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Mike Yardley: Kawakawa to Kerikeri

27/02/2015, Joel Blog
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History and scenery are a mesmerising combination for the road-tripper and Double K, Kawakawa to Kerikeri, fits that bill perfectly, being steeped in some of New Zealand’s grandest heritage.  55km north of Whangarei, or 200km north of Auckland, State Highway 1 guides you into the embracing clutches of Kawakawa. Proudly strutting down the main street, Gabriel the green and red steam engine, circa 1927, is the poster-child of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway. An inspirational triumph of can-do community spirit, this is a railway of famous firsts.

Following the discovery of coal in 1864, the railway at Kawakawa was the North Island’s first railway to be opened and the first to run a rail passenger service in the North Island, as well. The track ran all the way to Opua from 1884. Following the railway’s closure in 2000, 9 years later, the vintage railway roared back into life. Currently the train tootles from Kawakawa as far as Taumarere. The passionate, informative on-board guides enrich the experience immensely. Upon reaching Taumarere, you alight the train to marvel at the restoration of the Long Bridge, a magnificent structure that straddles the Kawakawa River. The 230 metre long bridge, is the longest curved wooden bridge in the Southern Hemisphere.

Once fully restored, the train will tootle across it, as the fundraising continues to restore the whole track, so that eventually the train reaches Opua, just as it used to, in the pioneering days. The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway is fabulously unique – it’s the only working railway in the world where the train travels down the middle of a State Highway and right through the heart of a town centre, chuffing past the whimsy of the Hundertwasser Toilets. Don’t miss seeing Hundertwasser’s boat, La Giudecca, at the Kawakawa Railway station.

From Kawakawa, it’s a 25km hop north on State Highway 1 and 10 to the succulent citrus bowl of Kerikeri. Ever since that road bridge was washed away a few years ago, by the Stone Store and the Mission Station, this incredibly historic setting degenerated into a rather rough and tumble suburban car park, at road’s end. But the site has just undergone a major facelift, turning the entire area around the Stone Store into a beautifully landscaped river-fronted pedestrian precinct by the river.

Not one, but two of our nation’s oldest buildings stand shoulder to shoulder on the upper reaches of the inlet, as time-honoured vestiges of the mission that was established in 1819, adjacent to the Ngapuhi pa site of chief Hongi Hika. A sole survivor of the Musket Wars of the 1820s, Kerikeri Mission Station’s Kemp House is New Zealand’s oldest standing European building. Built to house the Rev. John Butler in 1821, delight in viewing the workmanship of this gracious home, which has been thoughtfully furnished to capture the essence of its pioneering occupants.  After the Butler family, it was the home of the Kemps from 1832 to 1974. Next door is the landmark Stone Store, built in 1832 to house mission supplies and wheat from the Te Waimate mission farm.  This sturdy, stately building brims with vintage homeware and hardware merchandise, plus an abundance of local crafts, traditional toys and old-fashioned confectionary.

Speaking of sweet tooth pursuits, pop into Makana Confections in Kerikeri, a boutique chocolate factory. Drool over the production process and surrender to the free tastings. Just out of town, amidst the famous citrus-covered slopes of Northland, drop by Marsden Estate. Named in honour of Samuel Marsden, who introduced the grapevine to this country with 100 plantings at Kerikeri in 1819, I loved the laid-back courtyard atmosphere of this award winning winery.  Dinner? Across the road from the Stone Store, The Pear Tree has been luring diners for decades. Formerly known as the Landing, on a balmy Northland night, revel in the sharply-priced, exquisitely presented dishes outside on the deck, overlooking the soothing inlet. The braised lamb shanks and seafood chowder are sensational.

Point the car north and savour the storied riches of Kawaka and Kerikeri. Thrifty offers plenty of handy pick-up and drop-off locations including Auckland Airport and Auckland City.