Dining out on the covered deck of the Seaside Cafe Maketu, you could almost believe you were on a yacht, with sun streaming in the zip-open windows of a white canvas canopy.
The sea is so close to this defiant little takeaway-cafe-restaurant perched right on the coast, you’d almost be afraid for it in a big nor-east storm. Big waves at high tide must lick at the buildings foundations.
The view from my small table with a bright check tablecloth and cheery single daisy in a vase: the coast stretches in a great curving arc of brown sand towards the peak of Mauao at Mount Maunganui, and further northwards to the Coromandel. Inland, there are views across green dairying country to Mount Edgecumbe, Tarawera, and the Kaimai Ranges.
Maketu is a small town named after an ancient kumara pit in Hawaiiki, where according to Maori tradition, seven canoes set off bound for New Zealand (The Te Arawa canoe landed at Maketu, but more on that later). And yes, you will find kumara on the menu of the Seaside Cafe that’s been one of the town’s biggest attractions for some years. The cafe draws day trippers, and evening diners from as far away as Rotorua, Tauranga only half an hour away and even Auckland, a three hour drive. In recent times, with new owners and menu changes, the cafe is pulling even more customers.
The menu ranges from all day breakfasts with the likes of French toast, and scrambled eggs to lunches with grilled chicken panini, and one of the house favourites – a lamb mint burger with kumara chips and sour cream.
My Hearty Seafood Chowder rates very high on the hearty scale, a delicious brew full of chunks of fish, mussel, and even salmon in a huge bowl. This is one of the cafe’s ‘most famous’ dishes, enthuses Manager Geraldine Leenders, whose background includes decades with some of Tauranga’s big name restaurants.
The Fish of the Day dish is another popular choice, and today there’s a choice of fresh terakihi ($22.50), or hoki ($18.50), pan-fried, battered or crumbed, served with salad and hot chips. Other mains include Savoury Red Coconut Curry for $19.50 and Seafood Paella ‘ragu’ for $24.50.
On Sundays, the cafe lays on a popular $20 buffet with choices such as glazed ham, or roast beef, and veges like roast potato and kumara, pumpkin and peas and carrots. For desert, there is home-made steam pudding with custard and fresh cream. The cafe is licensed with unpretentious wines at $20 a bottle, or $6 a glass, but the wine list is being revamped.
Back out the window, small waves swoosh onto the sand, to create the perfect sound track for this spot; thank goodness there’s no hi fi playing something bland. Two men in wetsuits paddle in to the beach on sit-on kayaks, back from a fishing jaunt. They tell me later they caught ‘enough fish for a good feed.’ The two are local builders who’ve taken advantage of the crisp, sunny winter’s day for a fish while they are ‘waiting for windows’ to arrive at their building job. Further along the sandy spit, a couple of surf casters have their lines out and rods stuck in the sand, but aren’t seeing any action. Out at sea Motiti Island lies at the end of a shimmering path of sun. The cafe is ‘getting well known now,’ says Geraldine, and with such a blend of wholesome food and ‘the best ever views,’ it’s not hard to see why.
Maketu is also a pie-lovers destination, as the home of iconic Maketu Pies. Located in the tiny downtown, this company’s delightful website has ‘instructions for eating your Maketu Pie,’ including advice like ‘filling your mouth with very hot pie is a questionable action.’ The pie factory has a staff of more than 40, churning out tens of thousands of pies for sale all over the North Island. There are 22 different varieties, ranging from the ever popular cheese and mince to the more exotic mussel, lamb & mint, bacon & egg, and smoked fish. Grab yourself a hot pie from their shop for $3.
There’s plenty to do in Maketu, besides eat. The town is located on Okurei Point with its own surf club and an attractive channel mouth draining a huge estuary. The sandy beaches provide good swimming, surfing, fishing, and shellfish gathering, while towards the point, are rock pools to explore. The estuary is popular with kite surfers. There is also bird-watching, with the Maketu sand spit one of the few places in New Zealand where the endangered New Zealand Dotterel attempts to nest.
For families, only minutes away by car from Maketu are two of the biggest local attractions - the kiwifruit theme park of Kiwi 360, and natural health products company Comvita’s excellent visitor centre. Drive up Town Point Road to the hill above Maketu, to find popular Briar’s Seaside Rides, which offers horse treks across rolling green farmland with dazzling views out over the whole Bay of Plenty.
For history buffs, or the merely curious, visit the grassy bank near the channel where Maketu’s big estuary drains to the sea, to view historic monuments. The Centennial Memorial (1840-1940) – topped with a canoe-style wind vane - was erected to mark the legendary historic landing of the Arawa canoe, in 1340 A.D. after a voyage of 2000 miles from Hawaiiki.
Beside the monument is an ancient ship’s cannon salvaged from the trading vessel Valcona. The schooner was extensively damaged in a violent storm to the west of this spot.
Where to stay? Handily located behind the cafe, is Beach Holiday Park (www.maketubeach.co.nz), where you can, as they say, unwind to the sound of the sea. The camp is priced from $20 for tent sites, to $115 for a motel. There are also tourist flats, chalets and cabins. My pick would be one of the $55 a night log cabins, complete with a small verandah that face out to sea.
Maketu may mean kumara pit, but I’d translate it as a basket of simple, affordable pleasures on the Bay of Plenty coast...