Good as gold
There's just one road in and out of Golden Bay, but once you summit Takaka Hill, the view of the lush green valley and river running north to the sea drops you straight into holiday mode.
My friend Liz and I are on a short break from our everyday lives and we don't mind the scenic route. We stop for lunch at Takaka's Wholemeal Cafe, an institution in Golden Bay's main township since the 1970s.
Takaka, with its art galleries, quirky shops and organic cafes, has an unapologetically hippy vibe and we're not disappointed today. The woman serving us has a beautiful head of blue and purple hair. We sit near a sign saying: "Hippies, use side door".
I'm eating vegetarian without realising it, ordering a kumara, lentil, spinach and feta pattie and topping it with some of Wholemeal Cafe's world-famous-in-the-bay green salad dressing, which contains fistfuls of fresh herbs. It's so popular, a staff member tells us, they make it in a 20-litre barrel using something akin to a weed-eater to blend it.
Before we reach our holiday base at Collingwood, we stop off to see Te Waikoropupu Springs. It's just a 10-minute stroll on a boardwalk through native bush to an amazing sight - one of the clearest bodies of water in the world with visibility to 63 metres.
It's easy to see why the springs are considered both taonga (a treasure) and wahi tapu (sacred place) nationally - and why a swim is out of the question.
Collingwood itself consists of little more than a petrol station, fire station, post shop, food store, pub and camping ground. After our 15-minute reconnaissance of the village, we call in at Rosy Glow chocolates. This dinky little business is housed in a candy-pink villa on Beach Rd, where we buy a few hand-made chocolates that inevitably don't make it home to the family.
And then it's on to Zatori Retreat, a modern boutique bed-and-breakfast establishment that was until recently a rest home. We're greeted by the cook, the wonderful smell of brioche baking, and Beau, a big black dog that is ever hopeful with a tennis ball in his mouth.
Our rooms are luxurious, with big beds, espresso and tea facilities, ensuite bathrooms and an adjoining deck opening to that magic view of a deserted estuary.
I lie in a hammock slung between orange and grapefruit trees, and watch brown shaver hens scratching nearby. I think about breaking out my book or just taking a nap. Someone's started a lawnmower, but it's far enough away to be no bother. Zatori is "all about relaxing and enjoying quiet escape from your busy lives". I seem to be getting on board with that programme easily.
Owner Tracey Walker bought the run-down 1940s building in 2013 and set about transforming it. She ripped up hospital-issue green lino, relined every wall, and built decks to take advantage of a million-dollar view across the Collingwood Estuary to Cape Farewell.
With a total redesign, including modern furniture, extravagant flocked wallpaper and street art Tracey bought while backpacking in Asia, Zatori is now the setting for conferences, weddings and luxury short stays. Tracey used two letters from each of her children's names - Zara, Tor and Ari, to create the retreat's name.
A blue vinyl wheelchair, hospital-style double doors in the hallways and elbow-operated sinks are quaint reminders of the building's past, not only as a rest home but also as a geriatric hospital and maternity home.
The adjacent four-room doctor's surgery has become a "flashpackers", for backpackers who have a slightly higher budget and want beautiful linen and free wi-fi.
It's an ambitious project for Tracey, who grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Pupu Springs and raised her children farming at Patons Rock. She didn't think she'd return to Golden Bay, but found herself bored by corporate life and irresistibly tempted when she spotted the Joan Whiting Rest Home on the market in a real estate magazine.
Tracey loves how the property has been the backdrop to life's big moments: births, deaths and now marriages. Her own grandmother had a room there and, three decades ago, took her last breath in what is now the treatment room.
"Treatment" for me this trip is massage, and if any ghosts linger in this room, they must be friendly. Having a massage on holiday strikes me as the perfect combination: enforced relaxation - you must lie down without so much as reading or looking at your cellphone - and also the virtuous feeling that you're doing something good for your health.
Lying prostrate on masses of fluffy white towels, I soon appreciate that the masseur at Zatori Retreat knows how to unknot muscles and is a genius at this relaxation business. My cracking headache disappears within minutes.
Masseur Steve Thomson's fascinating back story is an extra treat. He has recently moved to Golden Bay, swapping life in Sir Peter Jackson's $24 million loft apartment in Manhattan (where he was PA for Sir Ian McKellen, who was then performing on Broadway) for his very own tent on a section in remote Puponga. He has planted 90 fruit trees, 237 heritage tomatoes and, one day, he plans to build himself an indoor kitchen.
Meanwhile, he's offering his services and 30-plus years of massage experience to guests at this Collingwood retreat.
On our first night at Zatori, we head to dinner at the Mussel Inn, a short drive away in Onekaka. This place is full of country character, with walls covered in trophies, guitars, old clocks and fish-shaped plates. There's no table service, no fries, no nonsense.
"When it's really busy, please enjoy your wait," a message on the menu board reads. This forthright approach seems to be part of the place's charm - it certainly is busy on a midweek evening early in the season. No doubt, good food has a part in its success, too. The restaurant sells 20kg of mussels a day in summer.
We eat divine mussel chowder (full of mussels, rather than potatoes or other filler), creamy scallops, a generous heap of salad and roast potatoes, and we wash it down with local wine and the house Apple Roughy cider. This is made from local hand-pressed Granny Smiths and Sturmer apples, alongside the very popular beers brewed there.
Locals have their own mugs hanging behind the bar. The barman says there are no locals in tonight, but it's a popular hangout and is known as a performance venue internationally by diehards in folk-music circles.
On our second day, the wind is blowing, so we skip the beach and head inland along the Aorere Valley to see the quirky little Langford Store, which has been "providing essentials to the Bainham community and travellers since 1928".
There, you can have mail sent with a Bainham postmark, check out the work of local artists at the outside shed gallery or browse an eclectic range of homewares, including tea cosies and sets of flying ducks. We settle for coffee before taking a gravel road towards Salisbury Falls, a favourite spot of mine from earlier summer holidays in the bay.
We park by an easy-to-miss sign, clamber over a stile and it's just a 50-metre walk across a paddock and down the bank to a stunning hidden spectacle of narrow gorge, swimming hole and majestic waterfall.
We stop and sit, feet dipped in icy water, indulging in the primal pleasure of listening to water cascading over rocks.
I soon forget that last time I was here I came up from a swim and pulled myself on to rocks beside a spider as big as my hand, since tentatively identified as New Zealand's largest species, the Nelson cave spider. Apparently, they are harmless and rarely seen, which is a relief to me.
We head to rustic cafe The Naked Possum to meet my parents and sister, who are on a day trip from Motueka. My stepdad is disappointed to find no possum pie on the menu, and he has to make do with other wild game options: venison and tahr.
Back at Zatori, I'm hopeful of taking a paddleboard or kayak out, but the huge wind-whipped waves convince me otherwise. Even a keen paddler such as Tracey - who says kayaking, paddling or running every day is a huge bonus for her living here - would not venture out in this weather.
That night, the chef cooks for us. Catering is an optional part of Zatori's offerings. Tonight, it's succulent slow-cooked duck in a tomato sauce, asparagus and broad beans, roast vegetables with hollandaise. It's fresh, relaxed and informal, and to follow, there's a lemon curd pavlova or poached pear.
The next day, before we head home, we take a walk recommended to us by someone who has scaled seven peaks on seven continents. The Pupu Hydro Walkway retraces an old gold-mining water race, once used for power generation. I needn't have worried that the 90-minute walk would be Everest-like - it's gently sloping and only slightly precarious in parts where the water race courses along one side and a steep hillside drops on the other. It's recommended that small children be carried here, but for those of us more sure of foot, it's a beautiful bush adventure.
There are so many things we haven't managed to see - the highly recommended Milnthorpe Park scenic reserve, where keen locals have planted natives and built walking tracks; the Grove - curious limestone outcrops set among rata and nikau palms just past Pohara; and even a much-touted mummified cow on the top of Takaka Hill.
We have only explored a small part of the western side of Golden Bay. Three days, I guess, are just not enough.
Other Golden Bay attractions:
- Catch your own salmon and have it smoked at Anatoki Salmon Farm.
- Feed the eels and other animals at Bencarri Nature Park and Cafe.
- Take a shuttle to the Heaphy Track to walk or mountainbike the longest of DOC's Great Walks.
- Take an eco-tour of Farewell Spit.
- Go cave-pooling or horse-trekking at the much-photographed Wharariki Beach.