Sep 18, 2014

The charm of New Zealand’s Bay of Islands

Lucy Jones fell in love with the Bay of Islands – and almost didn’t come home.

Every traveller, whenever they find them-self in a place they particularly love, will fantasise about moving there. Packing up their lives and settling down in Barcelona, Tokyo, the south of France. For me, that moment came in the Bay of Islands in the northern end of New Zealand’s North Island. I could very well still be there, writing this blog from a pebble-strewn beach as boats bob gently in front of me. It was a close run thing.

The beauty of New Zealand is undeniable; the whole country looks like a movie set (and indeed, it often is). But the charms of the Bay of Islands are a little subtler than the grandeur of Milford Sound or the snow capped heights of the Remarkables. Soft green hills roll down towards bright blue water framed by tiny yellow sand beaches, and the air is so clear that all the colours seem to have been over saturated.

Bay of Islands | Travel Insurance Plus

I had been exploring the country for a couple of weeks and, despite being the height of summer, had found NZ weather to be…changeable at best. But arriving in the Bay of Islands, it felt like I’d stepped ashore in the South Pacific. It has a semi-tropical maritime climate with warm summers and mild winters (in fact, the Bay of Islands is considered “winterless” by New Zealand standards).

The region is made up of 144 islands, though there are only four main towns. I started in Paihia, as most people do. Its centre is a small cluster of shops and cafés around the curve of the bay, with the wharf in the middle and a market on the green some days selling genuinely beautiful jewellery and artwork (alongside the usual kiwi-themed paraphernalia). It’s a nice town, but where I really fell in love was across the water in Russell. A couple of dinky little ferries make the 15-minute journey across the bay and the café on the wharf serves great coffee while you’re waiting.

Bay of islands | Russell

Less than 1,000 people live in Russell year-round and, in my opinion, they are just about the luckiest people on the planet. For such an unassuming little place, Russell has a big history. It was New Zealand’s first port and first European settlement, and the country’s first capital city Okiato (or Old Russell) is just seven kilometres away. It also has a less salubrious claim to fame – in the 19th century Russell was a shore leave destination for sailors, whalers and traders, and became known as the “hell hole of the Pacific”. But you’d never know it now.

Its few orderly streets are lined with white wooden cottages, some truly spectacular mansions, second hand bookshops, cafes, restaurants, a beautiful church and the Mission Pompallier, the oldest Roman Catholic building in the country.

The town looks like it belongs in a storybook, and I guess some visitors forget that people really live here. One charming historic house right on the beach is the home of the town’s policeman and his family, and there is a polite though firmly worded sign asking tourists not to come into the yard to take photographs.

At lunchtime, take a seat at the Duke of Marlborough – it holds the oldest pub license in New Zealand and serves up delicious local seafood and wines from a glass-walled deck bathed in sunshine. For something a little more casual, there was a line stretching around the corner out the front of the tiny fish and chip shop (cutely called the Crusty Crab), so I imagine the food would be tasty. Perhaps it was the sauvignon blanc from the nearby Paroa Bay Winery that addled my brain, but I even went so far as to check the windows of local real estate agents to see how much this quiet idyll would cost to inhabit (hint: it’s not cheap).

IMG_1184

The next morning I spent a gorgeous few hours pottering through the calm ocean in a kayak (and my arms spent several more days paying for my lack of fitness). I was told it’s possible to see dolphins and even killer whales but, despite keeping keen eyes fixed on the water, both proved elusive. But there were birds aplenty, darting fish beneath crystal clear water and a completely deserted beach for a well-deserved swim. If you have more time, multi-day kayak trips venture further out into the islands or you can give your arms a rest and explore from the deck of a yacht.

Further afield, you can visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Maori and the British in 1840, and the town of Kerikeri is also worth a visit for lunch at one of its small vineyards.

But it’s Russell where I would like to see out my days. As I waited to board the last ferry on my way back to the real world, I felt an almost irresistible urge to stay. I could get a job at the Crusty Crab, buy a little boat and look as permanently relaxed as everyone else who lives here. Maybe next time.

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