Elisabeth Easther takes a journey back in time to a small town steeped in history.

Where is it?

On SH16, 40km northwest of Auckland.

Origin of the name: Originally called Te Awaroa, Maori for The Longer River Path. Later, when Scottish timber miller John McLeod named his house Helen's Villa (in honour of his wife), the name eventually stuck for the entire town.

Population: 2880.


Town slogan: Helensville: Yours to Discover.

Town icon: The Kaipara River runs through town and flows out to Kaipara Harbour.

Notable locals: Helensville is Prime Minister John Key's electorate, though he doesn't live there. Flora Thirkettle, born in 1928, was the country's first female commercial fisherperson; she still lives here today and is known as the Queen of Kaipara. Philanthropist Alan Gibbs has his farm out this way, famous for its epic sculptures, views and wildlife; sometimes it's open to the public so keep your eyes peeled as his property has to be seen to be believed.

It's all about location: Parts of Mahana, starring Temuera Morrison, were filmed in and around Helensville.

Best website: helensville.co.nz.

Big business: Jucy Rentals, the campervan people, are based right beside the river. Hot Spring Spas also have their HQ in Helensville

Source of pride: The community spirit, everyone pitches in and helps out — although locals can't go to the supermarket in a hurry because they have to stop and chat as they shop.

Town fiestas: The annual A&P show is a huge event, with all the traditional joys of a country fair. The Lions Club's Running of the Roses is a very popular fundraiser. The Parakai Market, held every other Sunday, is getting bigger and bigger and there are also quite a few burn-out competitions, if you're that way inclined.

Here for a short time: Walk the scenic river walk, then stop in at the Pioneer Village or the Railway Museum. Helensville is heaven for history buffs and, despite being so close to Auckland, it feels like a world (and several decades) away.

Kids love: Aside from the Railway Museum and the Pioneer Village (we'll get to them later), the old train engine outside the station is perfect for climbing on and for photo opportunities. Or, for the food-fancying kid, every month at Parakai's old pub there's a kids' cooking day where, for $5, kids are taught to cook a simple meal and learn the basics of fresh, fun and healthy food.

Best play areas: Up by the college on Rautawhiri Rd, you'll find a big playground with climbing things, monkey bars, swings, netball courts, fields and a skate park. Or just outside Parakai hot pools there's a big green space with all the usual equipment for play, plus mature trees for lounging beneath.

Best walk: The darling Riverside Walk is a 45-minute wander along the — you guessed it — banks of the Kaipara River. With information panels dotted along the path, learn a bit about local history, stop for a picnic and keep your eyes peeled for laden fig trees.

Best view: Check into the Grand Awaroa Hotel and look out at the hills from the communal kitchen — pastoral gorgeousness.

Best place to pull over: Just north of the Kaipara Sculpture Gardens entrance is a scenic rest area strategically placed for admiring the shining harbour.

Best swim: Parakai Springs has indoor and outdoor pools, private spas, two hydro slides and lots of land to spread out and enjoy an aquatic day. The sight of parachuters floating down to earth is really quite surreal. Also in Parakai, the geothermal Palm Springs has been revamped, and provides accommodation if you want to make a weekend of it.

Best beach swim: Shelly Beach, about 20 minutes out of town, is divine or, if you want a stretch of sand all to yourself, head for magnificent Muriwai.

Best museum:

The Railway Museum tells the story of the area's rail history going back to 1875 when the first tracks were laid. Or visit the Pioneer Village, featuring historic buildings, an extensive photo collection and other treasures. It's open afternoons on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.

Nice arts: Twenty minutes out of town, heading north, you'll come to the Kaipara Coast Plant Centre and Sculpture Gardens. This rural delight has the most amazing outdoor art collection that changes each year. Aside from the extensive grounds and incredible vistas, there's also an excellent cafe.

Arty facts: Plenty of artists live out this way, including Jeff Thomson, who does amazing things with corrugated iron. To find out more about local art life, visit the Helensville Community Arts Centre in the basement of the War Memorial Hall on Commercial Rd.

Top shop: The second-hand shop in the foyer of the old Regent Cinema is packed to the gunwales with groovy things from portable typewriters to ostrich eggs, soda siphons to vintage kimonos.

Cream of the coffee: The Ginger Crunch Cafe, housed in the old railway station, is always a winner. Or check out the Art Stop Cafe and Gallery where you're also guaranteed a fine brew — plus they're attached to the Information Centre, which doubles as the library and bookshop.

Baked: Be sure to check out the pies at the bakery by the Grand Hotel.

Best food: Everyone raves about Ginger Crunch Cafe, from their fine array of cabinet food to the blackboard meals. The burgers are divine, the milkshakes massive and the interior is endearingly charming.

Wet your whistle: Grand Awaroa Hotel has a welcoming bar with indoor and outdoor areas for whiling away a few hours. Or pop into the Kaipara Tavern (aka The KT). Thursday night is bike night, where motorcycle enthusiasts can show off their bikes while a DJ entertains.

Wanna sleep over? The recently refurbished Grand Awaroa Hotel sits on a prominent corner as you enter town from the north and is a character in its own right. With rooms from as little as $65 per night, the sweeping staircase makes quite an impression. Enjoy a meal in the formal dining room where fish and steak are specialities.

Float your boat: Enjoy an historic cruise with Kaipara Cruises. Options include half-day, full day and even a two-day adventure, with a night spent in Dargaville.

Best adventures: Helensville is a popular base for fishing, kayaking and horse riding. Woodhill Forest isn't far away either, accessed via Rimmer Rd, for four-wheel driving, paintball, mountain biking and Tree Adventures.

Some people say: Helensvllle is just like Motat, only it's real life.