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The call of the Kiwi coast

Special to The Times

HAWKE’S BAY, once the domain of gentleman farmers, has bloomed into a haven for oenophiles, fishermen and nature lovers. On the southeastern end of New Zealand’s North Island, the arc of coast and inland plains encompasses swaths of empty beach; gentle, rolling landscape; abundant orchards; and superb trout fishing in broad, meandering rivers.

The region also boasts one killer aquarium.

I am standing in it now, in an acrylic tunnel staring at the underbelly of several 8-foot sharks. Blair, their keeper, has just explained that the large ones are of the seven-gill variety, a shark that has a reputation for occasionally eating humans. “But these ones,” he tells our group, “are pretty tame -- so long as we keep ‘em well fed.”

Then, out of the blue, Blair turns to me, an innocent bystander, a mother, and says, “So, how about it? Ya gunna come in and feed the sharks?”

A highlight at this aquarium, I learn, is that a few lucky visitors with dive certification can pay to scuba dive in the tanks at feeding time. I am one of those lucky ones.

“No, thank you,” I say. These sharks may be tame, but I have no burning desire to descend into a smallish tank and wave hunks of bleeding fish about. Then I see the look of awe on my young daughters’ faces. They stare at me as though I, their everyday, Uggs-wearing mother, has just turned into a Charlie’s Angel.

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It’s pathetic what lengths we parents will go to to impress our children.

I wrestle my body into a clammy wetsuit and go in with the potentially man-eating sharks. It’s worth it just to watch my youngest, 5-year-old Sofia, waylaying strangers to tell them that the creature in the pink wetsuit is her mommy.

And, actually, the experience was a lot of fun.

The sharks are residents of the impressive National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier, the largest town in the Hawke’s Bay region. To get there, it is either a one-hour flight or a five-hour drive from Auckland. Lake Taupo, better known among foreign visitors, is only 80 miles inland.

A natty destination

NOT only does Hawke’s Bay claim one of the finest aquariums in the Southern Hemisphere, but it also has burgeoned into one of the country’s chicer holiday destinations, particularly among well-heeled New Zealanders.

Few American tourists have discovered the area, despite the fact that several Americans have invested in wineries here and New York financier Julian Robertson has built a golf course overlooking the sea at Cape Kidnappers, 30 minutes south of Napier. Robertson is owner of Kauri Cliffs, a 4,750-acre North Island “super lodge” for the super rich. The Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers golf courses are consistently ranked among the top courses in the world.

Hawke’s Bay is also where my mother, a New Zealander, went to boarding school, and for her the place holds fond memories of first loves, croquet parties and gimlets.

My mother was the reason we were in Hawke’s Bay in March. An extravagant cook and a connoisseur of wine and food, she loves life’s finer things. I, on the other hand, spend my life either toiling over mac ‘n’ cheese or, as a travel writer, eating roast goat with remote African tribes. I had to come up with an appropriate way to celebrate her 70th birthday, and knowing I could not possibly provide the kind of experience she might appreciate, I did something I am good at: I organized a weeklong trip to Hawke’s Bay.

My research turned up an enterprise there called the Black Barn. It was started by Kim Thorp, an advertising executive turned urban dropout, and Andy Coltart, his farmer-cum-designer business partner. The duo started in 1993 with a boutique winery called the Black Barn Vineyard.

Their wines quickly garnered awards, and so, needing a new challenge, they built a first-rate amphitheater for opera and symphony, right in the heart of their vineyard. Then they added an art gallery, a farmers market and a top-notch restaurant, Black Barn Bistro, which serves local produce such as sea scallops with verjus citrus butter and spring lamb with rosemary vinaigrette.

At the same time, Thorp and Coltart recognized that the region did not have enough stylish accommodations, so they developed 10 “retreats” -- chic private houses rented out for exclusive use -- around Hawke’s Bay.

A “retreat” well suited our extended family -- my parents; my husband, Greg; and our two daughters, Sofia and 7-year-old Indigo. A rented house meant we could cook all the macaroni and cheese we liked and not have our children turn up their noses at a $20 plate of pasta. It also meant we could hire a baby-sitter so we could go out and enjoy the $20 plate of pasta ourselves. (If you don’t want to spend your vacation cooking or cleaning, the Black Barn can arrange for staff to do that.)

‘Not a soul in sight’

WHEN planning the trip, I’d asked my mother which part of Hawke’s Bay she’d like to stay at first.

“Well,” she had said wistfully, “I do remember seaside picnics at Waimarama Beach. It was a sleepy place with one shop and not a soul in sight. Marvelous.”

In fact, the place had not changed much since her school days 50 years ago. It’s still a sleepy beach community where not too many people spend vacations walking, swimming, surfing or sitting on the long stretch of creamy sand.

We stayed at the Beach House, a Black Barn property right on the beach. It was a sophisticated abode that slept 14 but still managed to look like the sort of place where Ralph Lauren might be seen lounging in a wicker chair by the outdoor fireplace.

After three days of beach decompression, we moved 30 miles inland to the Tuki Tuki Valley. We were staying at another Black Barn retreat, called the River Houses, set above the pristine Tuki Tuki River. The River Houses are dual two-bedroom cottages sharing a pool. Each has a state-of-the-art kitchen, original art by New Zealanders and an uninterrupted view of the valley and river below.

To spare my parents “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” videos at 6 a.m., they stayed in one cottage and we in the other.

It would be a travesty to come to this part of New Zealand and not sample the wines, so Greg and I took a self-guided bike tour of a few of the local wineries. On Yer Bike is a small rental company operating from a wool-shearing shed on a farm near Havelock North. The owners, Mike and Julie Russell, thought it might be a good idea to purchase a fleet of mountain bikes, draw a map and advertise.

Their business boomed and now it’s common to see bikers weaving their way between wineries. I say weaving not because of the alcohol consumed but because the map takes you on as few roads as possible. This means you wend your way through fruit orchards and rows of Chardonnay grapes, and past paddocks full of sheep -- an authentic Kiwi experience.

We spent a delightful, romantic afternoon tippling and pedaling, having dispatched the children with my parents on an Art Deco tour of Napier.

Napier, established in the 1850s by British traders and whalers, was originally constructed in Victorian style. In 1931, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake leveled the town, and it was rebuilt at the height of the Art Deco movement. Now Napier is recognized as having one of most significant group of Art Deco buildings in the world, and architecture buffs come to walk the streets.

The River Houses are a 30-minute drive from Napier, and we had to drive over the sweeping Tuki Tuki River to get there. After seeing fishermen standing thigh deep in the crystalline water, Greg decided he had to go trout fishing, a sport at which he is not terribly skilled and with which he gets bored quickly.

“I need an expert,” he said, “someone who can show me how to catch a trout promptly.”

For this seemingly impossible task, he turned to Long Island Tours, a local private tour company that arranges cultural, fishing and adventure activities, and booked a fishing guide. One advantage to hiring a guide is that he or she has exclusive rights to fishing spots on private land.

The whole family decided to go watch this momentous event, so Dave Mabin, Greg’s ruddy, mustachioed guide, picked us up at the house and took us upriver about 20 minutes to a shimmering spot on the Tuki Tuki. There he taught Greg how to spot a trout and cast right to the mouth. Greg landed a respectable 4-pounder within 15 minutes.

Dryly, Dave told him to thank Rangikotama, the Maori god of water.

The real deal

THE Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, and although they constitute only 15% of the population, their culture is widely felt in New Zealand society. Hawke’s Bay, like most of the North Island, has a history steeped in Maori tradition. It was home to most of the Maori tribes, probably because the climate is warmer than that of the South Island.

To explore Maori life in Hawke’s Bay, we joined Brigid Ormond, who owns Long Island Tours and has a passion for showing visitors the “real” Hawke’s Bay -- the places most tourists don’t get to. Although not Maori, Brigid has connections with the local marae, or Maori community, and her clients can spend a day learning about Maori bush food, healing medicines and spirituality.

Brigid took us to Te Mata Peak, the tallest mountain in the region at 1,320 feet, and a sacred site for Maori people. According to Maori lore, the giant Te Mata fell in love with a chieftain’s daughter and dropped dead trying to win her hand. The mountain is his corpse lying sideways. At the summit we met Anotia Makowharemahihi, an imposingly large, regal Maori chief. He stood atop the mountain, spread his arms and sang to his ancestors in the Maori language. He then indicated that we respond in kind.

At a loss as to what to sing, I turned to Indigo, who struck up “Los Elefantes” in Spanish. As far as we know, we don’t have a drop of Spanish blood, but Anotia seemed satisfied.

Returning from Te Mata, we met a local gentleman fresh off the golf course.

“Tellya a secret,” he said. “There’s that fancy golf course out at Cape Kidnappers that costs $150 a round. It’s gawjus ‘n’ all, but just down the road from there, there’s the local Wairunga golf course, and that costs $10 a round. Right on the cliff, with cracker views too. We’re pretty lucky living here, I guess.”

I’m no golfer myself, but I did ask other locals about Wairunga. It seemed the golfer was right. It may not have the same velvety greens as Cape Kidnappers, but it has a similarly stunning view. And for those who don’t have an extra $150, it’s a perfectly acceptable alternative.

On our final day in Hawke’s Bay, I asked the girls if they wanted to go horseback-riding on the beach, pick fruit in an orchard, go swimming at the Ocean Spa pools in Napier or visit Marineland, where they could feed bottlenose dolphins.

“Ooh, we know exactly what we want to do,” Indigo replied, with Sofia backing her up by nodding furiously. “We want to go back to the aquarium and watch you feed the sharks again. That was cool.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

New Zealand refuge

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Air New Zealand and Qantas offer nonstop and connecting flights (change of plane) to Auckland, New Zealand. Korean, Air Pacific and Cathay Pacific also offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,068.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 64 (country code for New Zealand), 6 (the area code) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Black Barn Private Retreats, Black Barn Road, R.D. 12, Havelock North; 877-7985, www.blackbarn.com. $206-$707 a night.

Tom’s Cottages, 116 Matangi Road, Havelock North; 874-7900, www.tomscottages.co.nz. Great for a fishing retreat. Cottages that sleep two or four, $142-$248 a night.

Endsleigh Cottages, Endsleigh Road, P.O. Box 8218, Havelock North; 877-7588, www.endsleighcottages.co.nz. Three affordable, charming cottages. $71-$142 a night.

WHERE TO EAT:

Terroir Restaurant, Craggy Range Winery, 253 Waimarama Road, Havelock North; 873-0143, www.craggyrange.com. It’s set in a gorgeous building at one of the area’s best wineries. Probably the finest dining to be had in the Hawke’s Bay region. The food is expensive, but with dishes like sumac-crusted venison and duck confit with pecorino cheese, it’s well worth the price. Entrees from $17.

Black Barn Bistro (see above). Open only for lunch. It serves light fare, such as chili spice squid, based on fresh local products. Entrees from $13.

Sileni Epicurean Center and Cellar, 2016 Maraekakaho Road, R.D. 1, Hastings; 879-8768, www.sileni.co.nz. Open for lunch daily and dinner Thursdays-Saturdays. It also has an excellent cheese- and wine-tasting room. Entrees from $18.50.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism New Zealand, (866) 639-9325, www.purenz.com.

-- Amanda Jones


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