It is grey and rainy on the Spring day I drive into Ngatea. I grumble about the weather to the proprietor of the ‘Stop And Eat’ cafe where I stop to take shelter. “There’s nothing wrong with a little rain,” she suggests, serving up a good, strong coffee and a kind smile. As I sit in the window soaking up the scenes of this bustling Hauraki Plains town, I realise she is absolutely right. Ngatea is busy, full of energy and the rain does little to diminish its charm.
This cafe at the eastern end of town is contemporary and stylish with its black and white tiled floor, sheet ply tables and tasty counter food selection. I chose the pork and fennel sausage roll topped with caraway seeds and tomato relish, and the fragrant cinnamon brioche; both were delicious. The well-established Ngatea Water Gardens is just up the road, featuring two hectares of water gardens available for year round viewing. Friendly shopkeepers and a vast multi-discipline sporting domain enhance the vibrancy of this rural town centre in the Hauraki heartland. (Editor's note, Jan 2023: The Water Gardens are currently closed following a fire).
Driving west, I learn just how much there is to explore and discover on the Hauraki Plains, particularly if you are a lover of the land or a forager for food...of which I am both. The Pacific Coast Highway is a picturesque alternative route from Auckland, introducing the idyllic Shorebird Coast communities of Kaiaua and Miranda and then expanding onto the scenic pastures of the Plains, hedged between the Thames Valley and the mighty Waikato. The Hauraki Plains are so much more than a pleasant through-route. Comprising of no less than twelve communities - each with its own unique identity - a hive of activity is happening in their midst; from cottage industry to art, culture and history.
Paddock to Plate
Reconnecting with where our food comes from offers many rewards; not least educating younger generations that food doesn’t simply come ‘from the supermarket’. The Hauraki Plains is a great example of the paddock-to-plate philosophy, with plentiful fruit and nut orchards, a flounder fishery and an abundance of roadside stalls selling free-range eggs, produce and pickles from the front gate.
If you’ve ever come across those delicious chocolate dipped toffee discs sold in cafes and farmer's markets around the country, chances are it was a Macadamia Nut Brittle from Top Notch Macadamias, based at the edge of the Hauraki Plains between Ngatea and Morrinsville. The orchard takes in panoramic views of the Hauraki Plains and Coromandel Ranges and can be experienced via a public tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10am. As an orchard, processor and manufacturer of macadamia nut products, tours showcase the full cycle, from growing, drying, cracking and grading through to sights - and samples - of the finished products in Top Notch Macadamias’ on-site kitchen.
The joys of blueberry picking are a summertime treat to be found not far out of Ngatea, at Blueberry Country, one of New Zealand’s largest blueberry orchards. Children will delight in hiding amongst rows and rows of blueberry bushes while filling their containers with the sweet fruit. The summer season runs from early December to late February and they serve delicious blueberry ice cream and frozen yoghurt for sale from a snack bar on-site.
A stop at Piako Pete’s is a time-honoured tradition among many heading south along State Highway 25. Located at Pipiroa, commercial flounder fisher Pete Thorburn and his wife Gail provide ‘direct to the public’ sale of fresh flounder, along with smoked kahawai, snapper, mullet and eel produced from Pete’s smokehouse. The knowledge, advice and genuine service you can expect to receive here is second to none. The Thorburns’ know their product better than anyone and their fish is delicious. I leave with arms full - a paper parcel of smoked eel and an impulse buy of a brown bag of homegrown red capsicums that looked too sweet to resist.
The Shorebird Coast is home to Miranda Orchard and Gallery; another spectacular treasure of the region, offering visitors homegrown hospitality in the form of healthful organic wholefoods and coffee from the farm shop cafe. The Miranda Farm Shop is a welcoming place, with bright red geraniums in wooden window boxes on the exterior wall, and red and white checked tablecloths providing a perfect accompaniment to the cafe’s rustic interior. The farm shop offers a selection of fully certified organic jams, jellies and relishes, as well as freshly squeezed juices, yoghurts, fresh cheese and other boutique food products. As I did, you will no doubt leave laden with fresh organic produce and bags full of gourmet seed crackers.
Wilderness and Wildlife
The Miranda Orchard and Gallery is also home to a serene sculpture gallery set within the orchard and an airy indoor artspace - the first off-the-grid gallery in New Zealand. It is an idyllic experience to wander amongst the art, enjoying a glimpse of the Seabird Coast appearing through the trees.
Kaiaua and Miranda feature some of the region’s most hypnotic wilderness and wildlife. Big skies and a laconic atmosphere invite a feeling of time having pressed pause in these tranquil towns. Slowing the pace in Kaiaua allows you to notice the large colonies of birds flying overhead, the quirky letterboxes all lined up along the shoreline, the community of campervans at Ray’s Rest and the languid view of the Coromandel Peninsula from across the wide mouth of the Firth of Thames.
A stay at the Miranda Holiday Park and a soak in their hot pools can further allow you to hit pause on a busy life, while a feed of fish and chips at the Kaiaua Fish and Chip Shop and ice cream in a cone from the bright pink Kaiaua dairy make the most perfect ‘press pause’ meals.
Adventure, Art and History
The most recent extension of the Hauraki Rail Trail ventures from Kopu, near Thames, all the way out to Kaiaua. Cycling the region invites an even closer opportunity for encountering the birdlife and wetlands of the area. It is the ideal way to enjoy the spaciousness and serenity of the Seabird Coast.
The Sculpted Metal Gallery is a fascinating stop off point along the cycle trail at Waitakaruru and well worth a visit. Thames sculptor Nathan Whitehead creates exquisitely detailed fish, birds and reptiles from intricate hand-carved clay moulds which are then cast into bronze, steel, pewter and fibre glass sculptures. The on-site foundry provides a fascinating glimpse into the sculpted metals process through large windows within the gallery.
The Hauraki Plains is an area as rich in history as in nature, art and culture. The Rangipo Museum and Pa Site just south of Kaiaua offer guided tours (by appointment only), showcasing a collection of over 600 years of Maori and European hand tools, and the historic Rangipo Pa site encompasses 36 acres and stunning hilltop views. Cook’s Landing In the Hauraki is another reflective historical landmark, located near the Hauraki Plains village of Netherton, on the banks of the Waihou River. Information panels at the site record historic activity on the river since 1769.
For good eating options en route to Auckland, The Woodturners Cafe at Mangatarata on State Highway 2 is a popular lunch spot, much-loved by travellers and locals alike. Inside, the cafe offers an extensive blackboard and counter food menu, plenty of comfortable seating both inside and out, and a large play area with animals in a nearby paddock for kids to enjoy.
On State Highway 25, the Corner Stone Cafe is a spacious cafe known for its polished stone floor, custom-built children’s playground and excellent location for those inevitable mid-route coffee cravings. You can even take your lunch to the picnic tables by their creek and watch eels swimming under the bridge. Next door to the Corner Stone Cafe is The Style Stop; a designer clearance fashion boutique filled with contemporary clothing, gifts and homeware.
The Hauraki Plains and Shorebird Coast feature diverse natural landscapes, exceptional Kiwi hospitality and a whole host of hidden gems. It is definitely a destination worth discovering.
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