It may not have a cafe strip, but a get­away to this small sea­side set­tle­ment pro­vides much-needed respite from the on­set of the win­ter blues.


Fiona Las­celles ex­plores the sim­ple sea­side plea­sures of Kāwhia

Two scones, two cof­fees, $13. Not bad. A no­tice on the wall: “At­ti­tude is re­flected in ser­vice, so smile.” We did, and were treated ac­cord­ingly.

LIV­ING WITH A pho­tog­ra­pher, you be­come very aware of the light – and win­ter can pro­vide some of the best op­por­tu­ni­ties in this re­spect.

De­spite a be­lief in the restora­tive pow­ers of head­ing out­doors to ex­pe­ri­ence win­ter’s full blast, on a Sun­day morn­ing I still found my­self protest­ing this very propo­si­tion. Nat­u­rally this was met with “be in the mo­ment, and get off that screen”. Of course he was right. Rule of thumb: never get in the way of a pho­tog­ra­pher and good light.

A week­end get­away, des­ti­na­tion Kāwhia. Res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion 650. Best known for the Kāwhia Kai Fes­ti­val held in Fe­bru­ary each year (cel­e­brat­ing Māori cui­sine, cul­ture and tra­di­tions).

This charm­ing west-coast har­bour set­tle­ment, sit­u­ated just south of its more hip, surfy neigh­bour Raglan, is a scenic three-hour drive from Auck­land that takes in the King Coun­try.

On our ar­rival we were wel­comed by a rain­bow span­ning across the in­ner har­bour. The Sun­day morn­ing hus­tle cen­tred around lo­cal cafe The Rusty Snap­per. On pass­ing a cou­ple sit­ting in the sun keenly de­vour­ing scones with jam and cream, I re­marked, “Those look good.” The re­ply, with a happy grin: “They’re great.”

We or­dered. Two scones, two cof­fees, $13. Not bad. A no­tice on the wall: “At­ti­tude is re­flected in ser­vice, so smile.” We did, and were treated ac­cord­ingly.

Homemade scones, light and warm, served with jam and cream. Al­though tra­di­tion­ally served for af­ter­noon tea, I sus­pect they don’t do things like that around here; this was a mid-morn­ing treat. At first glance the lo­cals seem to be down-to-earth, prac­ti­cal and laid­back. Oth­ers were tuck­ing into toasted sand­wiches, fish and chips, mince on toast (eight bucks). Sim­ple, hon­est fare.

An­other no­tice on the black­board menu re­quested that cus­tomers not ask for food as take­away if plan­ning to eat on site as it was a waste of take­away con­tain­ers. These peo­ple are both eco-con­scious and fis­cally re­spon­si­ble.

A two-minute walk to the wharf saw many lo­cals with their fish­ing lines cast. They had prob­a­bly been there since the early hours. A quick chat to one of them about what the fish­ing was like soon had him reach­ing for his Sam­sung to show us Face­book pho­tos of his catch, while shar­ing the story of how he ended up here – ar­riv­ing from Tau­ranga dur­ing the sum­mer to help a friend on his fish­ing char­ter boat soon turned into six months. He loved Kāwhia.

An­other high­light is the lo­cal mu­seum. I had been told about the place from an­other pho­tog­ra­pher friend and it didn’t dis­ap­point. The clas­si­cally styled Kāwhia Re­gional Mu­seum Gallery was de­signed in 1916 as the Kāwhia County Coun­cil build­ing and is now home to the lo­cal story. Copies of early news­pa­pers and per­sonal snaps of those who have hol­i­dayed here sit along­side rock col­lec­tions, old kitchen uten­sils and the switch­board from the old tele­phone ex­change.

This area is steeped in Māori his­tory – the har­bour area was the birth­place of promi­nent war­rior chief Te Rau­paraha of Ngāti Toa, who lived in the area un­til the 1820s. Kāwhia is also known in Māori lore as the fi­nal rest­ing place of the an­ces­tral waka Tainui.

I’m not usu­ally one for the musty old stuff, but the mu­seum felt sort of mod­ern. Turns out it had a re­cent makeover as part of the Her­itage Res­cue TV se­ries. Hosted by ar­chae­ol­o­gist Brigid Gal­lagher, the show deals with is­sues around dis­play, arte­fact con­ser­va­tion and ob­ject own­er­ship.

“Well, you have to be more pro­fes­sional these days, don’t you? You can’t just be a cu­rios­ity shop,” was the com­ment from mu­seum di­rec­tor John Thom­son. He was in­for­ma­tive and happy to share his knowl­edge. This place also dou­bles as the town in­for­ma­tion cen­tre.

A self-con­fessed po­lit­i­cal junkie and sub­scriber to The Guardian, he was to­tally im­mersed in the cov­er­age of the UK elec­tion when we were there, but found time to give us di­rec­tions to the hot wa­ter beach, plus in­tel on the new art gallery that was com­ing to the area. Ap­par­ently a phil­an­thropic lo­cal had al­ready stumped up the money for the first year’s rent, his rea­son­ing be­ing that tourists needed to be able to buy lo­cal art.

Kāwhia Hot Wa­ter Beach is a five to 10-minute drive from town. A clam­ber over the steep sand dunes re­veals a vast west coast beach, empty bar a few hearty souls.

You can rent spades from the lo­cal store and at low tide dig a hole in the sand to cre­ate an in­stant nat­u­ral hot wa­ter spa, with stun­ning views to match. When we were there, the golden hours were be­tween 3.30pm and 6pm.

By night­fall the streets are empty, apart from a sin­gle horse rider head­ing home­ward. Home chim­neys are puff­ing away. It’s quiet. That’s why we are here. That and to take pho­tos.

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