Helen van Berkel discovers a cruisy way to learn about Auckland's waterways history.

Albany is named after the fourth son of Queen Victoria who died of haemophilia in 1888. Frank Larking built the Beachhaven beach by bringing buckets of sand from Hobsonville in his dinghy. There's a gun battery at Te Atatu. I did not know these little tidbits about the upper Waitemata Harbour until I went on a Red Boats cruise aboard the MV Hogwash from Westhaven to Riverhead.

Owner and skipper Andrew Somers peppers his commentary with interesting little facts, mostly garnered from Malcolm Hahn's book God Willing and Weather Permitting, a well-thumbed copy of which he keeps near at hand.

Somers has been plying the waters of the Hauraki Gulf for more than a decade and also has picked up little anecdotes from his passengers over the years, which he uses to keep his spiel lively.

I already knew the Auckland Harbour Bridge was a base for bungy jumpers so it wasn't that much of a shock when someone plummeted off the bridge as we tootled under its spans.


At the parks and reserves alongside the numerous wharves of the North Shore, picnickers and family groups were taking advantage of the warm but overcast afternoon. We picked our way past fishermen in small fibreglass boats and tin dinghies, most giving us a friendly wave.

A ship was unloading its cargo of sugar at the Chelsea sugar refinery - a self-contained little city at one time, Somers informs us, even the bricks its pinkish walls are made of were baked on site.

This route to the upper harbour was an important waterway in the days of early colonisation, used to transport everything from bricks and wheat to tobacco from the kilns and mills that lined inlets and creeks that snaked deep inland.

The shores where those pioneers once toiled are now lined with expensive, architecturally-designed homes mostly invisible from the roads but now open to our greedy gaze.

The harbour narrowed as we trundled towards the setting sun, the western shores reaching out to us.

The names of bays gave us an idea of their past importance: Limeburners Bay, where pottery and bricks were made. Catalina Bay and Bomb Bay are near the Hobsonville and Whenuapai airforce bases; we skirted Herald Island - named after the ship that brought Governor Hobson to New Zealand and learned about the origins of Albany, once known as Lucas Creek, the mouth of which is almost opposite Herald Island.

Our destination was The Riverhead, where owners Stephen and Paula Pepperell greeted us. We had a quick tour of the historic tavern, which they have renovated and updated into a classy yet relaxed riverside dining experience.

The carpark, full of people movers, 4WDs and heavily chromed, lovingly polished motorbikes gave a snapshot of the eclectic crowd this venue attracts. Every dining area was full - families enjoying a sunny afternoon mixing with tattooed youngsters and elderly couples.

The Riverhead cruise is tidal as it can access the wharf only around two hours of high tide. After our meals, it was a quieter ride back to the city, the setting sun casting a golden glow over the harbour behind us.

River tavern's a rocking place to eat

The chugga chugga of the small red boat erupted into a roar as we slid into Riverhead Tavern's wharf. A band filled the warm afternoon air with rock'n'roll.

The bar's lovely owner, Paula Pepperell, took us for a tour. She and her husband, Stephen, bought the tavern in 2010 and spent nine months doing it up. The roof leaked and it needed a lot of work. You wouldn't guess it now. A mix of marine artefacts and modern art gave the place a great vibe.

I liked the little signs in rocks on the path: "Don't let the children in the garden or we will give them an espresso and a puppy."

A large lawn was inhabited by drooling babies and children, who were warned by another sign: "Please don't wake the sleeping flowers."

To the right of the dining area was a flamegrill barbecue made from an old boiler. This was called Old Smoky. Another old boiler is now a pizza oven. Inside the tavern were separate dining areas: the Portage sports bar, equipped with a cool motorbike made from old tools, the Blue Room, the Boathouse, the Landing and Deacon's Kitchen, where we ate.

This gorgeous area had an amazing view of the river. Photos and artefacts about the tavern's history lined the walls. I ordered a mouthwatering meat-covered pizza and wedges. Mum had ribs. The menu was done up like an old newspaper with stories about Riverhead and the tavern.

By the time I finished the pizza I couldn't even try to eat the rest of the golden wedges.

Chef Paul Jobin greeted us halfway through the meal. The kitchen he helps run is named after Eliza and Thomas Deacon who built the tavern in the 1800s.

As we hopped aboard the Red Boat I heard an elderly group laughing as they fell on to the boat. My eyelids grew heavy as the boat rocked me to sleep.

- by Grace Jack, aged 12
Getting there: Red Boats can transport you from Westhaven to Riverhead. Phone 0800 Red Boats.

Where to eat: The Riverhead, cnr of Queen Street and York Terrace, Riverhead. Phone (09) 412 8902.