New Zealand's North Island offers more adventure than anyone could pack into a five-day tour - as our next Six of the Best! winner will soon find out. By Liliana Engelhardt
A few moments of hectic activity when the skipper called "tack... now!" and six testosterone-laden American fighter pilots on holiday worked the grinders as though their reputations were at stake. The sails moved position ever so slightly, while skipper Jason steered the America's Cup yacht NZL41 nimbly around a buoy. Then, before the rest of us could register what was going on, the tack was complete and we were swiftly sailing away from the pier we were heading towards just a moment earlier.
That's one of many memories I took home from a recent trip to New Zealand, where I enjoyed a few days 'tasting' the next ultimate adventure in Club Marine's Six of the Best! prize giveaway. This adventure took me from the discreet luxury of the Hilton Auckland, to the beauty and serenity of the Bay of Islands and on to the rugged majesty of Cape Reinga at Northland's (almost) northernmost tip. On the way, we discovered a few of the North Island's treasures, such as ancient buried kauri trees, gorgeous secluded beaches, sand dunes so steep they literally took my breath away, and some of the best "fush 'n' chups" in the world.
Located 330m out to sea at the end of Princes Wharf, the Hilton Auckland is flanked by the vibrant Viaduct Harbour precinct on one side and busy Queen's Wharf on the other. Conveniently located a stroll away from Auckland's central business and shopping district, the Hilton Auckland successfully blends the beauty of residing directly on the water's edge with city-hotel living.
The hotel's attention to detail makes a stay just that little bit more enticing, like the hand-made chocolates on arrival and the gorgeous personal-care products in the bathrooms. There's also Fish restaurant and the elegant Bellini Bar for fine dining and stylish drinks, plus a large gym and a heated rooftop pool, complete with viewing window.
Our King Deluxe Harbour View room ticked all the boxes, and then some. Tastefully appointed with Italian furnishings, a comfortable king-sized bed, and a bathroom I'd like to replicate tile-for-tile at home - our room was a stylish, comfortable space that invited us to relax and tank up on some quiet time before the adventure Explore NZ had lined up for us kicked off the next morning.
Paihia is the main tourist town in the Bay of Islands in Northland, and something of a gateway to the 144 islands that dot the water between the mainland and the South Pacific Ocean. National Geographic Traveller currently ranks the Bay of Islands 12th on its list of 115 'most visitable' destinations worldwide. Driving into the township mid-morning, with the sun shining and the vista opening up to reveal the Bay, we had one of those 'aha' moments where you know this is going to be something special.
What better way to start a holiday here than with Explore NZ's Discover the Bay 'Hole in the Rock' cruise aboard the bright yellow-and-black Dolphin Discoveries catamaran. The same team offers a 'Swim with the Dolphins' cruise on a purpose-built vessel that brings passengers right up to a pod, equips them with snorkel and fins and lets them jump into the water to have a go at keeping up with the swift and playful creatures. Watching this activity from the top deck of the catamaran, I was quite happy where I was. They're fast swimmers, dolphins, and cheeky, too!
As we cruised among the islands, taking in skipper Annie's entertaining comments on historic and otherwise interesting tidbits, she paused the roomy three-level catamaran long enough for passengers to have a good look, sometimes coming so close to the shore that we could almost reach out and touch land.
The tour includes a visit to the 'Hole in the Rock' - an 18m-high hole at sea level in Motukokako Island (or Piercy Island, as it was named by Captain Cook) created by the forces of wind and water. Skipper Annie took her time to ensure it was safe before manoeuvring our vessel (which was almost as wide as the hole's entrance) nimbly through the rocky passage.
Round the other side of the island, there's a formation halfway up the cliff that forms the silhouette of a woman's face. Tradition has it that when the first Maoris came to New Zealand from Hawaii, they left a woman on the rock to keep watch for latecomers; it's said the face gazes directly towards the Hawaiian Islands, a lonely sentinel.
Visitors to the Bay will find accommodation is plentiful, with rooms to suit every budget and style, including everything from backpackers, bed and breakfasts and motels to boutique hotels.
We stayed at a lovely, four-star bed and breakfast snuggled into the natural bush landscape in the hills above Paihia. Run by Heinz and Brita Marti, Allegra House offers three rooms and a self-contained apartment. They're all superbly furnished and have large bathrooms, private balconies, air-conditioning, flat-screen TVs and very comfortable king- or queen-sized beds. The well-equipped kitchenettes contain everything guests need to make a cuppa, including delicious freshly-ground coffee.
Our hosts' experience and love for what they do is evident in everything they offer - from the comfortable and stylish lounge room, complete with library and telescope in the common area, to the sumptuous breakfast served in the dining room, with a panoramic view of the Bay. Everything was tip-top.
But, with a gentle reminder from the alarm clock not to linger, we were soon on our way down a track through the bush from Allegra House to Paihia to catch a bus.
Explore NZ's Dune Rider is a purpose-built, off-road, air-conditioned vehicle that seats 36 and has a sloping floor allowing a great view forward, even from the rear seats. We joined a day trip for an action-packed adventure that would take us from Paihia all the way up to the northern tip to Cape Reinga, where the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea collide.
On the road north, roughly between Lake Waiparera and Rangaunu Harbour, we stopped at Gumdigger's Park, where a guided tour took us through a preserved kauri gum-digging site. Here, we marvelled at a huge ancient kauri tree, estimated to be between 100,000 to 150,000 years old, and perfectly preserved by the chemical cocktail in the peat swamp that it lay buried in for so long. All over the island, entire kauri trees, including leaves and bark, have remained preserved in almost perfect condition, indicating that whatever happened to blow them all over was a sudden catastrophic event rather than a gradual process.
LEAPING PLACE OF THE SPIRITS
Cape Reinga is where the Tasman Sea to the west meets the Pacific Ocean to the east. The location is steeped in Maori tradition and spiritualism, with the turbulent waters around the Cape marking the spot where the male sea, Te Moana Tapokopoko a Tawhaki, meets the female sea, Te Tai o Whitireia. The whirlpools where the currents clash are like those that dance in the wake of a 'waka' (canoe) and represent the coming together of male and female and the creation of life.
To the Maori, Cape Reinga is known as Te Rerenga Wairua, leaping place of the spirits. Here, the ancient Maori believed the spirits of the dead departed the mainland on their journey to the underworld to return to 'Hawaiki' (Hawaii), their homeland.
The walk to the lighthouse took us down a winding path lined with informative tablets and park benches. Had we had more time, we would have taken the track down to New Zealand's northernmost point: the Surville Cliffs, 30km east of Cape Reinga. After a picnic lunch atop the grassy hill above the lighthouse, it was back to the Dune Rider and on to our next stop: boogie boarding down sand dunes at Te Paki stream.
The sand dunes between Te Paki and 90 Mile Beach are much steeper than what I had imagined. Looking at them on Google Maps, they appear to be a large spread of sand, with a few slopes... but after scrambling part way up a dune, the view down literally took my breath away. Boogie-boarding down one of these dunes is not for people with vertigo or a fear of heights... but for those who dare, it's a load of fun.
90 Mile Beach is so-named because the first cattle herders who drove their cattle down the beach didn't realise their animals travelled slower than on normal terrain. They estimated they covered 30 miles a day and the drive went for three days - hence the 90 miles. In actual fact, the beach is 'only' 55 miles (88km) long ... still a pretty long beach!
Our Dune Rider guide, Daniel told a story from his childhood when his family walked along the beach. His father would say that if the wind comes from the ocean, it's the westerly wind. If it comes from the dunes, it's the easterly. But if the wind heads up along the beach it's the spirit wind, Te Ara Wairua, or the spirit's pathway.
Whether a drive along 90 Mile Beach is possible is dependant on the tide and the weather. We were lucky on the day, as the unusually high tide had receded just enough to allow us to travel along a roughly 73km stretch of beach. I was glad we were in such a sturdy all-wheel-drive vehicle - especially when the waves reached right up to our 'beach highway' and we had to dodge and weave to avoid getting stuck in the soft sand.
WORLD-FAMOUS FISH 'N' CHIPS
To our surprise (mixed with a tinge of disappointment), the locals we spoke to all pronounced "fish and chips" the same way we Aussies do (not, as is sometimes humourously depicted, as 'fush and chups'). They offered plenty of other colloquialisms though ... for example, when I asked where the "loo" was, our guide replied: "The whare paku (pronounced 'fuddy paku') is over that way." Whare means place or house, but we heard two translations for paku - it can mean little, or to make a sudden sound or explosion. Both would be appropriate in the circumstances.
Back to our dinner, and the 'world-famous' Mangonui Fish Shop was a very welcome stop after a long, action-packed day. We enjoyed perfectly battered blue nose fish (a local saltwater species) and some excellent chips, while taking in the magnificent view over Mill Bay and Mangonui Harbour. Congratulations to whoever added the stop to the Explore NZ Dune Rider tour - great idea!
LION NEW ZEALAND
It's been a while since I've spent a whole day sailing, and so I jumped at the offer to join the Sail NZ team aboard the late Sir Peter Blake's world-famous 80ft maxi yacht, Lion New Zealand. Guests experiencing a day on board this iconic yacht can be as hands-on as they wish, or just sit back and enjoy going 'wherever the wind takes you'.
Lion won the Sydney Hobart in 1984, was placed second in the gruelling Whitbread Round the World race in 1985/86 and is now a working yacht available for day trips organised by Sail NZ. The most difficult decision of Sail NZ's 'Ultimate Day Sail in the Bay' tour was which island to stop at for a stroll while the crew prepared lunch ... so many lovely bays and coves, so little time to enjoy them all.
Eager to try everything out, I had a go at the grinders (who needs a gym when you can grind on Lion), sat around on deck contemplating the sound of the wind in the sails, snooped around below deck to test the bunks (not very comfy, hats off to the crew) and the loo (took a while to find the light switch - who knew they'd hide the switch in there) and had a very nice chat to the crew, all of them sail-nuts.
While we hired a car to get around, our Six of the Best! prize winner will fly with Salt Air's express flight from Auckland to Paihia. True to Salt Air's cheeky motto 'Northland - best seen from above', the experience will present them with some pretty spectacular views of the coastline.
Offering half- or all-day tours to various destinations with breathtaking flights over Northland and the Bay of Islands, Salt Air combines flights in fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters with vehicle or Sea Shuttle tours to offer guests a unique experience around the Bay, up to Cape Reinga or several other places in Northland.
AMERICA'S CUP EXPERIENCE
We were soon back in Auckland to an appropriate grand finale for our whirlwind adventure: an afternoon sailing with Sail NZ's 'America's Cup Sailing Experience' on NZL41.
Built for the 1995 America's Cup, NZL41 is a no-nonsense racing yacht that was evidently designed with some serious sailing in mind. Our skipper, Jason was itching to get out and catch the afternoon easterly that was building and soon had that group of American fighter pilots I mentioned earlier on sweating at the grinders, while the rest of us held on really tightly. Although we 'only' managed 11 knots, it seemed like we were tacking across the bay at lightning speed, performing manoeuvres just like professionals ... thanks to the expertise of our sail-mad crew.
Just like on Lion, guests are free to sit back (well, sort of ... you spend a lot of time scrambling from high side to high side during all that tacking), get to work on the grinders or take to the helm and steer. Unlike Lion, NZL41 doesn't really like being held back and when the skipper cautioned us it was going to get fast, he meant fast.
Built as a gentleman's luxury launch in 1935 and used as a coastal patrol vessel during WWII, Lady Gay was recently restored to her full glory and now serves as a charter boat. A 47ft classic motor launch, her large, fully-enclosed cockpit, with comfortable seating and panoramic views, looked very inviting when I stepped on board at her mooring.
Lady Gay's beautifully restored timberwork and original details take guests to a bygone era of elegance and fine craftsmanship. Explore NZ offers half- and full-day charters for various events, from corporate functions to champagne breakfasts, an on-board fine dining experience, or just a private leisurely cruise.
Club Marine's Six of the Best! prize winner and travel partner will board Lady Gay in Russell for an overnight cruise in the Bay of Islands. After a breakfast prepared in the authentically renovated galley, they'll experience the charm of yesteryear as they spend the day fishing and cruising about the islands before hopping off at Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island for dinner.
This ultimate adventure exploring New Zealand's North Island courtesy of Explore NZ brings to a close Club Marine's year-long journey through what we consider to be the best our Australasian boating lifestyle has to offer. As Club Marine says farewell to Six of the Best! let me remind readers that one lucky subscriber and a travel partner will soon be on their way to Auckland for a thrill-packed adventure.******
Allegra House welcomes bed and breakfast guests all year round. For details or to book, go to: www.allegra.co.nz
To book at the Hilton Auckland, go to www.auckland.hilton.com
Salt Air offers various tours around NZ's Northland. For more info, go to: www.saltair.co.nz
For more on Explore NZ and the tours it offers: www.explorenz.co.nz
Explore NZ is a tourism operator specialising in giving guests a taste of the North Island's unique marine environment. The combined talent of its tour operators and guides guarantees guests a fantastic experience, no matter which tour they book. In combination with the Hilton Auckland, Allegra House and Salt Air, Explore NZ was chosen by Club Marine as the ultimate adventure destination in our Six of the Best! prize giveaway.