Sidetrack Cafe, Mt Maunganui

sidetrack mt
The Sidetrack – right under the mountain.

The Mount’s changed – but the tea’s still good.

It’s late morning, we didn’t have time for breakfast, my blood sugars are all over the place and I’ve got a powerful need for tea.

The Ornithologist, who visits the Mt Maunganui often (my workmate Rebecca, who came on a tea-party tour with me last year)  knows just the place to get me back on track – the Sidetrack Cafe.

My Marks Out of 10:

Cup Acme: That’s a 1. Here’s why.

Tea Total English breakfast 8: Consistently good, and just what I need.

Setting 8: The Mount’s changed a bit since I was last there, about three decades ago. Everything is bigger, faster, brighter, and the Narnia shop, with it’s crushed velvet shirts and incense that was a magnet for girls of a certain age, has disappeared without a trace.

But the fundamentals – the mountain, the beach – are still the same, and the Sidetrack is strategically placed for both. And the food – poached eggs and an industrial-style salad, is good.

Dog-friendly? Yes.

Open after 3pm? Yes.

Old George, Bowen St, Wellington

old george outside.jpg
Bowen House – handy for our nation’s power-brokers.

Irrefutable evidence that coffee makers CAN do tea when they put their minds to it.

The Old George cafe at the bottom of Bowen House is living proof that coffee people can do good tea.

Old George is a coffee roasting company, named after an old chap in Australia, who (I think) taught the owner to roast perfect coffee (that’s according to the website; I make no claims about judging perfect coffee).

old george sign.jpgSo it is all about coffee, confirmed by the sign describing the cafe as a “roastery and espresso bar”.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t take tea seriously too, as I discover on my first visit. The tea is good. Great, in fact, and I know I’ll be lured back again and again. People take note: if you want to find me in Wellington, try looking in this cafe.

My marks out of 10:

Cup – eclectic collection of old fine-bone china, 10: On my first trip I’m given a charming Salisbury cup with yellow flowers. I fall in love immediately. The next time it’s Royal Doulton. Life just gets better.

Tea Tea Total Wild Cherry black tea 9: Undoubtedly, my judgment is being influenced by the quality of the drinking vessel, but I enjoy every sip of this brew. A pot of hot water on the side so I could get full two cups from the teapot and Old George would be looking at a perfect round (Obviously, I’m still not following the Professor’s advice and asking for a pot of water).

old george tea and pot
A selection of good teas.

Setting 7: This Old George cafe is in the ground floor of Bowen House, just across the road from Parliament and The Beehive, and handy to lots of government departments, so  it’s a popular watering hole for officials and politicos. The first time I visit is to meet ministerial staff. The second time is a disaster (it’s Saturday morning, I’ve walked all the way from Cuba St to have my first cup of the day here, only to find it’s closed) and the third time I make a slight detour during a trip to the Ministry for the Environment. Apparently there’s another Old George just around the corner at 16 The Terrace.

Dog friendly? Probably not, but unconfirmed.

Open after 3pm? Yes.

Old George, 1 Bowan St, Wellington.

River Cottage Cafe, Otaki

river cottage courtyard
Pretty courtyard – but at 8am on an autumn morning, inside by the fire is a better bet.

The first leg of a nostalgic trip through Horowhenua

My sister and I spent a lot of the ‘seventies leaning over the back seat of our grandparents’ Zephyr 6 as we drove around Horowhenua, Puppa telling stories about his farming childhood and Gran looking for good spots for tea.

Sometimes the tea was in a Thermos on one of the wild west coast beaches, or made in a billy on a fire by a river. Other times we went to one of the cosy tearooms that seemed to be everywhere in those days.

river cottage gran and puppa
My grandparents loved the beach. I think this is Himatangi, a little north of Horowhenua, circa 1970.

Baby brother Matt missed out on these excursions, and I’ve always felt a bit sad about that. So early on an autumn morning, while it’s still dark, I collect him from his home in Wellington’s Mt Cook and we head north on our own road trip, Matt getting in the mood by playing ‘seventies music on the car stereo and me trying to retell the stories I heard so long ago.

The first stop on our road trip is Otaki’s River Cottage, a cafe in a converted stable on State Highway One.

I know this place of old; it was one of Gran’s favourite stopping places. In those days it was called The Stables and you sat in the bit that is now a shop.

river cottage old
River Cottage as it used to be.

There’s a hand-written history on the wall, starting from 1939, when the newly opened tearooms were filled with a metre of silt from the flooding Otaki River.

“In 1939, World War Two began,” the author says. “By this time I had two young brothers, Jim and John. Dad cleaned out the tearooms and erected a large neon sign overlooking the highway, in the shape of a large horseshoe, and called it the Green Horseshoe Tearooms. Mother took over then with a waitress and they served light meals such as spaghetti and baked beans and eggs on toast, hot scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam, which became very popular, and of course, gallons of tea.”

river cottage fizz
Foxton Fizz – a drink from childhood, still on sale at River Cottage.

That’s the way I remember it, scones and gallons of tea. Served on cake stands three tiers high and with butter shaved into little curls. But will the tearooms atmosphere have survived the Age of Coffee? Anxiously we hang about until 8am, when the doors open and we can find out.

My marks out of 10:

river cottage temuka
Temuka teacups, ready for duty.

Cup 9: Temuka Riverstone cup and saucer. How do they know I’m collecting it?! This set was huge in the 70s and my aunt was an aficionado.

river cottage saucer

Temuka is made by New Zealand Insulators, a 94-year-old company whose main business is making electrical insulators. But clay is clay, and in the 1930s, it started producing tobacco jars, mixing bowls and teapots as Christmas gifts for customers. They were popular, and a side industry was born.

During World War Two, the company made chamber pots, hot-water bottles, electric jugs and teapots for the Indian Army. Since then it’s supplied New Zealand Railways (their cups weren’t all made by Crown Lynn), the Union Steamship Company, the Hobbit movies and my very own Forest & Bird (I work there when I’m not drinking tea, and sometimes while I’m drinking tea).

river cottage cup

tea on the road tea 2
A good selection of good tea.

Tea 6: Tea Total English breakfast loose-leaf. One of my new favourites, so expectations are high. Unfortunately, they aren’t quite met. The pot is small and there’s no hot water for a top-up (though they might have given me some if I’d asked), but the biggest disappointment is that the tea is weak. Eventually, by drinking bits and adding more tea to the cup, I produce a reasonable cup, but I’ve had this tea before, at Loretta in Wellington and Sky Cafe in Auckland, and know it can be better.

river cottage blankets 3.jpg
Blankets thoughtfully provided in the courtyard, but I’ll take inside by the fire.

Setting 10: My brother and another customer try to convince me to sit outside in the courtyard but my warm northern blood is having none of it. It might be sunny, but it’s 8am on an April morning and cold. The mere fact there is a pile of blankets handy confirms that outside is not a good idea. Much better inside by the fire.

The decor is cheerful if slightly whacky, and the food (vegetarian cooked breakfast for Matt, pancakes for me) is delicious, but it’s nostalgia that tips this cafe over from a 9 to a 10.

Open after 3pm? Yes.

Dog-friendly? None in evidence, but it’s not hard to imagine a pup or two in the courtyard.

river cottage outside

River Cottage Cafe, 170 Main Highway, Otaki

Sky Cafe, Auckland

sky cafe teresa
Tea is a serious business for Sky Cafe’s Teresa Reiferscheid.

Two years ago, Sky Cafe turned its back on Sri Lankan tea heavyweight Dilmah in favour of a local blend.

And while we’re Dilmah fans from way back (it’s been the principle brew in our house since the early 1990s), there’s no denying that the tea being served in the Sky Cafe is darned good.

My marks out of 10:

Cup 6: Accolade, Southern Hospitality catering ware. Described as chip-resistant, long-lasting and designed for continuous use, it makes sense to use it in a high-traffic place like this. And while it’s not fine-bone fancy, it is a good teacup shape,  large, reasonably light (for what it is), and has a lip – all qualities to endear it to the discerning tea-drinker.

sky cafe signTea 8: Tea Total extra-strength loose-leaf English breakfast. You know you’re in a place that takes tea seriously when the menu bothers to describe the tea as an Assam-broken orange pekoe blend. Tea Total is a New Zealand company based on Auckland’s North Shore. I’ve had their tea once before, an Irish Breakfast at Loretta, in Wellington’s Cuba St, when I described it as having “interesting notes”.

Today, it’s brought to our table by Sky Cafe assistant manager Theresa Reiferschied. An Irish woman who has also lived in Germany for many years, she is the type of woman who takes tea seriously.

“We changed (from Dilmah) a couple of years ago,” she tells me. “I felt we needed something a more, and Tea Total actually took me to their factory and showed me how they blend the tea.”

There are four black teas on the Sky Cafe menu (including, appropriately, because of the volcano that dominates the view out the window, Smooth Rangitoto Blend) as well as green and fruit teas.

My only criticism is that if I had been given a jug of hot water, I could have more than one-and-a-quarter cups.

sky cafe view
A view from the Sky Cafe, down Auckland’s Nelson St to Princes Wharf (where the sailing ship Tenacious waits to take my friend Fran around Cape Horn), across Waitemata Harbour to Bayswater and out to the Hauraki Gulf.

Setting 7: When you’re 182 metres in the air, the view is, of course, fantastic. It’s a bonus to have a table with a view of Princes Wharf and the sailing ship Tenacious my friend would be joining to sail around Cape Horn.

Dog friendly? No.

*The Sky Tower is the 23rd tallest building in the world. Completed in 1997, it is 328 metres from the ground to the top of the communications mast, and was built as part of the Skycity casino.

Sky Cafe, Level 50, Sky Tower, corner Federal and Victoria Streets, Auckland.