As we pull in to the jetty, sun-kissed children leap into the bay, while dogs, shaking water from their coats, run excitedly along the beach. On one side of the pier a father and son are fishing, on the other a man with a wide grin shakes our hand and takes our bags. No one is wearing shoes.
My six-year-old daughter skips along the pier, and before I can say, "Lets change into our swimmers", has thrown herself ceremonially onto the sand. "Will there be friends here?" she asks wistfully, watching as two young girls wander off to a holiday house, their mother loaded down with groceries. "Yes," I reply confidently as we check-in to the Beach House, Kawau Island. With gentle waves lapping the shore, and dotted with typical Kiwi baches, Kawau Island, is instantly soporific.
The man who kindly took our bags is Andrew Cullen, host cum chef of the Beach House. We settle in with a cold drink and are shown to our beachfront room steps from Vivien Bay. "Make yourself at home," Andrew says, heading off to the kitchen to prepare dinner. "Breakfast is served whenever you feel like it." Which is probably just as well, given we don't wake till well past 10am the next morning – a time most hotels would be packing up the breakfast buffet.
You perhaps don't think of New Zealand when it comes to island or beach holidays. Sure there are plenty of baches (holiday homes) located on beaches, but very few beachfront hotels. And the bonus of the Beach House, Kawau Island is it's just 50 minutes north of Auckland. Given I'd lived in Auckland for a couple of years, I was surprised I'd never heard of it.
Previously three Kiwi families owned the property and used it as a private fishing lodge. Fifteen months ago, new owners took over and installed Andrew and his wife, Sandra, former owners of iconic restaurant Cullens in Hamilton, as hosts. Significant work has gone into refurbishing the 11-room boutique property. Beachfront rooms are decked out in beachy tones with whitewashed floorboards, king-size beds with crisp white linen, kitchenettes, modern bathrooms and neutral décor. We love our private deck where we watch boats bobbing on the tide, and friendly weka birds foraging in the bush.
The son of one of the former owners arrived on the same ferry as Ella and me , joining his young family who were there for a short break. As the sun set, he and his wife ask if Ella would like to join a game of bocce on the beach with their three kids, leaving me to enjoy a glass of pinot grigio on the deck. Later that night we dine under a magnificent pohutukawa tree on local prawns with curry mayonnaise, compressed watermelon, avocado, pomegranate and micro coriander. The kids meanwhile tuck into steak and vegetables. Andrew's South Pacific cuisine with a twist, made from the best of fresh, local ingredients, is a highlight of a stay here.
Given we wake so late the following morning we miss saying goodbye to the family who befriended Ella. "Don't worry" I reassure her, as we enjoy an a la carte breakfast, watching stand-up paddle boarders and families swimming in the clear water. "There will be more friends."
. As soon as we head to the beach for a morning swim, we run into the girls that arrived on the ferry with us the day before. They are spending the school holidays on the island. "Just grab one of the boogie boards, or a mask and snorkel from the dinghy," their grandmother Faye, who lives two doors up from the Beach House, tells us.
For the next few hours, Ella and her friends swim, sculpt themselves into mermaids on the sand, and snorkel around the rocks. When I attempt to drag her away for lunch, I discover the thoughtful grandmother has already fed the three girls (Ella included) Marmite sandwiches and oranges. We've only been here 24 hours and I'm sold on this beautiful, laid-back island, where the locals are warm and friendly and it's safe for children to run and play without a care in the world.
Later I ask Andrew what drew him and Sandra to Kawau Island, and his face lights up as he describes his love for the place. "It's such an amazing lifestyle. People walk off the beach with a smile on their face. There's crystal clear water, no cars, native bush, a completely safe environment and an incredible night sky," he says.
As I watch Ella, engrossed in sand castle building on the beach, I realise we've discovered one of New Zealand's true hidden treasures. Coming to Kawau Island is akin to turning back the clock to happy-go-lucky holidays of my childhood where a never-ending supply of friends, and a dog or two, was always up for an adventure. I can't wait to come back.
The writer was a guest of the Beach House, Kawau Island, Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.
King rooms start from $318 a night including cooked breakfast, pre-dinner drink and canapes. Renovated beachfront rooms from $568.See kawaubeachhouse.co.nz
From Auckland, Sandspit is a 50-minute drive north. You can leave your vehicle at a secure carpark. Kawau Beach House is reached via scheduled ferry service or water taxi. Alternatively, arrive by seaplane. See kawauwatertaxis.co.nz or aucklandseaplanes.com.