The MV Kawau Isle looks conspicuous as she pootles into Auckland's busy Downtown Ferry Terminal. All the other boats buzzing in and out are high-speed catamarans and ferries. We file onboard the elegant green and white wooden cruiser and she putters slowly away from the wharf into Auckland Harbour. The sleek catamarans all turn right, roaring off in a cloud of diesel fumes towards the islands of Waiheke and Rangitoto. We, on the other hand, turn left and take the river less travelled.
Until I looked at a map, I had no idea Auckland's Waitemata Harbour continues so far inland, narrowing into a peaceful channel at the suburb of Riverhead, 25 kilometres from the city centre. The scenery along this quiet, meandering waterway would be reason enough to make the journey but there's an added incentive – The Riverhead pub, which claims to be New Zealand's oldest riverside tavern.
One complication is that the journey can only be made around high tide so the departure time changes daily, making it either a lunch, afternoon tea or, in our case, a dinner cruise.
There are 25 passengers onboard today, split between the boat's cosy, wood-floored galley and a separate covered section at the stern. A small, reasonably priced bar sells wine and beer for $NZ7 ($6.60) a glass. There's also a handful seats outside in the bow and a few of us take up residence there, basking in the warm sunshine under a cloudless, sapphire blue sky.
Skipper Paul Meyer tells me he bought the boat "out of sheer stupidity" in 2003. The 13.5-metre vessel was previously a ferry to Kawau Island but now he and fellow owner/operator Cath Meehan use it for the Riverhead run and private charters.
As we cruise under the Auckland Harbour Bridge and past a succession of stunning waterfront homes, Paul provides a wry commentary from the cockpit. He covers an impressively eclectic range of topics – from the area's history to local architecture to military strategy – all delivered with a healthy dose of deadpan Kiwi sarcasm.
Notable sights include the 2000-berth Westhaven Marina (the largest in the southern hemisphere) and the imposing 19th-century Chelsea Sugar Refinery, which still operates 24 hours a day.
Equally compelling is the everyday activity on the harbour – people fishing from bobbing boats, jet skiers roaring past in a plume of spray and stand-up paddle boarders gracefully skirting the foreshore.
After we pass under the Upper Harbour Bridge, the channel narrows into a mangrove-lined inlet. We're only a 20-minute drive from the city centre but there's almost no visible development, the waterway fringed by gently undulating green fields and thick pockets of forest.
An hour and a half after leaving downtown Auckland, we pull into the dock outside The Riverhead. With strict instructions to be back onboard in 1½ hours' time, we climb a steep flight of stairs and find a table on the pub's spacious outdoor terrace. It's an idyllic spot, surrounded by towering oaks with a sweeping view back down the channel.
The renaissance of this historic inn is thanks to intrepid husband-and-wife team Stephen and Paula Pepperell. After spending nine years sailing around the world in a boat they built themselves, they returned to Auckland and bought the pub in 2010. It had previously been owned by the notorious Head Hunters motorcycle club and was – to put it mildly – a little worse for wear. Seven months and 14 tonnes of gib later, it re-opened with a fresh, stylish interior, a revamped menu and an impressive selection of local wines.
Unfortunately, the one we choose – a 2009 sauvignon blanc from nearby Kerr Farm – is past its best but that aside, the service, setting and food are all top notch.
We clamber back on board, some passengers clearly having sampled extensively from the wine list, and set off in the dusky twilight. There are no channel markers so Paul must rely on his depth sounder to navigate, threading his way between boats on floating moorings.
It's a balmy, breathless night so a group of us sit outside and watch the night sky sparkle into life.
After passing back under the Harbour Bridge, we are greeted by the captivating sight of Auckland's illuminated skyline, the needle-like Sky Tower glowing red and yellow against the ink-black sky.
As we pull into the ferry terminal, Paul makes one last droll announcement. "I'd just like to apologise for today's weather. Hopefully tomorrow is a little better."
Emirates flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. Phone 1300 303 777, see www.emirates.com.
The Riverhead Ferry departs from Pier 3 at Auckland's Downtown Ferry Terminal. The return trip to The Riverhead pub costs $NZ35 for adults, $NZ20 for children. Check website for departure times: www.riverheadferry.co.nz.
Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Riverhead Ferry.