I texted a picture to cycling mates of my mud-spattered bike on the trail with the line: "Grit, (cow)s*** and rain: Hawkes Bay Roubaix." A bit of licence, as the limestone and odd cow pat hardly compare to the lethal cobblestones of the old Roman roads used in the ancient spring classic, Paris-Roubaix. That said, there are a few spots on lesser-ridden parts of the trails that could do with a bit of maintenance.
Usual sunny Bay weather soon resumed and subsequent rides were under broad, clear skies. On one such day, the family assisted by a welcome tailwind rode the 25km from the National Aquarium on Napier's Marine Pde (where Billie swam with the sharks and stingrays) back to Havelock on trails that passed through the Evers-Swindell Reserve in Clive (renamed last year to honour Hawkes Bay's double Olympic champion twin rowers, Georgina and Caroline) and by a coffee stall set up in a paddock by an enterprising farmer.
Billie rated the shark frolic one of the best experiences of her busy 11 years and said her nerves disappeared once she was in the tank and realised the inhabitants didn't consider such a small snorkeller a worthy lunch. It should be added that the snorkellers were mightily reassured to be told of the aquarium's practice of feeding the sharks immediately before the punters hop in. While the dead-eyed sharks thrilled, a huge stingray provided the highlight by rising up and skimming past her tummy.
"They usually stay flolloping around near the bottom," said Billie, impressed.
NEED TO KNOW
Hawke's Bay loves its biking events: Bicycle Belles (and blokes) will be cycling along Marine Parade on old bikes, deco duds and with plenty of refreshment stops as part of February's Art Deco Weekend.
Easter's Big Easy on the trails is the ultimate antidote to any serious lycra-laden cycling event with a 43km meander from Havelock North finishing at a concert at Church Road Winery, Taradale, with plenty of eats and drinks along the way.