The Old Saddlery Tea Rooms and Cafe, Kaeo

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An open cafe – we are saved.

It’s eight hours since my last cup of tea, and I’m willing to swill just about anything.

The plan – to have afternoon tea in Waimate North on our way north – is failing spectacularly.

The olde world tearoom near the Mission House that my beloved remembers from three decades ago has closed down.

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Te Waimate Mission Station. Picture: Te Ara.

It’s a bit after 3pm when we get there and discover our mistake. Lunch seems a long time ago. But ever intrepid, we cut across towards State Highway 10, confident there’ll be a cafe around Kerikeri or Waipapa.

Clearly, we’ve forgotten the lesson of last summer, when we couldn’t find breakfast on the main road around Kerikeri. By now we’re not fussy; it’s more than eight hours since I last had tea, and I’m willing to swill just about anything.

We pull off the road into at a couple of spots claiming to be cafes, but they’re locked and shuttered .

Things are getting tense in the car, with hunger joining tea deprivation. My beloved finds a couple of potato wedges left over from lunch. We take one each, and push on bravely towards Mangonui, our final destination.

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My beloved is out of the car and across the road almost before we’ve stopped.

But what’s this, in Kaeo? An old building with cafe emblazoned across the front and open doors. The car screeches to a halt and we tumble out.

My marks out of 10:

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Tea in a pretty cup, and a date scone. Life is looking up.

Cup 4: One of those cup-under-the-teapot jobs, make unknown. Far too big, but it is at least a teacup, and it’s pretty.

Tea Choysa bag in pot, 6: New Zealand’s gumboot tea, and my mother’s favourite since forever. Usually I turn my nose up at it, but in the state I’m in today, I’m inclined to agree with Mum – it is nectar of the Gods.

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Inside the Old Saddlery – not a saddle in sight.

Setting 7: Kaeo is famous for its floods – so much so that in 2007 then-Prime Minister Helen Clark caused a bit of a stir when she suggested that, with climate change likely to mean more heavy rain and higher tides, some of the town might have to move.

The Old Saddlery Tea Rooms and Cafe is on the road that floods. The main road, in other words. Kaeo, established in 1823 as a Wesleyan Mission and abandoned for a while after being sacked by Ngapuhi warrior Hongi Hika, is on the Kaeo River, 4km from Whangaroa Harbour.

The chap who owns the building and the backpackers’ upstairs appears while we’re sitting on the verandah. A boilermaker from Taranaki, he was living in Australia when he saw the old girl on the internet and bought her, sight unseen. He’d never even been north of Auckland, let alone to the Far North, but he packed his bags and moved to Kaeo, and started the massive renovation work.

It’s a work still in progress.

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The flat land over the road was once at the bottom on the sea, the owner tells my beloved.

He tells my beloved that the flat rugby fields across the road – the land that floods – used to be part of the harbour.

“The scows came right up here,” he says. “But it silted up.”

The cafe building started life as a general store, then became a saddlery.

“There were stables right across the road, but all those buildings have long gone,” our host says.

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The Old Saddlery building is on the left (with the verandah). The dirt road is now State Highway 10 and the buildings on the other side of the road have gone.
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The Old Saddlery when it was a saddlery.

Dog-friendly? Undoubtedly

Open after 3pm: Yes. The front door closes at 4.40pm while we’re sitting on the verandah, but the side door is still open, catering for the locals who turn up late.

The Old Saddlery Tea Rooms and Cafe, 34 Leigh St, Kaeo

Miner’s Rest Cafe, Hikurangi

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The Miner’s Rest and Coal Town Traders, Hikurangi.

“Your boy has always loved my turnovers,” says the woman behind the counter at the Miner’s Rest as she bundles an apricot one into a paper bag.

I’m taken-aback. While this place has long been a favourite, thanks to serving what must have been the world’s biggest – and tastiest – sausage rolls (my chaps are as diligent in the Search For The World’s Best Sausage Roll as I am in the Hunt For the Best Cup Of Tea), I’ve never bought a turnover here before.

What’s more, I know The Miner’s Rest has changed hands, and I have never seen this woman before.

Or have I? Eventually I twig that she owns another cafe we used to frequent, and that she used to put apricot turnovers aside for my son, who loved them with a passion boarding on worship.

So it’s sausage rolls off the menu and apricot turnovers on, but what about the tea?

My marks out of 10:

Cup 3: Heavy. Bad shape. Possibly a higher mark than it deserves, but I am blinded by apricot turnovers (did I mention I like them too?).

Tea 5: Twining’s English Breakfast, teabag in a pot. The first cup is weak, but improves with a top-up from the pot.

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Tea with a coal-mining theme.

Setting 6: Hikurangi is an old coal-mining town north of Whangarei, a couple of minutes off State Highway 1. The coal was discovered in 1883 by gumdiggers, and the last mine closed in 1971.  The cafe is decorated in homage to the miners, and today Coal Town Traders, a secondhand and antiques shop next door, is open. Bonus – I found a Crown Lynn green bamboo jug like one from my childhood at a bargain price.

Dog-friendly: Jess’ predecessor, Cody, was known to enjoy a bowl of water or two at the Miner’s Rest.

The Miner’s Rest Cafe, 49 King St, Hikurangi.

Hukerenui Hotel, Northland

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Hukerenui Hotel, on a lazy summer afternoon.

The talk in the Hukerenui pub is of country things. Rain is needed, the woodchopping at the A&P Show was good, and so were the horses, but they could have done with a bit more shade.

The rhythms of country life are soothing, jogging memories of life in the rural North.

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Deserted public bar – the action is all in the cafe.

It’s a blowsy summer afternoon when I haul in thirsty from the road, and hungry to boot, and it turns out the Hukerenui Hotel is up to the job.

My marks out of 10:

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A hearty afternoon tea for travellers.

Cup 5: White Arcoroc cup and saucer. Another blast from the past – this was big in the ’80s.

Tea 7: Twining’s English Breakfast, teabag. At first Laurel, who runs the place, can’t remember the brand. “The red one,” she says. The tea is good – as hearty as the club sandwich Laurel makes me (the display counter is empty; Laurel would rather make each sandwich fresh, so the bread doesn’t curl). I compliment her on the tea, and she says the secret is to heat the pot, and to not bring the extra hot water out until the customer wants it, so it doesn’t get time to cool.

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Setting 8: Who can resist a 127-year-old historic pub? The Huka, as it’s known, was opened in 1890. The railway went through around 1901, and gradually the main road north, from Whangarei to Kawakawa, got broader and busier. The interior of the pub’s not in original condition – more late 1980s than early 1890s – but there are huge historic prints on the walls, horses in the paddock and lamb and mint pies in the chiller.

Dog friendly? Bound to be.

Hukerenui Hotel. 2444 State Highway 1, Hukerenui, Northland.

 

Schnappa Rock, Tutukaka

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Idyllic Tutukaka, a safe-haven for boats and tea-drinkers.

“Have tea with me today,” my beloved says, and so we drive 52 kilometres north, over Mt Tiger and along the coast.

toots-sign-e1508567005332.jpgIt’s more than two decades since either of us has been to Tutukaka, and then it was to the Toots (Tutukaka Hotel) to see some now-forgotten band. No tea was consumed.

The pub burnt down in 2001, and a multi-coloured, multi-million-dollar apartment building stands on the site.

But a bit past there is the Schnappa (their spelling) Rock restaurant and bar, and after ascertaining that it is, indeed, dog-friendly, we take a seat for a long-postponed birthday lunch.

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Delicious lunch.
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Best-ever sticky-date pudding, for two.

The food is delicious; fish (sustainable) for him, chicken (free-range) for me, after which I introduce my beloved to the wonder that is sticky-date pudding, and it is the best I have ever had.

But the real proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the tea-drinking.

My marks out of 10?

CUP 2: Coffee cup. Sigh. Again, I lecture the person waiting on our table. Again, I get a courteous hearing. The young man looking after us today goes as far as saying that while he doesn’t know much about drinking tea, he is very interested in its history. For the record, or in case you’ve forgotten, here is the scientific explanation for why tea must never, ever, be served in a coffee cup, especially not one of the modern, heavy, shallow cups used by rock-star barristas.

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Tea – off the menu.

TEA 8: t leaf Tea loose-leaf English breakfast.  It’s not a good start when I realise that tea isn’t even on the menu. This is early in the piece, when we’re ordering lunch, and I challenge the waiter immediately. He assures me that not only do they serve tea, but that they have a good range of it.

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Bad name, good tea.

Me: “Why isn’t it on the menu then?”

Him: “The menu gets changed a lot and sometimes things fall off.”

I go into a decline; any place in which tea matters so little that it falls off the menu is unlikely to make a good brew.

Nevertheless, I’ve got a job to do, and so I order a pot. Obviously, given what’s gone before, I’m not surprised to be given a coffee cup. But I am surprised by the tea itself. It’s good! Summoning the waiter again, I ask what it is. He fetches the caddy from the kitchen, with a warning that I can’t take it home. t leaf T (annoying name, makes it very hard for writers who care about starting sentences with a capital letter) is a Wellington company. As someone who spends quite a lot of time in the Capital, I make a note to pay them a visit.

SETTING 10: It’s the second time in a row I’ve awarded full marks for setting, but Schnappa Rock is friendly, laid-back and rustic, with a front-row view of the harbour.

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Tea and lunch by the harbour.

DOG-FRIENDLY? Definitely (the Hairy Maclary-looking dog on the left is our Jess).

Schnappa Rock restaurant and bar. Marina Rd, Tutukaka, Northland.

The Towai Tavern, Towai, Northland

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Tea-time in Towai. The first thing in the Towai Tavern’s favour is that it’s actually open at afternoon tea time.

It’s serendipity pure and simple that brings me to the Towai Tavern, a pub often passed but never entered until now.

The plan was to stop at old favourite  39 Gillies Street Cafe, but it’s closed when I hit Kawakawa at 10 past 3 (what is it with cafes being closed at afternoon tea time?).

So  I roll on south, my tongue hanging out (the last cup of  tea was  at 7am) and wondering if the Hukerenui cafe and pub will be open.

But 7 kilometres north of Hukerenui, there’s the Towai Tavern waving a free-range menu at me, and on impulse I stop.

It’s not without trepidation. Northland is full of historic old pubs with decor circa 1970 and a clientele more interested in whether Lion Red is on tap than in discussing the merits of afternoon tea.

So it’s fair to say my expectations are low, a position that would have probably been justified if I’d arrived just a few short weeks earlier.

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The Towai Tavern was a popular stop for train passengers, but the rail fell into disuse after the main road went through, and in 1933 the hotel was moved to its present location on State Highway 1.
But the 145-year-old Towai Tavern is under new management, taken over by a family with no pub experience but with a penchant for good food and hanging white lace curtains at the windows in the public bar.

The bloke behind the bar greets me as I enter and doesn’t look at all put out when I tell him I’m hoping for tea.

There’s a sign on the bar advertising pork sandwiches and I ask if it’s free-range.

“Absolutely,” he says. “My aunty won’t have factory-farmed meat in the place. And it’s all New Zealand produce too,.”

He points to a sign saying the Towai Tavern features all-New Zealand produce (later, I find a Facebook post by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who visited on August 13 and was photographed with the winners and the losers of the inaugural Mangawhai/Towai pool contest, and made the point that the pub’s grub would be 100 per cent New Zealand produce if only coffee beans didn’t have to be imported).

The barman and I chat about the advantages of good-quality New Zealand produce while he makes my tea and I choose a piece of carrot cake from the display cabinet (the home-made pies look fantastic, but would spoil my dinner). Then he suggests taking a seat in the “history corner” of the dining room (old photographs on the walls) and says he’ll bring my afternoon tea over.

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Towai in the old days. The dirt road in the foreground is State Highway 1.

The photographs are right up my alley.  There’s a cracker of the Towai Railway Station (1897), another of a group of guys and gals (some of the former in uniform) in 1939, looking like they might have hit the town, and one  taken a few kilometres up the road at the Ruapekapeka turnoff, when Towai was a proper bustling township.

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The Ralls family in 1929.
There are plenty of the 145-year-old tavern too, but my favourite is a picture of  the Ralls family – Emma, Eileen (nee Collier), Lyonel, Ernest V and Ernie – taken in 1929.  They look like they’re good sorts and they’re having fun, especially Eileen, who’s swigging from a beer bottle.

A woman walks through the dining room and my hunch that she’s the aunty turns out to be correct. A dairy farmer from Mangawhai (they sell raw organic milk from a shop on the farm) who had no plans to take on a pub, but it was for sale and her husband thought it was worth a shot (“if it doesn’t work out, it’s an eight-bedroomed house on State Highway 1), so they are giving it a shot, and it turns out Sandra loves running a pub.

I get the feeling she’s responsible for most of the changes, and she confirms that she did hang the lace curtains in the bar, and that she has a lot of other ideas too, all revolving around good Kiwi food and hospitality.

My marks out of 10?

CUP 5: Respectable mass-produced Home and Co cup and saucer. Proper tea-cup shape.

TEA 6:  Dilmah organic English breakfast. This is tricky. I like the fact it’s organic, and that it’s made in a pot by the bloke behind the bar while I dither over the cake selection, and that he uses a pot. I don’t like the fact it’s a teabag, and that the pot (admittedly big enough for two people) is only half full (yes, I can drink four cups of tea on my own, and expect to if you give me a pot that size, even if I only ordered tea for one), and it wasn’t quite as piping hot as I would have liked it. But it’s early days for the Towai Tavern yet and I feel that things are only going to improve. And I like what they’re doing so much I want to be kind.

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Tea and cake in the History Corner.

SETTING 8: This is where the Towai Tavern comes into its own. Not as elegant as the Prince’s Gate Hotel where we had a glorious high tea last month, the Towai Tavern has, nevertheless, a charm of its own. Some might call it rustic (the dining room is open to the public bar, and it’s not hard to imagine a bit of down-to-earth language might float through from time to time), others might say it’s quirky. But I would call it authentic, not because the owners have recreated a slice of times gone by (they haven’t) but because it’s the food, decor and people you’re likely to find in a genuine Northland farmhouse.

The Towai Tavern, 3827 State Highway 1, Towai, Northland.