WEST IS BEST
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.