The view from the end of the Northern Gateway tunnel stirs that feeling of entering new territory and leaving the old behind – transitioning from city to country.

Undulating farmland is framed by the tunnel’s curve.
We had departed Auckland early on a Friday afternoon in search of an easy getaway. Less than an hour’s drive north we find what we were searching for: a calmer, slower place.

On State Highway 1 is Warkworth, a town at the head of Mahurangi Harbour, still in the Auckland region but only just. Turning east along Sandspit Road takes travellers to an array of adventures and activities including the popular holiday spot of Snells Beach, the ferry to Kawau Island and an abundance of parks, pretty bays, beaches and bush tracks. For us, it is to Brick Bay Winery and Sculpture Trail for lunch and to marvel at the incredible talents of local and national sculptural artists.

Continuing north, we reach Matakana. The charming country village is known for its artisan produce, wineries, walks and close proximity to many beautiful beaches. Darkness has enclosed the township so we opt for a movie at the old-world boutique cinema, complete with a chandelier.

A late-night meal out is one of the simple pleasures of being on holiday.We saunter in the cooling evening to Matakana Market Kitchen, relaxed in the knowledge that there are no agendas or deadlines to meet tomorrow. Inside, the open fireplace crackles and expels comfortable warmth as we relish mouthfuls of locally grown food.

Just before bed at our rented accommodation, I decide to pen an agenda for tomorrow, after all. But this isn’t one that consists of meetings and tasks; it’s simply to ensure we squeeze the most out of our time away from the city. Matakana INP

When the new day breaks, we head to the famous Matakana Village Farmers’ Market and join the crowd of locals and other happy weekend visitors for coffee served from a caravan. Obedient pooches wait patiently at the doggy day care while their owners browse the array of stalls bursting with olive oil, fresh bread, seasonal fruit and vegetables, freshly cut flowers and more. Live music and smoky scents from a pot belly brazier fill the air.

Circling the L-shaped shopping area, we become lost in the art gallery, book store, homeware and clothing store and boutique chocolatier: Honest Chocolat. Balancing market produce, cheese from The Matakana Deli, several blocks of chocolate and a deliciously decadent rich and creamy hot cocoa each, we make tracks. 

The trip north-east from Matakana to Leigh is in comfort and class: buckled into the new Ford Focus ST-Line which we borrowed especially for the journey. But we don’t make it far – all of a few minutes – before stopping. We had come across Morris & James Pottery where inside, we’re treated to a colourful array of ceramics and learn about how original owners Anthony Morris and his wife, Sue James, dug the clay out of their nearby property to make their pots.

Onwards we drive along Leigh Road, shaded either side with leafy trees and lined with stands offering dozens of fresh farm eggs, lemons, mandarins and avocados. This is fruitful territory. Good soil, a mild climate, north-facing hills and a cool sea breeze from the nearby Pacific Ocean contributes to world-renowned wine and other horticultural gold.  

Low plains of mangroves lead into Whangateau, a charming seaside settlement, home to a town hall overlooking mudflats at low tide and the Rodney Rams Rugby League Club. We carry on north a little further then stop to stretch our legs at Mathesons Bay where a pair of plump kererū watch paddle boarders enjoy the still waters and a group of friends fling a Frisbee along the sandy stretch of coast. 

Thirsty, we stop at Leigh Sawmill Café where a sound-check is in progress in preparation for a sold-out show later in the evening. The rustic establishment is a favourite among locals to meet for good live music and craft beer.

But the ocean is calling so we leave for Pakiri, along its namesake road – a winding, hilly, back-country track with coastal views that cause me to pull over more than once to stand roadside and to point my camera at panoramic vistas. 

A small white church with a red door and a single arched window stands in warm welcome. It seems to point us in the direction of the beach: an exposed expanse revealed after traipsing across sand dunes and over estuaries bridged by wooden boardwalks. We loop back to the village along Matakana Valley Road for ice cream.

The following morning it's time to depart for Auckland but there’s one item I've added to my itinerary: to pick up another cup of hot cocoa for the journey home.

Reported by Monica Tischler for our AA Directions Summer 2019 issue

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A word of thanks

The writer travelled in a stylish, comfortable Ford Focus ST-Line, a new-generation car with an ANCAP 5-star safety rating and multiple motoring awards worldwide, courtesy of Ford New Zealand.    

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