Liz Light finds Tutukaka living up to the high expectations of it.
A survey in National Geographic Traveller chose the Tutukaka coast when listing the world's top three coastal areas. And, Jacques Cousteau considered the Poor Knights Islands, just off the coast, to be one of the world's best diving sites.
It's curious that this area, applauded internationally for its beauty, is just a couple of hours from Auckland and yet many of us scarcely know it's there. It's time I headed north.
The drought is over and Northland is a million shades of lush green. In contrast, Ngunguru, with its estuary and wide sky, is many hues of blue. The town, a mix of posh beach houses and faded baches, straggles along the estuary. We park next to a line of upside-down dinghies and walk to the entrance. A breeze makes bunny-tails bob and spinifex roll.
Oystercatchers and gulls feed in the shallows and Whangarei Heads is a dusky purple shadow across the blue bay.
Just before Tutukaka, we turn right and explore the rocky peninsula that separates it from Ngunguru. It's a spectacular piece of hilly geography, surrounded by sea and laced with alternating bays and rocky headlands.
As luck has it there is an outrigger canoe competition at Kowharewa Bay. There are eight canoe clubs participating and canoes, from cigar-like 10-seaters to one-seater slithers, line the beach. Reggae floats across the bay between race announcements and wahine and warriors compete furiously, followed by after-race handshaking and hugging.
The road ends at crescent-shaped Whangaumu Bay, where kids build sandcastles, lugging plastic buckets from the sea to fill their moats. Others, threaded through inflatable rings, loll about just beyond tiny waves, and a kiteboard rider criss-crosses the bay behind them.
Tutukaka harbour has been a safe haven for mariners for centuries. It is cupped by steep hills and, whichever way the storms rage, boats are secure here.
Combine this with brilliant diving on the Poor Knights Islands, and great game fishing, and it's an obvious place for a substantial marina. It's a fishing port, a waypoint for yachties, home to a fleet of private boats and a base for charter fishing and dive boats.
The late afternoon sun sidelights hundreds of white boats moored in orderly rows; the vertical symmetry of masts complements pointed mooring poles. It is so tidy. The village, tidy too, at the flat end of the harbour, bows respectfully to its reason for being - the marina.
The still morning is perfect for a Poor Knights visit.
These islands, 45 minutes on a fast boat, have been part of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park since 1967 and a nature reserve since 1975. This means no one is able to set foot on the islands and the sea around them is a look-only, no-fishing zone. The fish have responded to 35 years of protection and there are 15 times more snapper in the zone than out of it.
The boat, Perfect Day, offers day-trippers and snorkellers time in this world-renowned underwater fantasia.
The water is a tolerable 21C and I'm in it with mask on soon after the anchor is secure.
Huge schools of pearly blue maomao hang in the shadow of an arch, moving in unison like a beaded curtain in a blue breeze. Trevally, silver with gold trim, hover just above them. Granddaddy snapper, fearless and safe, cruise along rocky reefs, nibbling here and there.
I see blue moki, red pigfish, orange wrasse and lots of kina.
Golden forests of kelp dance to the current's tune and tiny fish shelter from bigger ones in millions of waving fronds. The light is defused blue and brilliant with radiant bursts and dark shadows.
There is more coast to discover, so we head north. At Matapouri Bay tractors and rusty boat trailers wait on high sand, weatherboard baches huddle under giant pohutukawa, people walk the beach, others swim, and children bodysurf.
A few kilometres north, Woolleys Bay and Sandy Bay, separated by a bush-covered headland, are famous for surf and today it's pumping.
At Sandy Bay, the carpark is busy with lads waxing boards and talking about waves. The excitement is palpable. Suited up and boards under arms, they run into the surf.
People paddle for waves but miss, catch waves and fall spectacularly and, sometimes, catch a wave and surf with astonishing skill and dexterity.
Three Swedish lads, proud of their Gollum-painted campervan, won't be surfing today.
They explain that they aren't experienced enough for waves this size and yesterday's efforts have left them bruised and exhausted - in an exhilarating way.
My adrenalin-rush days are over so, for me, the ultimate beach is gentler than this. Whale Bay, the locals say, is heaven and, as it's a 15-minute walk from the carpark, there are no plebs with deck chairs, music and chillybins.
The walk is through bush screechy with cicadas and passes under groves of nikau, giant puriri and adolescent kauri. How do you rate a beach? That the golden sand is so fine it squeaks?
That it's totally surrounded by luscious, subtropical bush that rings with the song of tui? That the waves lap rather than pummel and the water is so clear that I can see my toenails when I'm up to my neck?
In Tutukaka's string of sublime beaches, Whale Bay is the best.
Oceans Hotel: Modern, minimally luxurious; rooms look over the marina to the sunrise.
Tutukaka Coast Motor Lodge: The spacious top-storey rooms have sublime views of Ngunguru Estuary.
Schnappa Rock Cafe: Shipwreck ambience with wonky floorboards and tasteful beachcomber finds. Busy, funky, terrific food.
Marina Pizzeria: Gourmet pizza.
The Poor Knights Marine Reserve is one of the world's top dive spots. Dive! Tutukaka has many boats.
Non-scuba divers can enjoy the delights of the Poor Knights on Perfect Day. Gear and lunch provided.