Kawhia is a quiet King Country coastal township beside a placid harbour - sheltered from the Tasman Sea by a buffer of forested dunes. Steeped in history, Kawhia is a place to enjoy for the peaceful, nostalgic magnetism that draws visitors back year after year. Much of Kawhia's appeal is its quietness and its isolation. It's also an inexpensive place to holiday. You can hire a cabin or a campsite or a motel in Kawhia for modest tariffs, buy a flounder for well below city prices and watch one of the harbour fishermen cleaning fish on strings of flax.
When the tide's low, you can sit in a hot pool dug in the black sand of Ocean Beach, where Te Puia Springs bubble up through the sand. They are reached either around the beach from Karewa, on the south side of Kawhia township, or by a short sandhills climb from the carpark at the end of the forestry road. But be warned - the dry black sand soaks up the sun and it is often too hot for bare feet in summer.
Kawhia Harbour covers more than 6,000 hectares and in many places, when the tide is out, pipi, oysters, mussels, cockles and mud snails are among the seafood delicacies available for picking. When the tide is in the harbour is a massive expanse of water, and its arms and estuaries are accessible to a variety of small craft which frequently explore its scenic shorelines.
Fishing in the harbour is good, either from the wharf and pontoon where hefty kingfish are caught regularly in summer, or from boats inside the peaceful harbour - or "outside", across a tricky bar which is only for experienced skippers. Surfcasting out on Ocean Beach is also popular, adding to the range of leisure activities that make Kawhia a memorable place to visit.
But you've got to get there, and for some travellers the hill road is a formidable drive. It is sealed and well formed, but it can't be hurried. Allow half an hour for the 35km from Ngutunui T-junction, which is where, coming from the north, you pick up State Highway 31 from Otorohanga to Kawhia.
You'll have time to admire the view across Kawhia Moana, the Sea of Kawhia, from the top of the hill.
Another popular route is the scenic back road from Raglan - 45km of unsealed road with intriguing coastal and bush views as you skirt Mount Karioi and Aotea Harbour. Allow an hour between Raglan and Kawhia Harbour.
A number of craft ply the Kawhia harbour waters - yachts, kayaks, fishing boats, pleasure boats and charter boats with skippers who know the waters well and who regularly weigh in large shark and marlin during the big-game fishing season in February.
Kawhia's most intriguing craft, however, are the racing whaleboats which compete in January with crews from the harbour communities.
The 11 metre long, five-oared kauri boats are slender and quick. Five were built in the Auckland area in the early 1880s and raced on Waitemata Harbour in a regatta that marked the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi.
They came to Kawhia in 1910 and four of them survive. One is on display in the waterfront museum, and three still compete, alongside beautifully crafted modern replicas, in the annual new year regattas organised by the Kawhia Rowing Regatta Club and the Te Waitere Boat Club.
Kawhia is mecca to anyone of Tainui descent. Bow and stern stones mark where the great canoe is buried, beyond the marae buildings of Maketu. A few minutes' walk to the north is Tangi te Korowhiti, a sacred place marked by a grove of ancient pohutukawa trees, Tainui's landing point in the 14th century.
Thousands of Tainui people come to Maketu and other local marae for major hui. And in summer, Kawhia itself is a visitor destination for growing numbers of visitors from other centres, other countries.
But most of the time Kawhia is Kawhia. It has around 650 permanent residents, a doctor, policeman, volunteer fire brigade and a St John ambulance. Kawhia has a small library, a museum which also becomes a visitor information centre for six months from Labour Weekend to Easter, and there are two stores, a cafe, fish and chip shop, service station and a range of acco Maketu mmodation places.
Kawhia is one of the few coastal resorts in New Zealand which have retained a nostalgic, good-old-days charm - and where visitors seem pleased to discover that the rat-race stops somewhere on the other side of the hill.
HISTORIC KAWHIA HAS QUIET COASTAL CHARM
Kawhia is easy to miss on the travel maps. Visitors don't simply pass through.
It nestles beside a 6000-hectares harbour where SH31 reaches the sea, an hour's drive from Hamilton, two hours from Auckland, and 45 minutes from Te Awamutu or Otorohanga.
Spiritual home of Tainui and resting place of the ancestral waka, it's a popular destination for thousands of visitors each year from the Waikato centres, the Bay of Plenty and, increasingly, Auckland.
First-time visitors usually are amazed by it's fifties feel. Accommodation is inexpensive and hugely varied - from compact cabins to maraes that sleep and cater for hundreds at a time.
It has 650 permanent residents. And there are lots of things to do... if you like outdoors activities and peaceful recreation.
Heritage cruises , bush walks, hot springs that bubble up through the sand at low tide, tame eels, horse treks and fishing galore. A 66 passenger cruise boat roams the harbour and charter boats cross the bar for deep-water fishing. There's an all-tides launching ramp, a good-fishing wharf with boat-boarding pontoon attached, sand-flats which yield fat flounders, and estuaries with oysters for the picking.
Kawhia's big day is January 1, when six unique five-oared racing whaleboats join in competition between the harbour communities. Three of the 11-metre, kauri-planked craft were built in the early 1880s, and they're still racing alongside modern replicas. A fourth "original" is on show in the waterfront museum which doubles as a visitor information centre and displays fascinating photographs and memorabilia of early Kawhia.