Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Donkey Bay Inn, The Duke Of Marlborough

Early this year, in the heady pre-COVID-19 days of breathing near strangers and not wearing track pants five days in a row, my mum and I booked a trip to New York City. 

We'd been there together once before, circa 2006, when it was a stop on a travel junket my parents were both writing about. 

Back then, my main concern was finding the op shop that the Olsen Twins frequented and taking moody selfies by the John Lennon memorial in Central Park. This time, we'd sip Manhattans at rooftop bars, soak up the culture with an obscure off-Broadway show and marvel at the exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art.

Or so we thought. 

The unwelcome surprise of a pandemic meant that our trip ended up being nothing more than a series of taunting calendar notifications reminding us of the take-off time for flights that never departed. Two lockdowns later, with international travel entirely off the table and an exhausting number of family Zoom calls under our belts, mum and I were more in need of an escape than ever.

As it turns out, our very own Bay Of Islands has more fine dining, culture and breathtaking views than a mother-daughter duo could ever hope for. Plus, you likely won't have to watch your taxi driver threaten a man with a steering wheel lock in the middle of the freeway, which happened to us last time we were in NYC. 

Here's how to treat your mum to a weekend fit for a queen in the Bay of Islands. 

Makana Confections 

After I drive us over three hours from Auckland with mum trying her best not to stamp on her imaginary brake, we're both in need of a pit stop. 

Makana Confections, the Far North's answer to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, means you can swap that lukewarm gas station sausage roll for a pork belly salad, followed by a scoop of gelato, an intricate dessert or a box of handmade chocolates - look out for the famous macadamia butter toffee crunch. 

If you're already full from succumbing to most of a family-sized bag of Twisties, no judgement here. You can still pop in to watch the treats being made in the kitchen and snaffle a few free samples while you browse the shop. 

The Duke of Marlborough 

A short, unexpectedly novel car ferry ride from Paihia later, we arrive in Russell and check in to the Duke Of Marlborough - a historical, waterfront gem of a hotel that feels like the best kind of time warp. 

Known for 'refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827' the iconic spot expertly walks the line between then and now. The hallways, replete with vintage art and grandfather clock, give off the retro, musky aroma of an old pub, while the renovated rooms are as luxuriously comfortable as any high-end hotel, and plenty of them boast sea views. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: The Duke Of Marlborough

Down in the bar, the locals drink beer around a stunning bright red piano emblazoned with the word Ipipiri - the Māori name for the Bay of Islands - or carouse by the fireplace. Outside on the sea-side dining deck, mum and I lose our minds over the gin and tonic menu (yes, a whole menu) while watching the sun go down. Considering the place was granted the country's first-ever liquor license in 1840, it'd be rude not to. 

After the appropriate number of drink-in-hand Instagram photos were taken (mine of her: well-framed perfection, hers of me: an unflattering blur) it was time for dinner. This is not to be missed, particularly if you have the good fortune to be looked after by front-of-house star Robbie J, whose unique elaborations on the menu had us in hysterics. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Monika Barton, Diana Wichtel

"The potato gratin? I would wear it as a face mask," he tells us, describing one cut of meat as "so tender you could slice through it with the blunt end of one of Kim Jong Un's missiles... if you can find him!" 

Strange, but true. Not to mention, the deep-sea Hapuka is so fresh, it was just caught earlier that day by one of The Duke's dedicated trawlers before being dropped off at the dock by the restaurant. Divine. 

Dolphin Cruise To The Hole In the Rock 

Fullers Great Sights' half-day boat trip picks us up at the wharf right outside The Duke - a convenience that would have made for a rather more relaxing morning had we not failed to realise this, and planned our drive back to Paihia, for reasons I'm still unaware of. Still, what is a family holiday without a fleeting moment of confusion and panic? 

Thankfully, once onboard, we're entirely unable to stuff up what turned out to be a magical morning on the water. The catamaran's captain is cracking wise, there's lots of informative commentary on the islands we cruise past, and the pandemic's silver lining of fewer tourists means there's plenty of room to pop outside to check out the seals we discover lounging on a huge rock in the middle of the ocean. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Fullers Great Sights

We don't see any dolphins, nor do the high winds let us sail through the famous Hole In The Rock, as is sometimes possible, but none of it matters. We stop off at Urupukapuka Island, with white sandy beaches and curious piwakawaka (fantails) that flit around your feet as you stroll. It's the kind of place that makes you remember that as Kiwis, we get to live in utter paradise. 

Charlotte's Kitchen 

We jump off the cruise at Paihia and grab lunch at Charlotte's Kitchen, drenched in sun with a killer view right at the end of the wharf. Despite the fact it's not yet spring, I decide things feel tropical enough for a perfectly mixed rum cocktail at noon, and we scarf down two of what might be the finest wood-fired pizzas we've ever had. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Charlotte's Kitchen, Monika Barton

Still buzzing from the wildlife we saw on our boat trip, I embarrass myself by screeching "LOOK, IT'S A SEAL!" at what turns out to be a flipper belonging to one of the local kids who's diving for muscles by the wharf. 

Donkey Bay Inn 

Our next stop is Donkey Bay Inn, where upon having to enter a code to gain access through the golden gates, we realise we're punching out of our normal accommodation league. "It's probably because people like Beyoncé stay here," we decide. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Donkey Bay Inn

Walking through the lemon-coloured tunnel flanked by ornate statues at the entrance to the boutique hotel, mum decides she'd quite like a tunnel for her own house, which I'm sure will provide a fun and realistic job for dad after he retires. 

What follows is a level of otherworldly opulence that's hard to describe. Once built as a sprawling, cliff-edge family home by eccentric Northland-based Italian winemaker Antonio Pasquale, it's now four elaborately appointed rooms joined to a communal kitchen, library, sitting room and bar that look out to an astonishingly beautiful ocean vista. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Donkey Bay Inn

We try hard not to trip over our jaws, or the resplendent taxidermied peacock, or the giant bronze Jesus statue, as we weave our way through the flamboyance and up to the Skyfall Suite. There's a private balcony, a four poster-bed, and a bath so big you could almost swim laps in it. We even get our own moodily-lit sitting room. It proves a useful place to adjourn to when either of us needs to use the bathroom, which, magnificent as it is, does not include a door. 

Still, there's too much to see and do to spend long in the room. We wander down the winding path to the private beach, stopping to marvel at the towering, crystal-embedded sculptures before enjoying a sunset-timed wine tasting hosted by the restaurant manager of the nearby Paroa Bay Winery. We could get used to this. 

Why the Bay of Islands makes the best mother-daughter weekend destination
Photo credit: Donkey Bay Inn

Just when we think things can't get any more weird and wonderful, we're offered a turn in the twin outdoor bathtubs under the stars, where we see a shooting star at such close and clear range we can watch the glowing meteoroid burn out as it enters the atmosphere.

"Maybe aliens," I offer. "Stop it, Monika," Mum replies, uneasily. 

Waitangi Treaty Grounds 

Our final stop on Sunday sees us welcomed onto the Waitangi Treaty Grounds by a spine-tingling pōwhiri outside Te Whare Rūnanga (the House of Assembly) - the same one built in 1940 to celebrate the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The atmosphere of a place like this is palpable, and the ensuing cultural performance is equal parts moving and uplifting. 

Before the show, the crowd is told not to laugh inside the whare, but the resident performing arts group Te Pitowhenua is so authentic, entertaining and at times downright hilarious it's hard not to beam with joy the whole way through. There's waiata, poi and taiaha demonstrations, dance and history. Any Kiwi who thinks this kind of thing is reserved for overseas tourists is missing out. 

Later, we're treated to a private tour of the rest of the grounds, where our friendly and enlightening guide gives a rundown of how Aotearoa came to be what it is today with a level of detail and insight you'd never be able to get anywhere else. 

When my parents and I went to New York 14 years ago, the bright lights of the Big Apple won me over with its hustle and bustle. The fact that mum and I went out to buy shoes at 11pm was the height of excitement for a teen who felt penned in by my country's 5pm closing times and lack of giant neon billboards. 

Now, drinking in every last drop of the glorious panorama before we leave the Treaty Grounds, I couldn't feel luckier to have the scenery, safety and serenity of places like the Bay of Islands on my doorstep to explore with family in these strange and scary times. 

Who needs shoes before midnight anyway? 

Monika and her mum visited the Bay of Islands courtesy of Bay of Islands Tourism.