CHARACTER-FILLED KAWAU

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There are 95 wharves on Kawau Island and Maree Pickett knows them all. In fact, this spirited Jill of all trades knows pretty much everything there is to know about this jewel of the Hauraki Gulf and the colourful characters who live there. In 2007, Maree married Kawau-born Reuben Zylstra and the pair became the driving force behind Kawau Cruises and the Info Centre at Sandspit on the mainland. The 70-odd permanent residents on the island lead a Robinson Crusoe sort of existence, but Maree’s fleet provides the vital eight-kilometre sealink between Sandspit and Kawau, and to the rest of the Hauraki Gulf. Maree ushers our small group onto the 10.30am Kawau Mail Run. The truant spring sun has finally reappeared after the big wet of 2016, and after a brief stop at Rabbit Island to unload a woodland’s worth of shrubs and trees, the launch is soon slicing through the crystal clear teal of Vivian Bay. A man stands on the private jetty of The Beach House, one hand raised in a wave, the other shielding his eyes. The new manager of the luxury lodge and restaurant wears a full lumbersexual-style beard, yet it can’t conceal the warmth and welcome in his eyes and smile.

Per Vilsbaek (of Danish descent) leads us up to The Beach House, a Martha’s-Vineyard-cum-Fiji-resort luxury lodge nestled behind the gnarled limbs of an ancient, fairy-light-festooned pohutukawa. Wrapped around the courtyard are 11 luxuriously-appointed suites. Almost every window of the resort offers stunning views to the white-sand beach and Vivian Bay beyond. Gannets dive-bomb out in the bay, a tui trills in the old tree, peeping oyster catchers play tag with the waves. Although it’s only a hop from the mainland it feels like we’ve arrived in another country, a tropical (dare I say it) paradise.

Bevan Cox, the Chef de Cuisine and co-manager, joins us under the palms in the courtyard. In striking contrast to Per’s gentle and soft-spoken demeanour, Bevan looks like he’s done a few rounds in the ring. His face tells a thousand stories.

Bevan was a founding graduate of the four-year City and Guilds of London programme at the famous Waiariki Institute of Technology in his home town of Rotorua. He has worked his magic for more than 36 years in many different kitchens around the world – and his tasting menu is a mouth-watering testimony to this: tropical prawn cocktails, roasted chicken and peach chutney sliders, an outrageously creamy salmon and asparagus risotto, and the piece de resistance, mustard crusted lamb, minty-mushy peas, pumpkin puree and a coulis of roasted berries – accompanied by a chilled glass of Ransom’s crisp Albarino.

“After years in big kitchens I’m now doing what I love,” says Bevan. “It’s my restaurant, my food and I ring the changes almost daily.”

If the table guests were Gilligan’s Island characters, then ‘Davo’ Lee would be a much slimmer Skipper and his wife Robyn would be Ginger Grant. The irrepressible couple own and operate the Kawau Boating Club Bar & Bistro in Bon Accord Harbour. Back in 1994, Davo said to himself: “If I could find a way to make a living from running a cafe close to the sea where everyone is on holiday I’d jump at it.” The chance materialised in 2013 after the pair spotted an ad while on the Italian stint of their mid-life OE. They jumped on the next flight home and transformed the decommissioned yacht squadron outpost into a charming eatery and watering hole.

Recently, the pair hosted a school of Yacht Squadron Commodores from around the world. Davo and Robyn were a little nervous about what these boating bigwigs would think of their patchwork-quilt establishment, but they needn’t have worried. “The American Commodore threw his arm over my shoulder and boomed: ‘Davo, this is better than goddam Cape Cod!’”

Since the reopening in 2013, club membership has swelled to 1,000, but you don’t have to join the club to enjoy Davo and Robyn’s hospitality. Everyone is welcome to drop an anchor in the deep bay, catch one of the many water taxis or take a scheduled ferry and pop ashore for a pint and pizza.

Getting around:

Kawau’s water taxi services offer great flexibility and the options are many:

Piers Barney, born on tiny Motuora Island, owns Norma Jean Charters. Piers can shuttle up to 30 passengers and will even wait and take you home. He also arranges fabulous private tours all over the Gulf. www.normajeancharters.co.nz   |  T: 027 218 4595

Dave Jeffery from Kawau Island Experience based in North Cove also puts together individual bay-hop tours and adventures and provides pick up/drop off water taxi services. Dave also works for LJ Hooker as Kawau’s sole real estate agent. www.kawaulodge.co.nz  |  T: 021 951 038

Kawau Cruises offers everything from scheduled ferry services to private water taxis all around the Gulf, as well as all-out tours. www.kawaucruises.co.nz   |  T: 09 425 8006 or 0800 111 616

Mix-and-match day trips: 

Birdwing Fishing Tours: Experienced helmswoman Judy Bettley organises and skippers private birdwatching and fishing tours for up to six passengers around Kawau and the other Gulf islands on her 28-foot fishing boat, Birdwing. www.birdwing.co.nz      |  T: 021 190 3919

The Beach House Long Lunch. The 10.30am Kawau Cruises ferry to the Beach House in Vivian Bay arrives at the lodge around 11.15am with pick-up at around 4pm. Or grab a water cab. Reservations are essential for non-lodging guests. www.kawaubeachhouse.co.nz  |  T: 09 422 8850

Mansion House: Join Kawau Cruises’ scheduled Royal Mail Run for a three-hour cruise with an optional BBQ lunch and 90 minutes to explore the bush walks and copper mine near Mansion House. Maree has loads of other suggestions for a great day out.

Charter a water cab with any of the above shuttle and tour providers. Fish, dive, snorkel and swim the bays, pop in for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a sundowner at the Kawau Boating Club (09 422 8845), stop at Mansion House for a picnic lunch or a bite at the Mansion Cafe and wander up to explore the copper mine ...

... or stay the night.

Accommodation:

The Beach House, Vivian Bay

Managers Per and Bevan: 09 422 8850

www.kawaubeachhouse.co.nz

Kawau Lodge, North Cove

Helen & Dave Jeffery: 09 422 8831 or 022 399 0075

www.kawaulodge.co.nz

www.bookabach.co.nz

Kawau Island information: www.kawauisland.org.nz