Matakana, an hour or so drive from Auckland city, New Zealand, is well-known among locals as a great day-trip destination or as a logical place for a break on a longer trip northwards. But only if you go on Saturday morning. Sure, on other days it has its charms (the toilets are very pretty, for example, and the inside of the cinema has to be seen to be believed), but on Saturday Matakana hosts one of the best farmers markets I’ve ever been to.
The easiest way to visit Matakana is by car; if you’re continuing futher north and need to hire a vehicle, a Spaceships campervan is a great choice.
Plan to leave Auckland before 9am to make sure you arrive at the market while it’s in full swing. You can take the Northern Gateway Toll Road, one of New Zealand’s very few pay-for-use motorways, and for the price of a cup of coffee you’ll save yourself an hour’s driving on the round-trip journey. You don’t even need to stop to pay, you pay online within a week of using the road — though I think they make a fair amount of money off charging late fees when people forget to pay.
On arrival in Matakana, you might have a bit of trouble finding a park; just drive down the main street and one will eventually appear on the side of the road, or you can pay to park closer to the action. The markets are housed in permanent structures down by the river, and though it’s not a large market, it’s cosy and cute and the products are all very good quality. Start your visit with coffee from one stall and breakfast from another — the waffles topped with bacon and banana are highly recommended. Eat at one of the wooden tables or on the steps beside the river.
After breakfast, take your time to wander through the markets. You’ll have the chance to taste many of the products before you buy them — and the products include wine, beer, and mustard. Plus there’s fresh fruit and vegetables, and a variety of food stalls where you can buy food for a picnic.
When you’ve seen all there is to see at the market, spend a bit of time wandering through the rest of Matakana. There’s a lot of antiques and second-hand shops to explore, and all in all it’s a cute little town. If it’s raining you could see a movie at the cinema, whose three theatres are each uniquely decorated.
Inside the cinema there’s a small information desk, where you can pick up information about your next destinations: the wineries in the area; if you prefer, you can also check out Matakanawine.com. New Zealand produces very good quality wine, and there are wine regions all over the country — including four small ones near Auckland (the others are Waiheke, Clevedon and Kumeu, if you were wondering).
The best thing about these wineries is that many of them give tastings — so you can drop in at the cellar door, try a few of the wines on offer, and leave with a bottle under your arm. Some wineries charge a small fee if you don’t make a purchase, but many of the tastings are free — though it’s polite to buy something. One bottle per couple is a good ratio. Of course, if you really like something, you should pick up a few. Many of the wines made in Matakana are hard to find outside the region, because the wineries are small and so is production.
I recommend you visit Omaha Bay Vineyard and Hiperion, and choose a couple more from the list that catch your fancy. On your way back to Auckland (now or after your trip north), make sure to stop at Ransom Wines. This Winery is run by a husband-and-wife team, and as well as tastings they do delicious food platters.
Plan to visit three to five wineries while you’re in Matakana. There are a lot more in the area but it can get tiring after a while — not to mention expensive if you’re buying a bottle or two in each place. Also, make sure to nominate a driver before you set out, who should not drink at all or severely limit their intake (one tasting per stop is a good guideline).
If you’re ready for lunch, drive back to Matakana town and pick up some hot savoury pies from the bakery, or visit Morris and James for a restaurant lunch followed by a browse through their pottery shop.
Another possible stop is the Brick Bay sculpture garden, a large park filled with sculptures made mostly by Kiwi artists. The walk takes about an hour and costs $12, last entrance is at 4pm.
There’s more to do but you’re probably out of time by now; turn around and retrace your steps to Auckland or continue north to the Bay of Islands and some of New Zealand’s most beautiful scenery.