While Highway 1 isn’t much of a challenge, keeping your gaze on the road is. After 20 minutes, towns melt into that other New Zealand: the leafy paradise where fern trees fan out near shaggy clusters of pandanus trees and placid Hauraki Gulf waters stretch to meet a horizon of island silhouettes.
Since the 1920s, Aucklanders have escaped to this region, known as the Hibiscus Coast, but increasingly weekenders are settling in permanently. The Rodney District, as the area north of Auckland is known administratively, is the fastest growing region on the North Island, and a partly completed highway to handle the influx will eventually bypass some of the stunning coastal views. For now you can still catch a glimpse outside Orewa, a resort town turned bedroom community.
Swirls of gray, blue and yellowish geothermal waters distract from steep curves into and out of the thermal-spa resort town Waiwera, meaning “hot water” in Maori, a place where centuries of warriors soaked themselves after battle by making natural hot tubs in the sand.
On the left, an easy tramp among fern shadows to Pohuehue Reserve’s small waterfall will let you check “hiking in New Zealand” off the list. On the right, the first major turnoff doesn’t mention Matakana; follow the signs — and the sheep bleats — toward Leigh.
The last traffic disappears as Matakana Road bends gently through a landscape of rumpled green hills threaded with fluffy trees. Tiny signs give the names of wineries and artists’ studios. Both rely on the same underlying foundation: Matakana’s rich clay used in pottery and in the soil to grow the region’s grapes.
In the late 1980s, Matakana’s first red wine, the Antipodean, fetched high prices at auction in Europe, measuring up to the best European reds in taste tests, and a boutique industry took root. Acreage at the dozen or so wineries established since is mostly measured in single digits, their yields made into small-batch specialty wines that reflect the terroir.
Mingle there, or at the Vintry (64-9-423-0251; http://www.thevintry.co.nz/; tastings, 10.50 to 18 New Zealand dollars), a small upstairs tasting bar and wine education center in Matakana Village. Those thirsty for knowledge as well as wine can learn about and sample several varietals by the glass or in blind tasting flights.
In a country where every corner cafe tempts with flaky pastries and dense desserts, the Matakana Patisserie (70 Matakana Valley Road; 64-9-422-9896; http://www.matakanapatisserie.co.nz/; muffins and loaves, 3.50 to 7.50 New Zealand dollars), has won prizes for some of its breads. Behind a bland exterior you might mistake for a dry cleaner’s, racks hold cushiony yet crisp olive focaccia and the chocolate helmeted cakes the bakery modestly calls muffins.
The Brookview Teahouse (1335 Leigh Road, Matakana; 64-9-423-0390; http://www.brookviewteahouse.co.nz/), a quaint 1920s bungalow on a bend in the Matakana River, offers a bit more atmosphere: a traditional tearoom with finger sandwiches on tiered platters (10 to 18 New Zealand dollars), perched over a tableau that might include a few roosters or a resident mother duck guarding her brood. Or you can backtrack to Heron’s Flight Vineyard Cafe (49 Sharp Road, Matakana; 64-9-422-7915; http://www.heronsflight.co.nz/) to sample flavor combinations like a salad of strawberries and Te Mata blue cheese in a honey yogurt dressing (14.90 New Zealand dollars) and savor vineyard views.
Rural tranquillity comes at a price in Matakana; 5 p.m. might as well be midnight, so you must decide: shopping or tasting next.
Roll down the windows to listen to the trees rustle during the two-minute drive down the road to the modest rural Hyperion Wines (188 Tongue Farm Road, 64-9-422-9375, http://www.hyperion-wines.co.nz/), which seems more like a private ranch. A scatter of converted rustic farm buildings and friendly owners are the opposite of the slick, almost corporate image projected on the vineyard’s labels. Grapes from their fields go into Eos pinot noir, Titan cabernet sauvignon and Gaia merlot, which has won medals in national competitions.
IF you’re with kids, head for the red barns at Matakana Country Park (1 Omaha Flats Road; 64-9-422-7437; http://www.matakanacountrypark.co.nz/), where they can pet llama-like guanacos, sheep and goats, and you can finger the wares at the Matakana Craft Co-op, or at Saturday’s other Matakana Market (8 a.m. to 1 p.m.), featuring arts and crafts and family activities.
Return to town for one last meal, perhaps seared salmon or oven-roasted lamb (each 29 New Zealand dollars) at the urban yet cozy Matakana Village Brasserie (2 Matakana Valley Road; 64-9-423-0383).
On the way back to Auckland, you might want to use the back roads to prolong the rural memory. Keep the day’s perishables nearby for snacking en route.