The power of regional development

We ended up in the wrong town on Sunday night.

Economy of detail from the Hauraki Rail Trail people may have been the cause, or possibly a certain novice rail trailer had paid insufficient attention to the itinerary. We're laughing about it now.

Who ever was to blame, the fact remained that the A Place to Stay guest accommodation was not in Te Aroha as we were, but in Waihi, some 45 kilometres away. Which may not seem far by automobile, but let me tell you is a long way when you've just cycled it and are hanging out for a cold one.

Local bike shop owner Alan became our knight in a shining black Falcon. The aforementioned rail trail organisers rang around their network until Alan and his wife agreed (for a little bit of the folding stuff) to interrupt their Sunday evening and deliver three sweaty Aucklanders to a Waihi hostess who was by this time wondering what had happened to us.

Such community-mindedness is indicative of how Hauraki Plains locals have embraced the new trail. Opened in May 2012 as part of the $80 million New Zealand Cycle Trail project, the Hauraki track has been a bigger hit than anyone imagined.

Between January and April last summer 41,000 people pedalled the trail, putting an estimated $1.8 million a month into the local economy. Those numbers are likely to have gone in only one direction this season.

That's extraordinary, given the wildly popular and much more established Otago Central Rail Trail attracts around 28,000 visitors a year and pumps $12 million into local coffers. (The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is about to come out with a new report evaluating the success of the cycle trails).

Like Otago the Hauraki trail is a grade one, meaning even your granny can do it. It winds its way from Thames across lush farmland to Paeroa, out via the gold mining heritage of the Karangahake Gorge to Waihi, ending in the mineral spa town of Te Aroha. The great beauty of it is that it's within an hour-and-a-half's drive of around half New Zealand's population.

When the mayor twisted the arms of a couple who've developed a beautiful French-style garden on an old petrol depot near the trail, they hung out their shingle as The Depot Gardens and started serving Devonshire teas.

Local officials also expressed concern about a lack of accommodation so organic gardeners Mike and Tricia opened their 1970s home as the Paeroa B&B, serving homemade stewed fruit and conserves for breakfast. Fritha, the bemused hostess of A Place to Stay, has likewise utilised her spacious home on Waihi's main street.

Hauraki locals know the trail could be the golden goose, and they're nurturing it accordingly. Retailers are building bike racks outside their shops. The owner of the Waikino pub in the Karangahake Gorge has chipped in to build a bridge from the cycleway across the river to his premises.

Since Hauraki opened there have been another half a dozen or more trails completed, and the story of extra visitors and funds into the regions is no doubt being repeated up and down the country.

We all poo-poohed Prime Minister John Key when he launched the idea of a national cycle way as an antidote to the ravages of the global financial crisis. Hauraki locals admit they were cynical that a simple bike track could bring growth to their region.

Cycling tourism alone won't solve New Zealand's deep-rooted dependence on agriculture and economic diversification challenges, but it turns out as a regional development initiative it's a no-brainer.

Like drinking sauvignon blanc and watching hobbit movies, Kiwis may now have to take up cycling as part of their patriotic duty. A word of advice - before you do, examine the map carefully.

* Maria Slade is editor of Unlimited magazine.

Fairfax Media