If your relationship could do with some TLC, head off on one of these test-driven romantic weekends.
Get an early start Saturday by packing the night before for a mercifully traffic-free journey two hours north to Whangarei. You'll not beat the farmers to the Whangarei Growers Market in Water St car park though; they'll have been setting up stalls since 6am. Select a few favourite dips and breads, cheeses and chutneys for lunch at one of the country's loveliest beaches.
Next stop is Longview Estate, State Highway 1, to select a lunch wine from this estate established half a century ago by the legendary Mario Vuletich. His special reds are not common beach picnic wine but why not?
Head now to the Matapouri Beach (10 minutes north of Tutukaka) where the summer crowds will have given way leaving lovely tracts of this golden-sand beach for your beach umbrella and picnic basket.
As you've already booked your accommodation at Brantome Villa (three luxury suites, 454 Crane Rd, 09 435 2088, brantomevilla.co.nz) nearby you've nothing to worry about except avoiding sunburn. Or you might have booked at Lupton Lodge (a historic house B&B) at 555 Ngunguru Rd, 09 437 2989, Glenbervie luptonlodge.co.nz.
Dishes sourced from local produce. (Bookings necessary.)
Bring home some Grinning Gecko Cheese (81 Port Rd, grinninggecko.co.nz). made by Catherine McNamara from organic milk. Idle your way home via Mangawhai Heads where Bennetts of Mangawhai is a must-stop for bring-home romance in the form of delicious chocolates. 52 Moir St, Mangawhai, 09 431 5072
Beat the Kapiti holiday crawl along the ribbon of highway skimming the coast north of Wellington by leaping out of bed early on Saturday morning and head to the Bus Cafe, 50 Dixie St, Te Horo, for breakfast. Yes, Kirsty Green's doughnuts are worth it - just see how fast they go out the door of her old Bedford bus.
Now head to Otaki Forks for a walk to displace the doughnuts and re-engage with nature. The mighty Tararua Ranges are the daunting haunt of serious tramper-types but bite-sized chunks are tracked from the Tararua Forest Park's western entrance (19 kilometres off State Highway 1, turn at Otaki Gorge Rd). An abandoned steam mill might not spin the wheels of romance for everyone but the old sawmill at Sheridan's Creek, abandoned after a flood in 1938, is interesting at least. And a picturesque swing bridge and lovely bush will do it for others.
After the exercise a quick stop at Koru Ice (3 Addington Rd, Te Horo) is a deserved reward. Lenore and Graham Winterburn happily let customers sample their homemade sorbets and gelatos - try the Christmas pudding one and the peanut butter one, oh, and the chocolate one . . . maybe just try them all.
For a late lunch there are two options: Kiss and Bake Up Cafe (two stores 174 Main St, Otaki, or 11 Mahara Place, Waikanae). Can you go past this name on Valentine's Day? Their perfectly made steak and cheese pies will almost certainly hit the happy place of Kiwi lads.
An alternative is your own picnic: Stop at Tuatara Breweries (97 Sheffield St, Paraparaumu) to choose a bottle or two of Carl Vasta's many special beers, then nip into a New World (Waikanae and Otaki) supermarket to gather a loaf of Kapiti Artisan bread (Otaki sourdough is a goodie) gather some local olives (Kapiti Olives) and cheeses for your bespoke picnic. The beach, which stretches forever, is a most invigorating place (= windy) so be prepared to hunker down in the sand dunes if the wind is against you.
Before heading back to town, IT'S A great idea to visit Penray Garden, 1197 State Highway 1, south of Otaki, for the best tomatoes in the district. Is relish-making romantic? Who cares, stock up anyway. A coffee stop at Ruth Pretty's, just a bit further south, promises the finest baking in the land as well as an inspirational wander in the beautiful gardens, 41 School Rd, Te Horo, ruthpretty.Co.Nz.
Another good shop-stop is the Beach Store (104 The Parade, Paekakariki) and there's coffee and icecreams if the merchandise doesn't please.
Bookings are essential at Red House Cafe thanks to the fondness local people have for this eatery with its homely meals. State Highway 1, 885 Main Rd, Te Horo, 06 364 3022.
Ammara Lodge is the romantic dream of a busy pair of former Wellingtonians, Adrienne and Keith, who went looking for peace and contentment on the Kapiti Coast. Not only did they find it but their guests seem to too - among the alpacas and olives. Adrienne will cook breakfast for guests too (and ask about dinner) - exceptional homegrown and organic food almost all from their property. 96 Arcus Rd, Te Horo, 06 364 3357, ammara.co.nz.
Inland North Canterbury
The Amuri and Hurunui Basins of North Canterbury are perfectly positioned for a romantic overnighter. It is gorgeous countryside with glorious braided rivers and big trees - the combination of which just begs for a picnic. And Hanmer Springs, a spa town of international quality has, in recent years, added private massage and spa areas to its public hot pools. Book: 42 Amuri Ave, Hanmer Springs, hanmersprings.co.nz. (Valentine packages are available in conjunction with the Heritage Hotel, heritage-hanmer-valentines-package.)
Getting the jump on the day is a good idea even though it's only a few hours from Christchurch. So pack your bikes the night before AS ONE of the attractions of the region is biking; from the two-day St James Cycleway, forest trails behind Hanmer Springs to the kinder Waipara Valley Vineyard Trail (hurunuitrails.co.nz) there are options for every fitness level. However, if travelling by the Mick 'n Mike doesn't excite your beloved maybe a four-legged option will, so try Alpine Horse Safaris. Lawrie O'Carroll has been taking people horse trekking for donkey's years. His speciality is a 12-day ride all the way to Tekapo but don't panic - he does shorter and perhaps more romantic options. Call him about two-hour rides. Culverden.co.nz/alpine horse 03 314 4293.
Schedule an early stop at the Waipara Farmers Market (66 Carter Rd, Waipara Springs), Saturdays only, to stock up on Rachel Scott Bakery breads (deservedly famous), Athena Olives (local) and almost any wine from the Waipara region.
Romantic picnic spots are a dime a dozen in this region, blessed as it is with rivers and trees. But the town of Waiau, on the river of Waiau, is the place to go pointing your car's nose off the tarseal and down a dusty track heading to the river. Another great weekend picnic place is Iron Ridge Quarry, home to Raymond and Sue Herber and their children. Raymond is a steel sculptor, working in an old quarry which is open to the public. There are lots of lovely picnic spots among Raymond's works. 707 Ram Paddock Rd, Waipara Valley, raymondherber.com.
A suitably flash and romantic dinner venue is the Cuisine-recommended Pegasus Bay Restaurant and Winery (263 Stockgrove Rd, Waipara, 03 314 6861, pegasusbay.com) which is a five-times award winner in Cuisine's best restaurant awards.
Gillian and Neil Hyndman left their Dunedin home and publishing business to establish a work-from-home accommodation to venue in a literally stony paddock near Waipara. It's a marvel to see what hard work and water can do in 14 years. Dry Paddocks, 325 Purchas Rd, Waipara, 033149639 drypaddocks.co.nz.
Heritage Hotel, Hanmer Springs, 0800 368 888, heritagehotels.co.nz.
A pair of brand-new but cute-as colonial cottages look as though they've always been there among the vines but no, Rodger Strong of Hurunui Village built them quite recently from cob bricks and weather board.
1208 Karaka Rd, 04 314 4162 hurunuivillage.Com.
The rocking Frog Gallery (and cafe) in Waikari is home to some very fine artists not least of whom is owner artist Kate Calder, also creator of great gardens. 3 Princess St, Waikari, 03 315 6178, therockingfrog.co.nz.
Hanmer Springs has always been the best place in the South Island to buy bathing togs and now there's great baby gear, shoes and clothes in several boutiques. Just wander.
Cheree Phillips is writer/researcher for Insider's Guide 2014
- Sunday Star Times