The Bay Of Islands is a place of gems, filled with people that make those gems shine.
Quintessential New Zealand, surrounded by beauty so unique to the Pacific. If there was ever a place worthy of the top prize in a paradise lottery, this would be it, and I think I won it.
They let this little hobbit out on the road, and thanks to Visit Bay of Islands, I’m causing mayhem in the region.
There has never been more of an important time to put the spotlight on domestic tourism, and so if you’re still a Bay Of Islands virgin like me, have no fear, here is my idiot’s guide to what you should check out.
I was given the opportunity to explore for 48 hours, and I discovered more than just a ring.
It was a quick check-in to the Scenic Hotel in Paihia, situated in a beautifully secluded spot amongst the native bush. A friendly nod by the manager as I left indicated it was time to start my adventure!
Today this hobbit starts his journey in Charlotte’s Kitchen, Paihia’s go-to lunch-dinner hotspot.
The restaurant’s namesake is something I’ll get to in a second, after I get over the view I’m currently looking out to. Situated right on the water with one of the most stunning panoramic views of the bay, half a dozen oysters on their way, and the most soothing live music, what’s to complain about? Someone pinch me. Actually don’t, if this is a dream I would like it to last a while.
It’s no secret covid has decimated tourism around the world. Back on home soil our regions have been hit hard too, which is why the spotlight has been put on domestic tourism - and rightfully so.
It has never been more important to explore what’s in our own backyard. "Supporting local" has to go further than just a hashtag, or else these businesses will cease to exist, and these regions will suffer from their own kind of pandemic and disappear altogether.
Riki Kinnaird, co-owner of Charlotte’s Kitchen and The Duke of Marlborough, doesn’t beat around the bushes, admitting just how tough the last year has been.
And yet, the winterless north perseveres, he says - "it’s in the blood". Through thick and thin, these businesses have fought tooth and nail to keep on keeping on, whilst looking after their staff in the process. It’s quintessential kiwi spirit and I’m all for it.
Speaking of which, let’s get to Charlotte. I knew I liked this place for a reason, and the food and atmosphere wasn’t the only reason why. Charlotte Badger was a fabulously naughty lady. She was a criminal from the United Kingdom who had been sentenced to penal servitude in New South Wales. Years later she found herself heading to Tasmania on a ship called The Venus, well that was until she incited mutiny with her charm, and convinced her new crew to sail her to the Bay Of Islands. Once there, she lured in a Maori chief with her charm, and lived the life of a queen, but not long before she disappeared once again. The rumour - she charmed yet another sailor to take her away. Now I’m not one for charm, but I am naughty.
The musician has started singing Wonderwall and my heart melts ever so slightly as I polish off a decadent chocolate dessert. I am sitting on my own and while my instinct would usually have been to eat and dash because I was alone, all I actually want to do is sit and enjoy the atmosphere.
It’s so easy to forget the world. I think I just might stay here for a while.
It was my first time visiting the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to come to this special place.
Coming to New Zealand as a refugee opened up my world in ways even my family never thought possible, which is why I couldn’t help but get emotional about being here in Aotearoa’s own birthplace.
So much history weaved through every blade of grass, so much mana blowing alongside the wind. The moment you step onto these grounds, you feel the energy.
It’s that same energy carried through everyone who works here. From the wonderful admin staff, to the tour guides and performers. This place is special, and so are its people.
It’s a history lesson as well as an emotional one. From the very first moment, you set your eyes on the incredible museums. Te Rau Aroha has only been here for over a year and tells the story of the commitment and sacrifice by Māori in the New Zealand Armed Forces.
Pictures of A Company of the 28 (Māori) Battalion feature on the wall in the Memorial Gallery. As I walk out, a single tear of mine drops where I stood.
I can’t stress enough how the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a place I believe all New Zealanders need to visit at least once in their life - a pilgrimage of sorts.
From the grounds themselves, to James Busby’s house (known as New Zealand’s first flat pack Ikea house), now known as the Treaty House, there is so much to see and do, and learn from. Up until this point this place has felt like a fairytale. I have only ever heard about it from my teachers or read about it in books at school.
Today this fairytale is finally real.
Dan Busby (the last name is no coincidence) puts it perfectly when he says to me how this place feels like the centre of Aotearoa.
This man is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to Waitangi’s history. Not only that, he’s actually a descendant of James Busby, and every once in a while throws in a unique perspective (stories his family have passed on to him). It makes the experience extra special.
Interestingly two things he says to me are things I think I will never forget.
One was how he described how much women in his culture are respected and revered. He says with passion they were the queens of the household. The men had three jobs and a weapon that helped them with all three - they were hunters, gatherers, and protectors of their queens.
When I met Pita Tipene, Chairman of the Waitangi National Trust, at the beginning of my journey, he said people leave this place with tears in their eyes.
Leaving this place now, I know why.
Urupukapuka Island is the largest of the 144 bays around the region. It really is breathtaking, and that’s not just on account of the various uphill walks you can do around the island.
As I make my way around the island I find myself staring into the horizon on top of various peaks, alone, surrounded by birdsong, the local resident sheep, and my own thoughts. I’m lost and I don’t care, how could you be in a place like this?
To think this place is but a 30 minute ferry ride with Explore Group, 7.3kms away from Paihia, in our own backyard. I’ve travelled far and wide around the world, and yet I can’t seem to shake a feeling of guilt of never visiting this place.
I reach the highest point of the island. I sit down, and stare into the distance as. Far as the eye can see. I’m surrounded by sheep poo and I couldn’t be happier. Only one thought crosses my mind at this point, we are very lucky to live in the midst of paradise here in Aotearoa.
The Old Packhouse Market is a perfect mishmash of everything. It’s a melting pot of sorts. Whether it’s arts, crafts, food or culture, the Saturday and Sunday event is a staple in the Bay.
What I loved most about this place was the sense of community. Anywhere you turned neighbours were catching up, school friends were running around, and best part, first timers from all around the country were here exploring too.
The vendors all had their stories too about their unique journeys that got them here. You would be hard pressed not to be inspired, and full from all the incredible food!
There was even a wizard.
Rogue Pony Tour, three words I didn’t expect to see in the Bay Of Islands. What was it? Were there ponies involved? Why was I going rogue?
Cue Mark wearing a cowboy hat, and his Mustang, of Rogue Pony Tour royalty. Instantly my inner child starts jumping up and down and I can’t quite contain my excitement.
Simply put, you get to tour the Bay in style. Best part is you get to choose where to go.
Is history your thing? Mark will take you to the country’s oldest stone building, KeriKeri’s Stone Store which sits next to the oldest surviving timber building, the Old Kemp House. On the way you’ll pass spots etched in Aotearoa’s history, including Hone Heke’s stomping grounds.
If nature is more your thing, Mark takes you to one of the Bay’s most beautiful spots, Rainbow Falls. Be warned, you will see rainbows.
But if you’re like me and wine is up your alley, have no fear, you will find yourself at one of the Bay’s many vineyards. Marsden Estate is a particular favourite, with its picturesque views, its locally grown wine (the Rose in particular), and its extremely fun and knowledgeable staff (ask for Sera), you’re bound to have a gay old time!
Accompanied with Mark’s great sense of humour, it makes for an unforgettable way to see the region in style.
The Duke of Marlborough
The reputation precedes this wonderfully colourful place, and I’m happy to say even upon arrival, it doesn’t disappoint.
The Duke Of Marlborough sits in one of Russell’s prime waterfront location spots. The wharf extends right out in front, boats sit in front bobbling away, the sun setting within arm’s reach. It really is the place to be.
As I make my way in, almost a hundred people are stacked in its famous restaurant. People are also perched up across the road of the main strip right next to the water. A group of pirates pass right by me singing and grunting, no really, I’m sure I’m not going crazy. Best accept it because I’m really enjoying the atmosphere this place is serving up.
The staff here are just as fun, it almost feels like they’re welcoming me home.
The rooms only add to the atmosphere too. Chaotic class is how I like to describe it. Pops of colour, furry throws, and golden lined picture frames all styled in just the perfect way, and no matter where you are placed, you won’t be complaining about the view.
Then there’s the restaurant, simply best described as fresh. Think farm to table, and switch that to sea. All the seafood is sourced locally, oysters, game fish, you name it, and goes straight from the sea, to the kitchen, and on your plate. It’s the same with the wine too (how good). I see a Bay Of Islands Marsden Estate 2020 Rose on the list - winning.
Oh, and Blair Tuke has just walked in (he lives in KeriKeri after all). I know instantly it’s going to be a good night.
The morning after I check out regretfully, I really don’t want to leave this place. However the icing on the cake is having my morning coffee out on the deck, the world is just waking up, a seagull has just had a little nibble on my eggs, and I can’t help but smile.
The Hole in the Rock
It’s known as one of the Bay Of Island’s greatest wonders, the grand Hole In The Rock. Natural beauty at its best, this magical place is everything it lives up to.
Whether you’re in Russell or Paihia, this is a must-do on the list. If not for the natural New Zealand beauty, then at least for the Fullers GreatSights ferry crew’s sense of humour and quick wit.
What I really enjoyed about this trip is the amount of laughter (and there was lots of it) I had on the way to the rock — the skipper could have easily been a comedian. He also could have been a historian with his wealth of knowledge he had of the region.
Jess (the on-duty manager) made everyone smile with her own.
I had heard so much about this place and the journey to it. As you make your way through the islands, history unravels itself. From the country’s first light house, to every diver’s “wet” dream, the resting spot of the HMNZS Canterbury, this experience is an educational one, as much as it is exciting.
The draw card is of course the dolphins, and whilst that isn’t a guarantee, one thing I love about Fullers GreatSights is regardless, they will always give you free entry on next arrival should you be unlucky, and that guarantee is lifetime.
Ask the group next to me, they did the exact trip twenty years ago, didn’t see dolphins then and remembered while they were here in the Bay, they had that guarantee, and now here they are on this boat.
Unfortunately for them (and for me) they were evaded once again. Ah damn, guess I’m going to have to come back here again, how horrible.
We reach the Hole In the Rock and it is glorious, and I am completely mesmerized.
Here I am, this little hobbit, experiencing more out of life than the rest of the world right now, which is still in the midst of a pandemic. I’ve just received a notification that France is going into lockdown once again. Can someone pinch me? Actually, don’t.
How lucky are we to live in such paradise, and I make a mental note in this moment never to take it for granted.
I look into the Hole In the Rock and laugh, it looks like a gem.
The Bay Of Islands really is full of them, and full of people that make those gems shine.
I am one happy little hobbit.
This article was created for Visit Bay of Islands.
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