The views are spectacular as we wind our way up Takaka Hill, past stoic cyclists battling hairpin bends. We're heading to Golden Bay for a hearty dollop of stunning beaches and scenery, and also for the region’s gastronomic gems.
Before we satisfy our taste buds though, our curiosity needs sating at Ngarua Caves, 600m above sea level, 30-35million years in the making. Inside are stalactites and stalagmites, the confections of chandelier-like minerals competing for attention alongside intriguing moa remains. Our guide explains how the caves have been etched by water trickling through the karst landscape.
Re-surfacing, we're surrounded by the sound of skylarks, grey warblers and the happy hum of bees in a marble-strewn landscape.
We drive on, crossing the saddle to be wowed by the glorious sight of Golden Bay – the Takaka Valley below flanked by the emerald foothills of Kahurangi National Park, the shimmering ocean in the distance. The road winds spectacularly down to the bottom where it straightens, leading past grazing herds of milk-laden cows.
Just before Takaka we divert west along the Anatoki River, past weeping willows, to gather our first taste of gourmet Golden Bay. We set up lakeside at Anatoki Salmon with rods from the café, enjoying the valley's peace. Eventually the children each catch a decent-sized beauty. The fish are swiftly prepared, smoked and boxed for us.
One visiting couple orders garlic bread, coleslaw and wine to enjoy with theirs on-site.
We're saving ours, though can't resist a taste. It melts in the mouth and we practically demolish half a fillet before getting back to the car.
In Takaka's main street we find extra supplies at De-Lish Delicatessen. Co-owner Kirsten Nalder's just baked a magnificent gluten-free silverbeet, onion and feta pie. In the exotically stocked fridge are cheeses from all over the world. We also buy salami (made in New Zealand using meat from happy pigs) and a bottle of locally-made kombucha.
I nearly buy a soft cheese called Love, made by Takaka's Gabrielle Kervella and Alan Cockman, award-winning master cheesemakers. We meet them later at the Saturday market, a colourful, bustling local affair off the main street, where we taste their hard cheeses, Innocence, Knowledge and Wisdom, made using milk from their neighbour's cows. All have distinctly different, delicious full flavours.
We duck around the corner, back to the main street, where in Golden Bay Organics we stock up on salad supplies, but can’t resist adding locally made raw cacao chocolate as well as fruit and nut bliss balls.
Leaving Takaka we follow a milk tanker easing its way along the bush-clad lanes past the region's tiny airport, then spot the iconic Mussel Inn, renowned for its home-brewed beer and live music.
There we order mussels, the inn's own ginger beer and a taster tray of ales for Tim. The rope swing keeps the children busy while we tuck in.
We hit the road again, me driving, bound for Tukurua and Golden Bay Holiday Park where we're spending the night. The location of our beautiful beachfront house couldn't be more idyllic. The sight from the deck of the fine sand and shimmering ocean tempts the children immediately. Later, as the sun sets, we gather to enjoy the goodies collected throughout the day while, nearby, campers build a beach fire.
In the morning a tui calls from the pohutukawa that filters dappled light through the blinds, the sound of waves gently lapping the shore. We sip tea on the beach as the children make a dam at a pool fed by a waterfall. We're the only ones on the one- kilometre-long stretch of sand.
We could play for hours, cartwheeling and digging, but there's more exploring to be done. We follow the road north, detouring into Collingwood, where the Courthouse Café's doing a fine trade in brunches, but it's to Rosy Glow Chocolate we sidetrack.
Inside the cutesy pink villa is a tempting scene of yesteryear: dainty china plates and decorative glass stands with selections of truffles, chocolate-dipped cakes and liqueurs, handmade on-site by owners Mary and David Taylor. Their creations are in demand by postal service from as far away even as Belgium, renowned of course for its own chocolatiers.
We enjoy every morsel of those we buy as we saunter to the Aorere Centre and museum to learn more about the area's history and how, in the mid- 1800s, the discovery of a few specks of precious metal in the Aorere Valley led to a gold rush that saw thousands flock to the bay.
Back in the car we continue north, the road skirting the inlet then away from the coast, leading up the picturesque Aorere Valley.
A curious sign, Weka Workshop, tempts us; wood artists Brian and Karen Cooper greet us. Their spacious, bright workshop sits alongside a well-stocked showroom, a treasure trove of beautifully crafted furniture inspired by the natural features of the trees from which they're created. Knots and twists in the wood are celebrated and enhanced with the addition of hand-hewn wooden mushrooms that have become Coopers' trademark.
Further along we find historic Langford Store, which is making a name for itself for cream teas, espresso coffees and home-baked cakes. We sit outside to savour our selection. I buy a jar of homemade feijoa and ginger jam and browse the rustic shop and post office, which hasn't changed hugely since it first opened in 1928. The children pen a postcard and watch as owner Sukhita Langford (whose grandfather opened the store) hand-franks it with the original stamp she retrieves from an ancient tin.
She and husband Will Hutchison, chief baker, talk of a waterfall, so we head out to Salisbury Bridge and follow the short path to reach it. A gaggle of wetsuit-clad children have just climbed out of the bracing waters.
We press on back towards Farewell Spit, or Onetahua, where Paddy Gillooly's 4-wheel drive Eco Tours venture out to the tip. This internationally-renowned bird sanctuary also lures seals and kunekune pigs who, like us, brave the sandblastings to appreciate its magic. The tours pause at the tree-fringed lighthouse, where home-baked muffins and hot chocolates are in plentiful supply.
Back at Puponga, at the Spit's base, a dirt road leads to Wharariki. The scenic walk across the hills leads past stands of wind-sculpted manuka and kanuka. A peacock's call from the nearby campsite echoes across the landscape and two plump seals bask in the sun at small inland creek.
As we reach the dunes, the children hurl themselves off the tussocky hillocks, pockets and ears quickly filling with sand. A photographer captures a shot of the iconic stone archway as surf rolls in from the west. At the end of the beach the waves crash dramatically against the cliffs and gulls soar high above the white foam and spray, hungry for their own little taste of gourmet Golden Bay.
Reported by Fiona Terry for our AA Directions Autumn 2017 issue
See the AA Traveller website for accommodation options in Golden Bay.