Matakana is the perfect weekend trip: only an hour from Auckland with fabulous produce and craft markets, vineyards, galleries, high-end restaurants and, of course, plenty of gorgeous baches.

But it can get pretty busy at the weekends – where do you go if you want to get off the beaten track a little? We decided to ask a few of the locals where they take their visitors to show off their favourite coastline.

Michael Kessell

Michael runs the legendary Matakana Markets. He’s come full circle since his boyhood holidays here with his grandparents. In those days, Matakana was pretty much a one-horse town.

His grandmother used to play the organ in the tiny, be-curlicued church on the main street, just along from the markets. “I used to hang around while she practised,” recalls Michael. “I loved the font: it was half a huge clam shell. But after a while I’d get bored and sneak out the back to the butcher’s place. Mr Buckthought was a giant of a man and used to whack pigs on the head with a hammer to kill them!”

In the intervening years Michael has worked for the Salvation Army getting street kids into work, and then moving into men’s mental health work. He says both have helped with his current job.

The fabulous Matakana markets are hauled into place each week like a wild travelling circus. “I feel like I need at least three days to recover from the stress,” Michael confides. “But I love it, love the crazy people. There’s always some sort of drama – it’s never boring!” Michael himself likes to provide ‘something a bit different’ and has been known to get a local teenager to row up and down the river, while he serenades from the bank with ‘O Sole Mio’.

One of Michael’s favourite places is Leigh harbour. “You go down to the wharf and just walk left over the rocks,” he says. “It takes you round the top of the harbour, over a bridge and through a beautiful bush walk along the other side. I once took a mental health bloke fishing out there; he jumped in the water just as a boat came in and I had to rescue him. Crazy times.” He’s also been meaning to do the Mt Tamahunga Walkway. It’s part of Te Araroa, the Long Pathway that runs from Cape Reinga to Bluff. The views from the ridge between Pakiri and Leigh are ‘simply outstanding, apparently’.

Wendy Douglas

Wendy and her partner, Crighton Bone (a Director of Photography – he shot the anti-drink-driving ‘Ghost Chips’ ad, among many other award-winning film projects), along with their two small children moved up here a couple of years ago. Wendy famously came to view an auction and ended up impulsively buying their 13-acre property without Crighton having seen it. 

Wendy was a cult figure in nineties London. She was a Kiss FM DJ and also hosted a celebrity chat show. She has interviewed the likes of Oprah, Quentin Tarantino, Sir Cliff Richard, Naomi Campbell, Sandra Bullock and Jerry Springer, along with countless superstar musicians – sometimes in the back of limousines. Rock and roll. Doesn’t she miss it?

‘Yeah, but you know, I was really ready to move on from all that,’ Wendy says in her Cockney accent. ‘I’d kind of done London! I absolutely love the quiet life here, and I still get my little media buzz from Good Morning.’ She does a spot on breakfast TV every second Friday, covering what’s on around NZ. She also, as this writer can testify, DJs a mean disco at the local primary school and has started selling real estate in the area.

However, Wendy’s big passion is … knitting. She’s part of a local collective, who meet every Wednesday evening in the gorgeous Matakana cinema lounge. The Matayarners knit, crochet and chat – and sometimes a breakaway group (the Frillseekers) go all-out and yarn-bomb the village, leaving colourful frilly or fluffy woollen grafitti on fences and walls. ‘It’s a bit of a laugh, innit,’ she says with her trademark huge grin.

This London girl’s favourite place is wild and windswept Pakiri beach. ‘It’s just so empty and unspoilt,’ she sighs. ‘It’s an untouched haven – most people don’t want to get their cars dirty on that gravel road, do they?’ If you’re up for it, Pakiri Beach Horse Rides is a great way to spend a few hours, or for an unusual local attraction, Wendy recommends the Leigh Reptile Park on the way back towards Matakana. It hosts reptiles of all shapes and size from alligators to tuataras – the kids love it.

Trish Allen

Trish has been part of the community in Matakana for over 25 years. She and her partner, the late Joe Polaischer, bought 50 acres of run-down, gorse and weed-infested farmland in 1987, half way up Matakana Valley Road. They lived in their house-bus – “We were such a pair of hippies!” she reminisces – until they’d finished building the very first earthwork house in Rodney. Then they just carried on working until they had created Rainbow Valley Farm.

Trish and Joe were in on the ground level of the new groundswell of all things organic and sustainable, and they were passionate about permaculture. Joe became a renowned educator both in NZ and internationally. The pair ran ‘total immersion’ courses at Rainbow Valley, where you could go and stay for two weeks and really get to grips with the gentle art of permaculture design.

Tragically, Joe died suddenly in 2008. His passing left a huge hole in the community; Trish was bereft. She managed to struggle on with the farm for a couple of years but had to move on in 2010. She found a quarter-acre section in Matakana village, where she built herself a new house, mostly out of wood she’d harvested from some of the 13,000-plus trees she and Joe had planted at Rainbow Valley.

She has a whopping veggie garden, whose produce graces the weekly ‘Green Swap’ in the village, and has just ordered 15 new heritage fruit trees. Trish continues, with vim and vigour, to travel around NZ teaching permaculture design, composting and general gardening.

Trish is passionate about the Matakana area and regularly takes visitors to her two favourite spots on the coast: Goat Island and Tawharanui Regional Park. She adores the teeming fish at the Marine Park at Goat Island (there’s a glass-bottomed boat in summer, for those unwilling to brave the water). And at pristine Tawharanui Open Sanctuary (a huge, fenced, predator-free environment within the park) she says “My favourite spot is the tiny cove just to the right of Anchor Bay… it’s just so perfectly secluded.”

So there you go: the inside info from the locals. Come on up to the Matakana Coast with a fresh eye – whether it’s winter or summer, there are gorgeous beach getaways where you can breathe deep and get away from the rat race.

Other Matakana coast beach options

  • If you like your beach with a good coffee on the side, head to the elegant sweep of Omaha – interesting for architecture as well if you do the boardwalk through the dunes.

  • For a nice flat grassy stroll, where you can peruse the locals’ gardening efforts, try the charming Point Wells and Snells Beach waterfronts.

  • A couple of other tucked-away beaches worth checking out on the way to Tawharanui Regional Park are Baddeleys and Campbells. Turn right off Takatu Rd down Baddeleys Beach Rd to step back in time and really get away from the madding crowds.

  • Historic Matheson Bay is very ‘Famous Five’, with its cute island in the middle of the bay. Signposted on the right just before Leigh – has a playground and is a great spot for fish and chips from Leigh Takeaways (highly recommended by the locals).

  • Finally, the Ti Point walkway is a must. Turn right on to Ti Point Rd just past Whangateau, and drive down to the wharf (great fishing here for kids with handlines). The walk begins from the carpark and takes about 2 hours. Some great picnic stops but you’ll need some old trainers as it can get a bit muddy.

Where to stay

See holiday lettings near Matakana, Leigh, Pakiri, Omaha, Buckleton’s Beach, Campbell’s Beach, Matheson Bay, Snells Beach, or Sandspit >