We were making good time on the drive to The Villa in Paeroa until that damn giant Lemon & Paeroa bottle jumped out at us on SH2. It’s ‘World Famous in New Zealand’ so we had to stop for the obligatory photos. A few more steps to the left and we were into the Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway which follows the old railway line between Paeroa and Waihi. The Windows Walk is only a short one, but we had two teenagers with us and the rusty old tracks, pitch-black tunnels and majestic views of the Karangahake mountain demanded a decent wander. We arrived at The Villa with just enough time for a quick scout around before heading out for dinner, and what a delight it was to stay at this 130-year-old, lovingly restored B&B that is steeped in history and has been owned by locals Wayne and Margarete Ford for over 20 years. Set on an acre of land it’s also home to an eclectic collection of animals including a pig called George, Ninja the goat, Sir Ponsonby the donkey and Gus the British bulldog. Look it up. The boys loved the little library and to my amazement put away their phones to rediscover the joy of playing board games!
The Villa, 5 Poland Street, Paeroa, thevillapaeroa.co.nz

Emma Walters and Brad King of Falls Retreat have an off-the-trail bistro nestled within the Karangahake Gorge. After a hairy drive up a steep, winding road there was no denying that it is destination dining, but even on the chilliest of winter evenings it was heartening to see the bistro filled with a mix of visitors and locals tucking in to what was some very good-looking food coming out of the open kitchen. We started with a small pizza straight out of the wood-fired oven, loaded with white anchovies, capers and parsley gremolata. I added a splash of the house-made chilli sambal and the fight was on for the last slice. The fish of the day with its orange and pickled-ginger confit baby vegetables – plucked from the garden and topped with anchovy, preserved lemon and herb butter – was beautifully cooked and that veg seriously sparkled. Pasta is housemade and served with sauces that are, again, inspired by homegrown ingredients. In fact, the entire menu showcases seasonal produce and supports a number of premium local producers. The food is honest and reflects Brad, bursting with energy and flavour, although I bet he and Emma will laugh when they read this, as it is obvious that the hours put in to sustain this magical place are exhausting. Killer desserts, housemade sodas, and a banging wine and drinks list brought it all home. My only regret is that it was dark when I arrived and I didn’t get to see what I hear is a remarkable kitchen garden and some very cute cottage accommodation options set within a spectacular natural bush setting. I suggest you go early.
25 Waitawheta Road, Karangahake Gorge fallsretreat.co.nz

For breakfast, we headed to Waihi and found the ‘World Famous in NZ’ Ti Tree Café located in an old miner’s cottage dating back to 1888. Do seek out this little gem as it is worth a look-in. The walls are covered with eye-catching local artworks (you can buy them if you like what you see) and the quirky retro interior circles around a bustling kitchen counter that is heaving with food to spoil yourself with. Slices deliver much more than the average roadside café with an impressive array of trays filled with caramel, mixed berry, pecan brownie and rocky road plus a ‘naughty but nice’ and a Nana slice that look like the bakers have gone far beyond the pages of the Edmonds cookbook for inspiration. NOT that I’m suggesting that there is anything wrong with an Edmonds classic. There were frittatas and lasagnas and huge bowls of zingylooking salads plus a basket of the most epic cheese scones, and that’s just the cabinet! The menu board promises steak samis, chilli-smoked pork tostadas, tandoori chicken burgers and their ‘world-famous’ Ti Tree chowder. There’s Fair Trade organic coffees, a terrific kids menu with waffles and toasties plus iced chocolate, hot chocolate, smoothies and fluffies… I forgot to ask what a fluffy is and now it is haunting me. I hear they have live music on occasion. I think that would be the makings of a very special Sunday afternoon if you are lucky enough to be in the area.
Ti Tree Cafe, 14 Haszard St, Waihi

Hauraki Rail Trail through the Karangahake Gorge

Breakfast done and deliciously dusted we loaded the boys into the car and headed north on SH25 towards Hot Water Beach. The boys (husband included) LOVED Hot Water Beach. So much so that I left them there spades at the ready and anxiously staking out their digging sites to await low-tide, while I took one for the team and headed over to Hot Waves Café for lunch. Yes, that’s right, I didn’t have enough to eat at breakfast. And yes, I walked to the café so lunch was justified. Hot Waves is a captivating spot, filled with natural light, comfy little nooks and a menu that covers everything that any self-respecting café would offer, but with an extra dollop of flavour just where you least expect it. For instance, there are burgers, of course, but all served with kūmara rostis: the beef is dressed in gherkins, aioli and a punchy relish; the chicken topped with brie, cranberries and slaw; the lamb nestled in with minted yoghurt alongside a feta dip. Nothing beats a fluffy omelette served on toast, even better when it is gently folded around chorizo, onion jam and feta and do not miss out on the pillowy towers of kūmara hash cakes with crispy bacon, sour cream and fresh vibrant salsa. The kind of place you might take a good magazine to and settle in… Give me a yell if you need one.
8 Pye Place, Hot Water Beach facebook.com/hotwavescafe

From Hot Water Beach it’s just a 10-minute drive to Hahei and the Hahei Holiday Resort. What a top spot! From campsites to sea-view villas, beachfront baches to coastal cabins if you can’t find something that suits your lot here then you don’t know how to have fun. It was 52 steps with my short legs from our villa straight across the grass and down onto the gorgeous pink and white sands. I counted. It was only 20 steps to the hot tub overlooking the ocean. The kids hit the beach, I hit the hot tub, the husband unpacked the car and all was right with the world. Oh alright, I let him in once he opened the wine. If you stay at HHR you will have plenty to explore. You can dive in Te Whanganui a Hei Marine Reserve, take a scenic walk through Te Pare Reserve, you can even have a go at catching dinner with a little fishing on Hahei Beach. An absolute highlight was an early morning stroll down to that beach where we jumped on to the Hahei Explorer and spent a most magnificent hour skimming across the sparkling clear waters of the Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve. So many stunning photo opportunities I gave up in the end and surrendered – better to just absorb. This spectacular boat ride with its personalised approach, superknowledgeable guide and breathtaking scenery will stay with us all forever.
41 Harsant Avenue, Hahei haheiholidays.co.nz haheiexplorer.co.nz

For a great spot to kick back after a hard day on the beach, head down the road to The Pour House. You’ve got to love a small independent business like this that grew from a knack for home-brewing into a great little place for casual, no fuss, generous food and drink. The menu is simple, pub-style and perfectly matched with a cold one from the terrific range of housebrews on tap. You can’t go wrong with an organic chicken katsu burger with slaw although the macadamia and kelp-crumbed fish and chips is also a winner. The St Louis pork ribs were messy work and perfect for sharing.
7 Grange Road, Hahei thepourhouse.co.nz

If you’ve come this far you might want to catch the five-minute ferry ride from Ferry Landing to Whitianga, and once you land swing by The French Fig. Here you will find all-day breakfasts (until 3pm) and a delightful café menu. Deliciously rustic sandwiches, very pretty cakes and, if you are hungry, the French grill looks stellar.
The French Fig Shop, 4/41 Albert Street, Whitianga frenchfig.co.nz