Cool cat cruis­ing

All aboard for a sail around NZ’S Bay of Is­lands

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Luxury -

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

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