Window on the Bay of Islands

New Zealand's scenic secret


Captain James Cook was a noted explorer and navigator, but he obviously had less aptitude for marketing.

In 1769, when he visited this stunning part of what was to become New Zealand, in a burst of inspiration – no doubt influenced by the 143 islands he and his crew had charted - he unimaginatively named it .....the Bay of Islands!

Not his best work, perhaps, but it doesn't matter now. The name has become synonymous with relaxed lifestyles and great scenic beauty.

Paihea is one of the area's commercial hubs, with cafes, souvenir shops (yes, understandably, this area draws many tourists annually) banks, weekend markets and a ferry service to Russell, across the bay.

While the half-hour ferry ride is the ideal way to relax and enjoy the views, if you want to add the wow-factor – and incidentally see the area in a way that Captain Cook never could! – then there are helicopters which take off and land nearby.

Diners seated on the verandah of this cafe-restaurant in Paihea, which doubles as information centre, can watch them come and go.

Seeing today's sleepy town of Russell, across the bay, it's hard to believe that in the 19th century it was known as the 'hellhole of the Pacific'.

This was the whalers' fault, apparently. After months on ships, when they came ashore here, they made enthusiastic use of the town's 24 pubs and 37 brothels.

Of course it has been inhabited for much longer than this. About 700 years ago, the Mataatua, one of the large Maori migration canoes which journeyed to New Zealand from Hawaii, was sailed to the Bay of Islands (from the Bay of Plenty). Apart from the European settlements, the bay itself would have looked much the same then as it does now.

While the area is a base for deep sea anglers, for many others it simply spells relaxation. A picnic on the beach, walks along the waterfront....

...... lunch in a cafe....

... or outdoors at the gracious Duke of Marlborough Hotel, the first licensed hotel in New Zealand. 

This old place would have seen it all. From debauchery to delightful. In fact its slogan is 'refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827'.

Directly across the road from 'The Duke', what could be better than a bayside seat and a view of the various water-craft as they come and go?

Some are much bigger than others, like this Dutch sailing ship which had dropped in during our visit. Around the corner there were others that had been participating in a tall ships race from Sydney to Auckland.

Of course the area also hospitably welcomes large cruise ships during the southern cruise season and we caught sight of ours, Celebrity Solstice, at anchor offshore.

In 1841-42, Jean Baptiste Pompallier established a Roman Catholic mission in Russell, which contained a tannery, as well as a printing press for the production of Maori-language religious texts, making it now New Zealand's oldest surviving industrial building. 

The attractive Pompallier Mission, remains in the care of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. You can tour it during opening hours.

Of course in a seaside holiday place, what better lunch can you have than fish and chips - with a difference! The fish is local white-fleshed tarakihi, and the chips are kumara, a local sweet potato, with added potato.

But like all sunny days off, finally it is time to take the ferry back to Paihia and prepare to leave the Bay of Islands. 

It is tiny islets like this one close to Paihea that underline why Captain C went for simplicity in naming this 16-km wide inlet.

And while the overall atmosphere of the bay is of laid-back relaxation, this is still New Zealand, the country that prides itself on getting your adrenalin pumping. If you are looking for a little excitement, Mack Attack will do just that with a speedy zip around the bays.

Soon, as our ship pulled up the anchor and began to exit the bay, we made plans for our next visit: a tour of the Waitangi Treaty House where the early European settlers and the local Maori people signed an important agreement in 1840; a trip to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga at the far north of the North Island; and, maybe, a jetboat ride through the hole in a nearby rockface.

Captain Cook may never have returned here, but I certainly plan to.

More information....



Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond





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