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Meandering in Matakana

Approximately 1 hour north of Auckland is the village of Warkworth, at the heart of the Kowhai Coast. It gives access to the very pretty Sandspit/Matakana/Leigh area, where you can catch a ferry to Kawau Island or visit a range of excellent swimming beaches. It's not exactly off the beaten track, but the whole area offers some fine accommodations, wineries, and boutique food operations, and the chance to mellow out away from fellow tourists.

The Warkworth i-SITE Centre, 1 Baxter St., Warkworth (tel. 09/425-9081; fax 09/425-7584; www.warkworth-information.co.nz), is open daily from 9am to 5:15pm year-round (closed Dec 25). For Matakana information, check www.matakanacoast.com or www.matakanavillage.co.nz.

You'll find a nice little cluster of activities in the Sandspit and Matakana areas just a few minutes out of Warkworth, including several crafts outlets, among them Morris & James Country Pottery & Café, 48 Tongue Farm Rd., Matakana (tel. 09/422-7116; www.morrisandjames.co.nz), makers of quality terra-cotta and glazed goods. It's open daily from 9am to 5pm with guided pottery tours Monday through Friday at 11:30am. Ask about throwing and decorating your own pot or platter.

Don't miss ZEALANDIA Sculpture Garden, 138 Mahurangi West Rd., Warkworth (tel. 09/422-0099; www.zealandiasculpturegarden.co.nz). Created by leading New Zealand sculptor Terry Stringer, it features a sculpture park surrounded by farmland. It's open by appointment from November through March; admission ranges from NZ$10 to NZ$15. Brick Bay Wines & Sculpture Trail, Arabella Lane, Snells Beach (tel. 09/425-4690; www.brickbaysculpture.co.nz), is another fine choice for art lovers. Admission is NZ$12 and they're open daily from 10am to 5pm. The Matakana Village Farmers' Market, 2 Matakana Valley Rd. (tel. 09/422-7503; www.matakanavillage.co.nz), is held Saturdays from 8am to 1pm. You can also explore the trendy Matakana shopping complex adjacent to the market. Refresh yourself afterward at Brookview Tea House, 1335 Leigh Rd., Matakana (tel. 09/423-0390; www.brookviewteahouse.co.nz); or pick up perfect bread and picnic foods from Matakana Patisserie, 70 Matakana Valley Rd. (tel. 09/422-9896; www.matakanapatisserie.co.nz), which is open daily from 7am.

No trip to this area is complete without a cruise or ferry ride from Sandspit Wharf to Kawau Island (www.kawauisland.org.nz). Sir George Grey, an early governor of New Zealand, built the Mansion House 150 years ago. It's now restored and open for visits; on the grounds you'll find the descendants of his "Australian imports": wallabies, kookaburras, and rosellas. Reubens Water Taxis (tel. 0508-282-552 in NZ, or 09/425-8006; www.aucklandescape.co.nz), will take you to the island for NZ$55 round-trip for adults, NZ$28 for kids 5 to 11 years. They also operate the excellent Royal Mail Cruise, which leaves Sandspit wharf each day at 10:30am and takes you to remote island stops. It costs NZ$68 for adults (NZ$90 with an on-board BBQ lunch), NZ$30 children 5 to 11 (NZ$41 with lunch), plus a small DOC entry fee (NZ$4 adults, NZ$2 kids 5-15) for Kawau Mansion House.

If you'd like to stay on Kawau Island, Kawau Lodge, North Cove (www.kawaulodge.co.nz; tel. 09/422-8831), is an ecofriendly stay. Rooms cost NZ$210 to NZ$245 per night, or a weekend package for NZ$695, which includes 2 nights' accommodations, all meals, and transfers from Sandspit to the island. It's a good base for exploring the famous Goat Island Marine Reserve, 4km (2 1/2 miles) northeast of Leigh and about 40 minutes from Warkworth, which was established in 1975 as New Zealand's first marine reserve and is a mecca for divers. You can also explore aboard the Glass Bottom Boat at Leigh (tel. 09/422-6334; www.glassbottomboat.co.nz) on one of two tours, which cost around NZ$25 for adults, NZ$13 for children 5 to 15 years, and NZ$70 for a family.

If you decide to spend a night here - and I strongly advise you do - you will be spoiled for choice. Takatu Lodge & Vineyard, 518 Whitmore Rd., Matakana (www.takatulodge.co.nz; tel. 09/423-0299) has four gorgeous suites in a stunning, contemporary property set amid a working vineyard. Their own Takatu wine is also available, and you'll get a free vineyard wine-tasting session with antipasti. Rooms cost NZ$710, which includes a three-course breakfast.

The Saltings Estate, 1210 Sandspit Rd., Warkworth (www.saltings.co.nz; tel. 09/425-9670), is also a delight. Two self-contained apartments overlook a small biodynamic vineyard and winery. The upper two-bedroom apartment has the best views. It's idyllic, and apartments cost you NZ$295 to NZ$495. Set among 40 acres of vineyards and olive groves, Riverside Matakana, 170 Green Rd., Matakana (www.riversidematakana.co.nz; tel. 09/423-0353), has 17 luxurious self-contained cottages, each with two bathrooms, room for six, and an outdoor barbecue. There are tennis and pétanque courts, a large swimming pool, and a boat ramp for sharing. Doubles cost around NZ$290 to NZ$350 per night.

In Warkworth, stop by the visitor center for the brochure listing restaurants, attractions, and lodging. One to consider is Mariposa Palm Café, 253 Point Wells Rd., Matakana (tel. 09/422-7597), a delightful cafe destination set amid a subtropical garden and nursery. It's open daily 9am to 4pm. Matakana Village also has several cafes and restaurants.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.