Why Matakana in New Zealand is the perfect beach holiday town

In this beloved place of childhood summers, one expat returns to find canvas tents replaced by multi-million dollar homes. But the pristine beaches and nostalgic magic remain intact.

A white sandy beach surrounded by trees
  • Helen Hawkes
  • February 2020

It’s on a recent summertime trip, from Ballina in northern NSW to Matakana in New Zealand, that my twin sister and I attempt to find “our” beach section after a 30-year absence. It was sold by my mum for NZD $20,000 (about NZD $18,700) to our neighbours after my parents separated when we were eight.

Driving alongside the white, sandy beaches of Omaha, Leigh, Pakiri, Tawharanui and Snells, the whiff of ocean and espresso blend like exotic perfume. My sister and I are all at sea, unable to pick out “our” cove and wondering whether it was the marine reserve of Goat Island – our own Treasure Island – that we canoed to as kids while our dad stood on shore and shouted for our return.

Surrounded by masses of colourful fish, today it’s billed as New Zealand’s first and most accessible marine reserve.

A “starter” house here, surrounded by native bush and standing near a fresh water stream – the Matakana River flows through the town and into Kawau Bay – can now be scooped up for the bargain price of NZD $795,000 (about NZD $743,000). It’s enough to make this Aussie-Kiwi kid cry. If there was one perfect thing about growing up in New Zealand, besides hokey-pokey ice-cream, it was my childhood beach house.

Two women standing on a pontoon
The whiff of the ocean in Matakana is laced with nostalgia.

Well, I say beach house. But, truthfully, it was a quarter-acre block that jutted onto the grainy east coast of New Zealand’s picturesque Matakana region.

Today the shoreline of sheltered coves is littered with multimillion-dollar houses featuring wraparound timber decking positioned for panoramic ocean views, sustainable design principles that involve palettes of rustic steel, timber and glass and expensively polished concrete floors.

It’s a far cry from the Matakana of 1881 where the population that sat on land bought by the Crown from Hauraki tribes was 150 residents who would have to wait until 1936 for electricity. The power never came to our beach section though. Kerosene lamps and bonfires were the only light to distract from the constellations of the Southern Cross or the Milky Way.

Back in the late ‘60s, the place was cheerfully daggy – our temporary home away from our Auckland home was simply an enormous, brown canvas tent; our bathroom a dunny hole with a toilet seat and a privacy screen over it, dug by my dad and the source of much anxiety in case a katipo (one of only two types of poisonous spider in New Zealand) delivered a fatal bottom bite.

A black and white picture of two girls swimming in the sea
Matakana summers in the '60s were idyllic and relaxed.

On holidays we abandoned times tables and spelling tests and stepped through a portal into magical summers of warm, freshly picked strawberries we purchased from a retiree who lived up a very steep, very dusty hill. Add to that daredevil dinghy and canoe adventures and beach hunting for driftwood and shells to decorate our imaginary houses fashioned under pohutukawa frames, which swept away when the tide came in.

I can still see the six-year-old me, in lime-green gingham playsuit and jandals, tramping determinedly up the dusty, gravel road that curled Seuss-like past our holiday section. The prize: two punnets of fresh, tangy, red berries.

A punnet of strawberries
Summers were infused with magic and afternoons spent strawberry picking.

My mother fried snapper caught off the shore on an old gas stove housed in a corrugated shed – our only permanent fixture – or my dad and his friends cooked it in a homemade smoker while bonding over a Lion beer. On some days every one of us children had a fish on our lines, placed there by our dad as we bobbed up and down in our dinghy with our homemade fishing rods. Later, the aroma of wood-fire and fresh seafood made our tummies rumble, the only other noises the crackling of driftwood on our bonfire and the ribbits of slippery frogs in the narrow gully that ran up our section.

There was only one predictable holiday routine and that was after our family of five, plus dog Midgey and cat Felix, piled out of my parents’ old Humber car: the tent must go up and that dunny hole must be dug. We’d then run next door to see if our neighbours would take our dog surfing – she was soon wobbling proudly on the front of their teenage son’s malibu surfboard.

Today, there’s no need to fry your own snapper, although you could, just to Instagram it. Matakana, only 67 kilometres north of Auckland via State Highway 1 (about an hour’s drive), is now the kind of indulgent escape where you can buy Salumeria Fontana sausages at Matakana Deli; organic handmade bread at Ringawera Bakery or wittily named house-made burgers – the quinoa and feta “Hipster” burger, for example at the Tramcar Diner.

A burger on a plate with lettuce and tomato
The quinoa and feta 'Hipster' burger Tramcar Diner are emblematic of Matakana's trendy vibe.

Fresh strawberries have been superseded by grapes made into chardonnay, pinot gris, a cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah, with tours and tastings on offer at 30-odd boutique vineyards dotted around Matakana.

No need for tents, either, unless you fancy the coastal camping grounds. Accommodation ranges from boutique (like the self-contained The Cottages Matakana) to motels and five-star luxury lodges, such as Takatu Lodge & Vineyard, with its open-log fires, cosy library and views of the Hauraki Gulf.

Matakana Village’s permanent population has swelled to about 300 people and the numbers blow out over the summer period as day trippers, tourists and holiday home owners take advantage of the pristine beaches, weekly Farmers’ Market offering sustainable, organic food, local vineyards, breweries and eateries.

On a Saturday morning, my sister and I wander through the Matakana Village Farmers’ Market and pick up a picnic of chewy, handmade breads, gourmet spreads, fresh paua fritters and craft beers to enjoy by the riverside as we reminisce about our alfresco snapper lunches.

Since the first vineyard was planted in the early 1970s, Matakana now has 28 different wine varieties across at least 18 boutique wineries. We spend an afternoon tasting some deliciously tart pinot gris at Brick Bay Wines, and meandering along a sculpture trail where large scale works are set among the native trees, wildlife and ponds bursting with waterlilies; it’s touted as the largest selection of outdoor sculpture for sale in New Zealand.

A waitress pouring a glass of wine
Enjoy a spot of afternoon wine tasting at Brick Bay Wines.

We never do find our section in the end, but I am able to relive one of my favourite childhood memories in Mathesons Bay. I remove my jeans and T-shirt, do the swimsuit-change-under-a-towel and fling myself into the not particularly balmy water of the New Zealand coast. It takes me back to dingy rides across the briny ocean and cool dips, between building “beach houses” out of driftwood, on warm days.

Jimmy Buffett said, “If there’s a heaven for me, I am sure it has a beach attached to it.” In my memories, it is that perfect beach of my childhood, the sights, smells and sounds of a more innocent time preserved forever.