Why the Bay of Islands is a paradise rich in history, and worth a visit by all.
By Natalie Cyra
There’s something incredibly thrilling about being able to kayak all the way up to – and even under – a waterfall, as foaming white water rushes around you. Being amongst such forces of nature is both invigorating and calming, helping to reconnect our mind and put a perspective on things that may be causing stress in everyday life.
Paddling through mangrove forests, amongst colonies of sea birds nesting in trees overhanging the river with Kayak Cruises, before approaching the Haruru Falls in Paihia was just one of the things I did to practice mindfulness while on a recent mini-break to the Bay of Islands. The magic of this picturesque paradise at the top of New Zealand is that you don’t need to do much here to feel your tensions disappearing: even a simple walk along the waterfront to take in the sights and salty sea air is enough to make you feel a world away, despite being only a three-hour drive from Auckland.
The Bay of Islands is rich in history. After all, it is here where New Zealand’s first government was established and the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. Three main town centres make up the Bay: Paihia, Kerikeri and Russell, the first capital of New Zealand, all of which offer plenty to see and do. My mini-break away with a girlfriend combined both adventure and tranquillity. After checking in to the four-star Scenic Hotel, Bay of Islands, which features island-influenced architecture and beautifully landscaped grounds, we walked for a short 10 minutes to catch the ferry to Russell with Fullers GreatSights. Here, we dined at the Duke of Marlborough, a popular hotel and restaurant first established by ex-convict Johnny Johnston as ‘Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop’ in 1827, when Russell – or Kororareka, as it was known then – was the biggest whaling port in the Southern Hemisphere and had no effective law enforcement agency. In a bid to add more prestige and elegance to the area, Johnston changed the name of his hotel to the Duke of Marlborough (at that time the world’s richest man). The Duke, located on the waterfront of Russell has been lovingly restored over the years and serves delicious twists on much-loved classics. It also holds the country’s first ever liquor licence, which now hangs proudly in a gold frame at the bar.
After a wander around the grounds of Kemp House and the Stone Store in Kerikeri, New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building, The Old Packhouse Markets are the place to be on a Saturday morning to encounter a real community feel and mouth-watering artisan breads, pastries, delicious “street” food and great coffee.
The Bay of Islands’ largest market boasts live music and unique gifts and souvenirs available to purchase. From there, we went on to meet another local artisan doing great things in the wellness space, Kaye van der Straten of K4 Kombucha and Cultured Foods. Following an auto-immune disease diagnosis in 2015, van der Straten transformed her lifestyle with the healing powers of fermented foods. From her purpose-built tasting space and at-home headquarters, van der Straten ran us through her range, which includes kombucha, turmeric paste, sauerkraut and other fermented goods, packed full of benefits, and explained why and how they are so good for our health.
Time for a pamper
There are plenty of places in the Bay of Islands to indulge in a spa treatment, but if you’d prefer to make your own products to use at home, the Sugar Sugar Apothecary in Paihia is worth a visit. This cosy boutique is dedicated to natural skincare and apothecary needs, where owner Sharon Hansard is a wealth of knowledge and guides you through making your own, personalised blends of essential oils, massage oils, bubble baths, perfumes and spritzers.
There was time for an afternoon to relax back on our cloud-like beds at the Scenic Hotel, before one last evening of fine dining at Charlotte’s Kitchen on Paihia Wharf. With a vibrant atmosphere, this restaurant and bar was inspired by one of the first European women settlers in New Zealand, Charlotte Badger, who was a person of strength, passion, interest and daring. With both mind and body satisfied, I’ll definitely be returning.