Cool cat cruising
All aboard for a sail around NZ’S Bay of Islands
SUDDEN cries jolt our peaceful cruise mood and send us rushing to the side of our catamaran. A phalanx of silvery missiles slices through the water. It’s a flight of bottlenose dolphins.
Hugging our bow, they keep abreast of the fast-moving vessel, mere centimetres from the hull.
We’ve spotted them in past days, but always at a distance. Now they have joined us. We whoop excitedly as they plunge and arc out of the water. Urging them on, crew member Huia brings a metal lid crashing down rhythmically on the vessel’s side. For a few minutes, we could be in an ocean-going canoe, racing to the beat of a Maori drum.
I know they’re a ‘‘pod’’, not a ‘‘flight’’, but dolphins do fly. They streak and leap, and then simply vanish.
I am in the Bay of Islands, off New Zealand’s North Island, a collection of rocks and islets, tiny beaches, greypebbled coves, hilltop views and endless skies 35 minutes by light plane north of Auckland. After flying into tiny Kerikeri airport, I’ve taken the regular, 40-minute shuttle bus to the dock at Opua. The only way to explore all the remote corners of the Bay of Islands is by boat. A number of day cruises leave from Opua, but I’m spending five days and nights in these waters, comfortably bedded down aboard the MV Island Passage, a cruising catamaran with three passenger decks and an interior that is as comfortable as a boutique hotel.
Twelve cabins and staterooms accommodate 24 passengers. It’s the perfect way to cut loose, looping from one arm of the bay to the other, cruising languorously from one island to the next, every night a different anchorage.
Motoring quietly out of Opua harbour, we aim for a watery horizon marked by pointy cupcakes of rock. The hillocky land in our wake, scattered sparsely with houses, reminds me of Norwegian fjord country in summer.
The western sky is streaked with apricot chrome between slate-grey clouds, colours only believable when you’re here.
We quickly reach our first night’s anchorage in Manawaora Bay, circled by wooded islands, the sky still blazing with colour. Elephant-grey rocks line up, trunk-to-tail in the water.
In the coming days, I get used to seeing single Norfolk pines outlined like flag poles against the sky. At water level, the folded, rocky sides of islands are scored with dark caves. Some of the bay’s 150-plus islands are little more than large rocks, inhabited only by seabirds. We see few other boats, an occasional day- cruiser or a white triangle of sail off in a distant bay.
The Island Passage, though, is a hive of activity. Snorkelling (often an early morning choice), kayaking, scubadiving, swimming and fishing are daily activities, both from the boat and on shore visits. Watching the bay from the deck, book in lap and drink on hand, is an option but I never miss an excursion.
Each trip is different. Clifftop walks unveil panoramic views and glimpses into secluded bays. High on one island, a colourful Maori cemetery overlooks the bay. On another, a traditional Maori meeting house, a tall, carved figure over its door, stands beyond a carved entry arch and immaculate apron of grass. Winding along a bushscreened pathway to another summit, I spot the white timber shell of a twostorey house, 200 years old, and transported here, I learn as I chat with the builders. Empty except for an enormous, round, antique clockface on an interior wall, it is being restored for a church refuge.
History permeates the island landscapes as well as townships such as Russell, where we spend an afternoon strolling and visiting. The Treaty of Waitangi was first signed in 1840, by 40 Maori chiefs, across the narrow inlet from Russell.
At Roberton Island, Luci, a member of the multi-skilled shipboard team, relates a gruesome tale of storms, drownings, jealousy, arson, murder and mayhem. Today it’s all peace, the isolation a treasured rarity.
We climb a steep rocky path to the island’s summit, glimpsing, through trees, distant bays, yachts, our boat and fellow passengers snorkelling in dark- green lagoon waters; tiny birds flit in the branches, a soft-brown quail scuttles across our path.
One afternoon, the captain takes us out on a leisurely trip in the Island Passage’s tender, pointing out landmarks, such as where Samuel Marsden conducted New Zealand’s first Christian service on Christmas Day 1814.
All our trips are memorable, but an optional 20-minute helicopter flight, in a shiny black machine circling above all the places we’ve visited by boat, is the icing on the cake.
In between trips into history, we motor quietly past landscapes that echo the hazy grey-green bush of colonial-era paintings, and savour a rotation of excellent meals.
The breakfast buffet of muesli, yoghurt and fresh fruit includes newly discovered kiwi berries, their insides like dark green cherry tomatoes with the fresh taste of kiwifruit. A variety of cooked dishes follows, such as omelet with smoked salmon and hollandaise, truffled eggs and bacon or pancakes with maple syrup.
Returning from excursions, we lunch on a broth of plump orange local mussels; oysters from Russell or buffets that include sashimi; crumbed fish with wasabi sauce; pizzas; pasta dishes; and beef carpaccio with capers.
Sometimes the day’s catch, or the mussels that passengers have gathered on a supervised dive, supplement the meal. Fresh fish is often smoked in the galley and breads are fresh-baked for each meal.
The dinners are equally excellent, served at two communal tables. At other times, the kauri timber-lined sitting and dining areas and sheltered ondeck lounging and dining space allow passengers to find a secluded corner. Drinks are extra, except for the welcoming champagne on arrival and at the captain’s cocktail party. (Passengers can buy a bottle and put their name on it to keep behind the bar.)
On my trip, a posse of Americans celebrating a joint 50th birthday are great fun and impressively active. The only other passengers are a New Zealand couple, who find the trip memorable. They usually retire to their cabin soon after dinner, perhaps drawn, like me, by a fabulous list of in- house movies. Cabins are on three levels in the ship’s aft, with the dining area, sitting room and bar leading on to the forward deck.
In a quiet moment, I sit in the bow; dead ahead is the whale-fin rock that always seems to mark the horizon. Above it, clouds are arranged in a straight line of flat-bottomed puffs. On either side, banks clothed in dark trees rise from little beaches; Norfolk pines, scattered along a high ridge, are cutout decorations against the sky, like feathers standing to attention on a hat. Judith Elen was a guest of Island Escape Cruises.
Clockwise from above, the MV Island Passage; the Bay of Islands; a luxurious Bridge Deck suite