The North Shore is a playground for footy fans seeking a break, writes Sarah Ell.

With the Fifa U-20 World Cup based at North Harbour's QBE Stadium for the next three weeks, now is a great opportunity to explore the Shore.

It is said that there are two types of Aucklanders: those who live on the Shore, and those who want to. There are also those who see it as a "bridge too far" — an uncharted expanse of suburbia tenuously connected to the rest of the city by a too-small, traffic-clogged motorway. But if you're making the scenic drive over the bridge and up the motorway to attend Fifa events, spend a bit of time exploring what the Shore has to offer.

Here are some of the best bits of the northeastern side of the city.

Go walking

If you want to see how the other half — or 1 per cent — live, check out the coastal walkway between Takapuna and Milford beaches. Some of Auckland's most expensive and desirable real estate is along this "golden mile". Reward yourself with a gourmet icecream, after braving the queues at the award-winning Takapuna Beach Cafe.

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Another great walk just north of the stadium is the Okura Bush walkway, which winds its way through stands of kauri to the Weiti River and historic Dacre Cottage. Or head up to the Te Ara Tahuna walkway and cycleway at the Orewa Estuary, from which you can enjoy not only views of the river but also the huge new suburbs being built at Millwater, just outside Silverdale. Who knew.

The Takapuna Beach Cafe. Photo / Babiche Martens
The Takapuna Beach Cafe. Photo / Babiche Martens

Go shopping

If you've got time for a spot of shopping before the game, Westfield Albany Mall is within kicking distance of the stadium. Further south, Milford Centre has had a spruce up for upmarket shopping, with Australian brands such as Witchery, Trenery and Veronika Maine, New Zealand labels like Andrea Moore and Moochi, and homewares brands such as Redcurrent and Citta Design. Great baking and coffee at the Vauxhall Cafe in the mall, or cross the road to the cool Little King cafe.

The Little King Cafe in Milford. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Little King Cafe in Milford. Photo / Dean Purcell

Go to the beach

The North Shore is, of course, all about beaches, so there are plenty to choose from. After the game, blow out the cobwebs and suck up some ozone at Long Bay Regional Park, a 10-minute drive from North Harbour Stadium. There's plenty of space to run on the sand, kick a ball in emulation of your football heroes, or go for a bush or clifftop coastal walk or mountain bike ride. Good playground for the kids, too.

An aerial view of Long Bay Regional Park. Photo / Martin Sykes
An aerial view of Long Bay Regional Park. Photo / Martin Sykes

Grab a coffee or a meal

It might seem like there are more cafes than people living on the North Shore — residents and visitors alike are spoiled for choice. There are plenty of good coffee spots in the beachside centres from Takapuna north, and a huge range of lunch or dinner options, especially around the stadium in Albany and in what is now marketed as Takapuna Beach. In the main strip, a new Ponsonby Central-style food alley Fortieth & Hurstmere has recently opened, and on the other side of the road is the cool Mackenzies food and retail precinct. And while you're at it, down by the beach three restaurants opened this summer — finally, beach-side dining we've all been craving. You need to keep up your energy to watch all that sport.

Bird On A Wire at Fortieth & Hurstmere, Takapuna. Photo / Supplied
Bird On A Wire at Fortieth & Hurstmere, Takapuna. Photo / Supplied

Go further north

If you've braved the bridge, you may as well go a bit further north up the motorway and check out Puhoi's little museum, historic pub and the Puhoi Valley cheese factory and cafe.

If the traffic is good and you are going to a later game, it's only half an hour north from Albany to Warkworth and the Matakana wine region, or it's a short drive to have a soak at the Waiwera Thermal Resort. The regional parks at Shakespear (end of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula), Wenderholm and Mahurangi West are also within an easy drive.

Puhoi Valley. Photo / Supplied
Puhoi Valley. Photo / Supplied

GrabOne on Shore

The kids were straight into the massive indoor playground, said to be the biggest in New Zealand.

If you can save money while checking out what the North Shore has to offer, so much the better. Even though I have lived on the North Shore all my life, having a GrabOne weekend meant we tried new things and made some great discoveries.

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I had been wanting to check out The Burger Bach in Takapuna, just along from the library in the Strand, so this was a great chance. It is just the place for a family Friday night dinner, with a friendly, casual atmosphere, Kiwiana fixtures and board games for the kids. We spent the few minutes waiting for our meals playing Battleship and Connect Four, before taking on our large, fresh and delicious burgers. It will be a great spot come summer, too, just up from the beach.

The following morning was rainy so we headed up to Paper Moon Cafe and Bar at Westfield Albany — just a penalty kick from the North Harbour Stadium.

Even though we were there early, the place was packed with regulars — the two ladies sitting beside us waved away the menus and ordered from memory. In a good spot next to the north-facing glass it doesn't feel like you are in the mall at all, but it's also handy to be able to duck to the supermarket afterwards without having to go out in the rain.

The rain setting in for the day, we decided to try out Xtreme Entertainment Wairau. This huge indoor entertainment centre, which includes a laser tag arena, dodgems, arcade games and tenpin bowling, was absolutely packed on a wet weekend afternoon. The kids were straight into the massive indoor playground, said to be the biggest in New Zealand. My 4-year-old son (presumably fuelled by his massive breakfast) took to it with the seriousness of a Krypton Factor contestant, exploring the many levels at high speed and diving over foam obstacles as if his life depended on it.

We then reserved a fluorescent lane for tenpin bowling, which turned into a deadly serious competition when it was revealed that Mum was a slightly better bowler than Dad. Our 2-year-old daughter acted as our cheer team, clapping and doing a little dance each time the pins fell.

After all this madness it was definitely time for some adults-only time, so we parked the kids with Nana and had a highly enjoyable dinner for two at GPK Albany. Again just a ball's-throw from the stadium — you can see it out the window — we settled in by the open fire for a quiet dinner and actual conversation.

Amazing! Just getting quiet time together was worth the value of the voucher alone. It was definitely a great weekend adventure in our own backyard.