The first time I visited Northland, I was just out of five years at university in the South Island, and I jumped on a bus to see if the charms of the north could compete with the magnificence of the south.
I admit, I was sceptical. But by the first stop, the Bay of Islands, any misgivings had melted away. I have such fond memories of it still that when I was looking for somewhere to escape to from the city, I headed north once again for a long weekend in the Bay of Islands.
Barely three hours after I’d set out from Auckland, I was rolling onto the car ferry at Opua and it felt like a world away from the city. Past holiday homes, oyster farms and mMored boats, then into the twinkling township of Russell itself, I arrived at my destination, The Duke of Marlborough, smack bang on the waterfront. Stunning. The only thing grumbling was my tummy.
The next day’s itinerary included a five-hour walk on one of the nearby islands, and as it was graded “semi-hard”, I figured I’d better eat up. Dinner was in the graciously appointed restaurant of The Duke, complete with roaring fire, glittering chandeliers and the colourful history of the old hotel illustrated by memorabilia and photographs adorning the walls. With such a gorgeous menu on offer, it was easy to fuel up for my big walk.
Bright and early the next morning, I met with my walking guide, Richard, and boarded the Fullers GreatSights cruise out amongst the various islands (there are 144 in total) before being dropped on Urupukapuka Island, where we disembarked for our walk. And what a walk!
Breathtaking views, white sandy beaches and birdlife like I’d rarely seen – tuis so tame they swooshed along beside us as we walked, huge groups of nesting shags, rare saddlebacks with their rust-coloured coat and beautiful call … It was so remarkable, I barely noticed that we’d almost circumnavigated the island, and it was time to catch the ferry back, to Paihia this time, across the bay from Russell. What a day.
After a well-deserved shower at the Scenic Hotel, it was off for dinner at Provenir – the latest project for consulting chef Peter Thornley – and as tired as I was, I managed to keep my stamina up for a full three courses. No surprises there, I suppose!
Saturday morning saw me whizzing past roadside stalls of oranges on my way to The Old Packhouse Market in Kerikeri. With pies, freshly shucked oysters, artisanal bread and pastries, as well as fine produce such as locally made cheeses, organic vegetables and fruit, smoked fish, preserves and more, the market was a feast of deliciousness. Before I knew it, my bags were full of goodies, including the requisite sweet-as-sweet Kerikeri oranges.
But there was one final stop before I headed home, to a Kerikeri restaurant that’s known for, believe it or not, its stunning Thai flavours. Nestled in a subtropical nursery, Food at Wharepuke uses local ingredients to deliver Thai-inspired dishes that pack a punch. Chef Colin Ashton’s award-winning kaffir lime and lemongrass pannacotta with poached tamarillos was phenomenal in taste and texture. And his treatment of scallops was simply divine.
Replete, I headed for home, feeling rejuvenated and relaxed, the Bay of Islands having worked its gentle Northland magic.
Insiders guide to… Bay of Islands
Stay at: A night at The Duke of Marlborough in Russell is a must. The beautifully refurbished historic hotel sits on the waterfront with premium rooms offering stunning views. Visit theduke.co.nz. In Paihia, the Scenic Hotel is conveniently located close enough to town to walk to cafés, bars and restaurants. Visit scenichotels.co.nz.
Local flavours: You won’t go hungry in the Bay of Islands! If you’re in Paihia, try Provenir at Paihia Beach Resort & Spa for lunch or dinner. Visit paihiabeach.co.nz. Kerikeri’s Food at Wharepuke for a menu of wild and exciting Thai-inspired flavours that simply dazzle. Visit foodatwharepuke.co.nz.
Best pie: Head to The Old Packhouse Market in Kerikeri and try the bacon and egg or mince and cheese. Dare I admit I scoffed both? Visit theoldpackhousemarket.co.nz.
Best photo op: Take a Fullers GreatSights boat tour to get amongst the Bay of Islands. Get up close with seals, penguins and – if you’re lucky – dolphins. Visit dolphincruises.co.nz.
Don’t miss: The upcoming annual walking festival October 2-4, 2015. Visit boiwalkingweekend.co.nz. And donate to keep these bird sanctuary islands pristine at projectislandsong.co.nz.