36 hours in Whakatane
Friday, 2pm: "If Whangarei is known as Whangers, Titirangi is Titters, then does that make Whakatane Whakkers?," I ask my long-suffering wife as we coast towards the sunshine capital of New Zealand. "Ah, no," she says, shooting me a dirty look before going back to her home design magazine.
I'm getting no help from the back seat, where the two-year-old is immersing herself in a vanilla icecream and enjoying the 10th rendition of Wheels on the Bus from the CD player. I go back to my musings, and am delighted to see, as we drive down The Strand, Whakatane's main shopping drag, that the local cinema is called Whaka Max. I like the way these people think. We are at the start of a long-awaited family getaway to what I regard as one of the best small towns in the country, the kind of place that conjures up images of relaxing holidays in the sun. The forecast is for . . . rain. Typical.
3pm: We are staying at Tuscany Villas, a boutique motel in a prime spot just off the end of The Strand. It's a fantastic location in the heart of Whakatane, just a short stroll to restaurants, shops and the stunning boulevard along the river. As its name would suggest, it has a Mediterranean design, only adding to the feeling that we are on some kind of exotic overseas holiday, and has recently joined the Heritage Boutique Collection. We've been booked into a large suite with a separate bedroom. We figure we can put the toddler to sleep in there and enjoy Sky TV and the gigantic spa bath at our leisure.
3.30pm: On SH2, just before you get to Whakatane, is Julians Berry Farm and Cafe and we head there to get a supply of fruit for the weekend. Owner Paul Julian gives me a tour of the place while the toddler runs crazily through the strawberry patch, picking bright red fruits the size of her fist. Paul says they expect to pick 45 tonnes of strawberries this year and right now they are at their absolute peak. He and his family also grow raspberries, blueberries and boysenberries, among many others. His tip for strawberries is to always cut them in quarters, as the air infuses the juice and adds to the flavour. At the back of the cafe is a children's petting farm, where the toddler has a whale of a time patting rabbits and sheep. We get strawberry icecreams before heading back to town.
5pm: We have an early dinner of kebabs from a Turkish place in The Strand, followed by a lovely walk in the warm evening sun along the boardwalk to the river mouth, where a stunning bronze statue of Wairaka, daughter of the great navigator Toroa, stands guard atop Turuturu Rock. It is surely one of the great pieces of public art and always inspires me.
Saturday, 6am: I go for an early morning run and end up in the hills behind the CBD, which have heaps of great bush trails. There are also some fabulous views of the town and surrounding area. Out to sea, you can just make out White Island, plumes of smoke billowing from the active volcano. We had hoped to take a scenic flight out to the island, but unfortunately all flights have been cancelled because of forecast rain.
10am: Light rain has settled in, but we are not letting that deter us. At L'epicerie, an authentic French deli where the owner greets me with a merry "bonjour", I order a platter of cheeses, meats, breads and dips, which she presents in a takeaway box with an extravagant "Voila!" We head east, and stumble across the Nukuhou Salt Marsh on the edge of Ohiwa Harbour. Always a sucker for wetlands, the wahine insists we stop and explore. A couple of fantails follow us along the boardwalk. We keep going, and end up at Ohiwa Beach, a lovely little holiday spot with a large estuary on one side and a beach on the other, a perfect place for lunch. On the way back to Whakatane we stop at the Ohiwa Oyster Farm, which has majestic views of the harbour. Incredibly, the sign says they have sold out of oysters. Not good.
12 noon: Nap time. For all of us. Only those with small children will understand.
5pm: Another early dinner. There are some great looking restaurants near where we are staying but we don't trust the toddler to sit still for more than two minutes or to not use the salt shaker as a maraca. We decide on the easy option - Cobb and Co. (I know, shoot me.) It has a children's area and the staff are good at keeping an eye on the little ones so you can at least enjoy your meal, but it's impossible to enjoy your meal when what is supposed to be schnitzel stuffed with cheese and ham resembles cardboard and oozes something grey and gluggy.
Sunday, 6am: My morning run turns Hitchcockian. I am running near the river mouth when I am dive-bombed by a bunch of angry seagulls. They swoop down within centimetres of my head, screeching in my ear. It's actually kind of terrifying. I sprint back to the villas.
11am: After a leisurely drive to Ohope beach for breakfast, we head to Mataatua Wharenui just along from our accommodation. This wharenui, one of the great wonders of the Maori world, was packed up and shipped overseas in the 1870s, travelling to Sydney, Melbourne and London before ending up in Otago. It was only recently returned to its home town, and has been beautifully restored. I can't recommend the light show highly enough - it brings the stunning tukutuku panels to life in a way I've never experienced before, giving the visitor a unique insight into Ngati Awa history. We leave Whakatane feeling as though we have hardly even brushed the surface of this lovely little town. I think next time me and the wahine will return sans toddler, so we can enjoy some fine dining and the like.
Tony Wall visited Whakatane courtesy of Heritage Boutique Collection.
Sunday Star Times