Winding up the west coast from Auckland City to Northland, this road trip takes in remarkable landscapes, art, heritage and creative spaces. We've picked our top five things to see and do along the way.
1. Manea Footprints of Kupe, Ōpononi
It’s been 950 years since Kupe, master navigator, discovered Aotearoa, sailing his waka into the Hokianga Harbour, doubtless with huge relief and a well-deserved sense of triumph. Now, in a purpose-built cultural and education centre recently opened just outside Ōpononi, you can experience in a very real sense this amazing story, in a 75-minute interactive tour. After being welcomed onto the site, visitors are guided through an archway and along a curving avenue past intricate carvings of atua, or gods, hearing the background and history until, at the entrance to the theatre, a couple in traditional dress deliver a traditional Māori greeting. Inside is where the real thrills begin: Kupe’s dramatic arrival at and, later, departure from Hokianga is told by video, live song and chants, with startling 4D special effects. Afterwards, there’s time to talk with the performers, one of whom may be a 38th generation descendant of Kupe himself.
2. Morris & James, Matakana
This is the place to get high on pots. Big, brightly-coloured, beautifully patterned, they’re displayed in pleasing clusters under the high roof of the showroom. The factory has been in operation since the early 1980s and you can go on a free tour through it at 11.30am to watch the whole process, from harvesting the local clay, through throwing, drying and firing to glazing. Even if you miss the tour, you can watch artists decorating the pots, in muted colours that magically come to life in the kiln. All of the pots bear the distinctive Morris & James penny farthing bicycle trademark; some are practical, for planting, while others are purely decorative, designed to be eye-catching focal points. There are baths for discriminating birds, wall art, garden art, tiles and gifts, and gorgeous platters and bowls to enjoy indoors, all of them strikingly decorated. See them in use in the café.
3. Kauri Museum, Matakohe
Sun-bleached and jagged, the gnarled remains of a kauri tree outside this museum are very different from the golden riches within. Recording the felling of thousands of these magnificent trees that once grew here, the Kauri Museum also celebrates the kauri’s beauty in timber and gum. Cases of polished amber, intricate wooden furniture, immense trunks over a thousand years old, all instil a sense of wonder and awe. The mechanics of the logging industry are displayed in one gallery, while another contains a mind-bogglingly huge plank cut through the length of one tree trunk. A reconstructed heritage house displays realistic scenes from domestic life of those times, while a separate gallery is devoted to the war stories of local men — and their horses. A collection of priceless Māori taonga is also included, of pounamu, bone, stone and wood. With so much to see here, it’s helpful that the café has excellent pies.
4. Eutopia Café, Kaiwaka
Whichever direction you’re coming in, Kaiwaka is a natural place to take a break; and there’s nowhere better to recharge both body and soul than Eutopia. It’s not just the good coffee and a tempting menu with organic juices and homemade treats — there’s creativeness here of the most original, personal kind.
You could say that there is lovingly-crafted art in every corner — except that there aren’t any. Corners, that is: it’s all curves, from the cluster of pointy roofs and the wall outside with its giant birds, to everything it contains.
Wherever you look there is decoration of unexpected but lovely kinds. There are windows made of bottle bottoms, walls with broken china mosaics, wooden doors full of cut-outs and Van Gogh painted ceilings. Everywhere there is colour and decoration, even in the toilet, but rather than being an overwhelming visual riot, it all blends together to make a satisfying whole.
5. Bethells Beach Cottages
Sitting high above Te Henga Bethells Beach with a fine flat white at your elbow and a hot, crisp cheese croissant in front of you, it’s guaranteed you won’t want to leave this haven of hospitality. Behind you is a cute little cottage, full of every comfort and plenty of personality, from the teddy bear on the bed to the intriguing parquet toilet cistern. All you can hear is birdsong and the distant surf breaking on the long, black-sand beach. Watch the sun sink into the ocean before you sink, yourself, into the hot tub under the darkening sky where, later, the stars are brilliant in the blackness. Your hostess, Trude, a fifth-generation Bethell, is a fount of local information. The only problem is that, when you go to write in the Visitor’s Book, all the good words are taken: magical, tranquil, recharge, peace, paradise.