By Mary-Therese Blair (Mermaid Mary)
Northland is known for its breath-taking scenery and cultural richness, but less so for its spectacular food and wine. One region in particular, the Bay of Islands, encompasses the best of natural beauty, culture, food and wine - a mere three and a half hours drive from Auckland.
Paihia and Russell are a five minute car ferry ride from each other - but which to visit? My advice is not to choose, but to instead enjoy both! Here are my recommendations from each side of the bay.
Paihia, the jewel in the Bay Of Islands, is your gateway to paradise and fun; a busy and bustling town packed with shops, markets and eateries.
Boasting expansive sub-tropical gardens and located a stone's throw from the centre of town, the Scenic Hotel provides a great base to explore Paihia town and also further into the Bay of Islands.
Residing at the end of the Wharf in Paihia, Charlotte's Kitchen brings a fresh approach to dining with luscious menu choices, matched with local wines. Named for the mysterious and rebellious (and alleged pirate) Charlotte Badger, Charlotte's kitchen is a must-visit in Paihia.
Most of the Bay Of Islands wineries are based 20 minutes away in Kerikeri. So treat yourself to an afternoon wine tour with Bay Of Islands Tours. Your driver will pick you up at your accommodation and chauffeur you to three wineries, with local commentary and even some native wildlife along the way. The winery locations do change based on availability but one of the largest wineries in the area - Marsden Estate - always features.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds truly is the definition of a 'must-do' activity and I highly recommend having a guide through this place where the nation was birthed. The knowledge, passion and cultural insight of the guides elevates the experience exponentially. The tour culminates in a spellbinding cultural performance. Afterwards, allow yourself some time to browse through the museum and marvel at the significance of this beautiful place.
It is unbelievable to think that Russell once bore the moniker: 'Hellhole of the Pacific'. This idyllic town sitting quietly by the ocean perfectly befits it's modern title of 'Romantic Russell'. It is impossible not to relax in amongst the historic buildings and narrow tree lined streets along the waterfront.
The Duke of Marlborough, prides itself on the fact that it has been "refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827," as the holder of New Zealand's first liquor license. This iconic slice of NZ history has been lovingly restored to former glory (but with all modern amenities) and is the ideal location to steep in local history. If you can't stay then have dinner in the award winning restaurant or a drink on the balcony to watch the world go by while listening to the ocean gently lap against the shore.
Eat and drink:
Spoilt for choice on this side of the bay, I've selected one for lunch and another for dinner, equally exceptional restaurants, both of which are conveniently aligned with vineyards.
Lunch at Omata Estate: If you can imagine yourself sitting in the sunshine, sipping Syrah, next to the vines that sweep down to a cliff overlooking the ocean - then you can imagine yourself at Omata Estate.
This slice of heaven is a mere five minutes from Russell with amazing service, incredible wines and food that is as delicious tasting as it is Insta-worthy. Sumptuous platters and mouthwatering wood-fired pizza are a specialty.
Dinner at Sage: Just 15 minutes from Russell, Sage is located next to Paroa Bay Winery. As they are located out of town, Sage responsibly provides a shuttle service. So leave the car in town and sit on the terrace, soaking in the tranquility as you watch the sunset over the vines. Enjoying authentic Mediterranean cuisine matched with Paroa wines served by knowledgeable and friendly staff.
Depending on your penchant for sea or land, there is plenty to enjoy in Russell. Sea lovers will enjoy the Hole in the Rock boat tour. This three hour trip includes a tour of the islands, as well as dolphin spotting combined with a fun and informative commentary as you sail to view the hole in Motukōkako Island.
Watch the weather before you book as a choppy day can challenge even the most solid of sea legs.
If you're happier on terra ferma then the Mini Tour of Russell is a pleasant way to spend an hour, going in-depth into the history of this remarkable sleepy hollow which has seen more than its fair share of excitement and scandal throughout the years.
Anytime is a good time to travel to the Bay of Islands, however for me, autumn is particularly special as the crowds have dispersed yet the temperature remains balmy and the sunset, though a bit earlier, commands the sky.
Mary-Therese travelled with assistance from the Bay of Islands Marketing Group. See their website for more information.