It's a bewildering experience, that first half-hour drive on the highway north of Napier, finds Jamie Morton.

Beyond the turn-off to Hawkes Bay Airport, State Highway 2 hugs the coast, bringing travellers past a blue-green Pacific Ocean and a pebbled beach that snakes all the way to sheer brown headlands in the distance.

Then the land begins to rise around you, climbing all the way to the heights of Kaiwaka.

Up there, you find yourself leaning into the sharp 25km/h turns along the side of a high, dramatic valley blanketed in pine, that cuts inland as far as a bend quite appropriately named the Devil's Elbow.

All of this, however, can't prepare you for the moment you're delivered smack into one of the most gorgeous corridors of the North Island's East Coast.

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Lake Tutira leaps at you from your left, presenting a vast mirror to the sheep and scrub on tremendous ridges that loom above it.

On a perfectly still day, all that might stir the water are the black swans that live among the weeping willows fringing the lake's grassy shore.

On warm summer afternoons during childhood holidays in Hawkes Bay, our grandmother would take us here to picnic and swim, just as she might have done as a girl.

Her father, Harry Bourke, not long returned from the battlefields of France and Belgium, found the place a peaceful world to raise a family in and bash out a livelihood amid Tutira's bushy back-blocks.

It seemed to play on my great-grandfather's poetic side, prompting him to pen a little piece that opened: "Like a child at rest in its mother's arms, Tutira Lake lies dreaming; the hills embrace its tender charms, and understand their meaning."

The earthly magic of Tutira also captured the imagination of the man whose name is synonymous with the lake, Herbert Guthrie-Smith.

The famed conservationist and naturalist wrote how some spots on Earth inspired in their owners a "very special affection, an occult sympathy betwixt the elementals of the soil and those who touch its surface with their feet".

Guthrie-Smith's 1921 work, Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station, lives on with international acclaim as a classic of ecological writing, while in the district, his legacy remains in the bird sanctuary that surrounds the lake and a 20,000-tree aboretum near his beautifully crafted former homestead.

A century-old cottage that was originally built for his gardener has also been preserved, and today offers visitors one of the most intimate opportunities to experience the tranquillity that is Tutira.

Once used as a shepherd's quarters, it has been resited alongside a charming old totara-cladded woolshed above a field overlooking Lake Waikopiro, which was manually separated from Lake Tutira at its southern end.

This serene setting also happened to be where the first homestead dwelling was built in the 1860s, when Tutira was settled by Europeans.

The cottage and the woolshed have been lovingly restored by their owners, long-time Tutira locals Blue and Helen McMillan.

Their two-bedroom cottage, surrounded by rose bushes and a constant symphony of native birdsong, is the perfect antidote for too many hard weeks at the office.

In summer, you can perch out on the porch with a cool glass of cider and take in the stunning view, as quail and geese mill around before you on the lakefront.

In winter, when ghostly, early morning mists creep across the lake, you can while away evenings beside the fire in a homey, tastefully decorated lounge, with a good book and mug at hand.

The nature lover is also spoiled in a choice of walks around the area.

A trail that winds around the lake and reserve lies just a few metres from the cottage's front gate, and you can easily waste an hour or two heading out for a wander beside the water and through a camping ground.

A short drive can take you to the nationally treasured Boundary Stream Reserve, defined in 1976 within an 800ha mainland island, and home to abundant native birdlife including kokako, brown kiwi and the North Island robin.

The jewel of this back-country park might be Shine Falls, which sends water gushing nearly 58m over a rocky cliff into a shallow pool below.

The marvel, strangely seldom referenced in tourist guidebooks, is reachable with an easy 40-minute walk across farmland and through native bush.

A coffee at the Waikare Hotel, 10 minutes' drive north of Tutira, or a swim at sheltered, sandy Waipatiki Beach, about half-an-hour's drive southward, offer other options for short excursions.

But really, for a real escape, there's no better place to be than at the lake itself. Just a week's stay here and, as Guthrie-Smith put it, you'll have a very special affection for it indeed.

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Getting there: A five-hour drive from Auckland (via the Thermal Explorer Highway) or a 30-minute drive from Napier (north on State Highway 2).

Details: Tutira Cottage can be found at Lake Tutira in Hawkes Bay and is available year-round. Includes two bedrooms (one queen-size bed, one double bed and a single). Barbecue, linen, electric blanket, firewood, washing machine, fridge, microwave and kitchen equipment provided. Contact Blue and Helen McMillan on (06) 839 7827 (evenings best time). Can be booked online.

For more information: Visit hawkesbaynz.com