Is­land Time

The Bay of Is­lands brings the best of New Zealand with its his­tory, luxe re­sorts and beauty.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - CONTENTS - Words DAN F STAPLETON

wHEN FOR­MER NEW Zealand prime min­is­ter John Key needed respite from the stresses that come with lead­er­ship, he would jump aboard a he­li­copter and fly north. Ac­cord­ing to staff, the politi­cian was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to the ocean­front golf course at Kauri Cliffs, in the Bay of Is­lands re­gion, dur­ing his ten­ure in the top job. He would touch down af­ter lunch, play a few holes and then be back in Welling­ton or Auckland by the evening.

There are no heli­copters or se­cu­rity guards when I ar­rive at Kauri Cliffs one af­ter­noon, but I feel like a VIP none­the­less. The prop­erty — which com­prises the golf course, sev­eral beaches, tracts of bush­land and a home­stead with ad­ja­cent cot­tages for guests — is im­mac­u­lately kept and ut­terly se­cluded. Staff greet me as I pull up in front of the home­stead, then usher me through the grand build­ing and out onto a bal­cony with dra­matic ocean views, as well as a bar­be­cue and a lunch spread.

In the height of sum­mer, when half of Auckland seems to head north to the Bay of Is­lands, it can be dif­fi­cult to re­serve one of the 22 suites at Kauri Cliffs. But on this warm au­tumn week­end, there are only a hand­ful of other guests. The re­gion, lo­cated on the north-east coast of New Zealand’s North Is­land, is very much a sea­sonal des­ti­na­tion for Ki­wis. Luck­ily for the rest of us, it en­joys a sub­trop­i­cal mar­itime cli­mate, mak­ing it an equally at­trac­tive place to visit dur­ing the off-sea­son.

“The Bay of Is­lands has al­ways been a place city folk have es­caped to, but lately we’ve seen an in­flux of over­seas vis­i­tors, too,” says my guide, Glen, as we cir­cle the prop­erty’s grand­est ac­com­mo­da­tion: a two-bed cot­tage, en­veloped by dense fo­liage. Re­cent guests in this hand­some lodge, which boasts a cliff-top in­fin­ity pool and two open fire­places, in­clude a chart-top­ping Amer­i­can singer and one of Asia’s wealth­i­est busi­ness­men.

Nearby sea­side towns such as Rus­sell swarm with vis­i­tors from De­cem­ber to Fe­bru­ary. Rus­sell was New Zealand’s first Euro­pean set­tle­ment, and it re­mained a ma­jor sea­port through the 1800s. Rowdy sailors rou­tinely ter­rorised the town and it be­came known as ‘the hell­hole of the South Pa­cific’ on ac­count of their de­bauched be­hav­iour. Even­tu­ally, New Zealand’s cen­tre of grav­ity shifted south to Auckland, and Rus­sell’s in­famy faded. Today, it is al­most em­bar­rass­ingly quaint, with cutesy sou­venir shops, a strip of wa­ter­front cafes and a num­ber of fine old build­ings, in­clud­ing a Ro­man Catholic print­ery from the 1840s that now op­er­ates as a func­tional print­ing mu­seum.

Test­ing the Waters

Com­ing from Aus­tralia, or fur­ther afield, the Bay of Is­lands is a supremely con­ve­nient des­ti­na­tion, about three hours by car from Auckland, or a 45-minute flight from Auckland In­ter­na­tional to the lo­cal air­port at Kerik­eri. The roads are ser­vice­able, the mo­bile-phone re­cep­tion is de­cent and even tucked-away ar­eas are within easy reach of ameni­ties.

Un­like some other re­gions of New Zealand, which fea­ture dra­matic moun­tains, hair-rais­ing roads and un­for­giv­ing weather, the Bay of Is­lands is a re­as­sur­ing place char­ac­terised by un­du­lat­ing ter­rain, pas­toral ar­eas and patches of lush rain­for­est. If you’re look­ing for an area that feels au­then­ti­cally Kiwi, but not ex­haust­ingly so, it’s a canny choice.

That af­ter­noon, I ven­ture into a rain­for­est grove on the edge of the prop­erty and com­mune with a 900-year-old kauri tree, then wan­der to the sun-dap­pled spa for treat­ments us­ing rich, restora­tive manuka honey. Af­ter a home­stead din­ner of prawns, salad and slices of choco­late cake, I re­treat to my hill­side suite and sink into a deckchair to watch the light wane over the ocean. There’s some gen­tle rain overnight — not un­com­mon in a re­gion that records about 2000 mil­lime­tres of rainfall each year — and I sleep amaz­ingly well.

By 9am the next day, I’m cruis­ing across the gleam­ing bay in a speed­boat helmed by Nick, an ex­pat from Syd­ney. There are more than 140 is­lands of vary­ing sizes in the area, play­ing host to all man­ner of wa­ter sports and boat­ing ac­tiv­i­ties, so it’s wise to sched­ule as much wa­ter­borne time as you pos­si­bly can. Over the com­ing days, I’ll ex­plore the shore­lines of sev­eral is­land clus­ters aboard kayaks and stand-up pad­dle­boards — but for an overview, noth­ing beats the speed and ma­noeu­vra­bil­ity of a small mo­tor­boat.

As we arc south from Kauri Cliffs to­wards Rus­sell, Nick rat­tles off a list of lo­cal fauna: whales, mar­lin, pen­guins and gan­nets, for starters. Then, right on cue, we see our first dol­phins frol­ick­ing in the dis­tance. The Bay of Is­lands has a res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of about 500 dol­phins, in­clud­ing the bot­tlenose and com­mon va­ri­eties, and Nick tells me there’s a good chance of en­coun­ter­ing them at any time of year. Mi­gra­tory whales — in­clud­ing pods of or­cas, or killer whales — can be seen dur­ing au­tumn, win­ter and spring.

Like many Bay of Is­lands res­i­dents, Nick had pre­vi­ously lived in Auckland. He moved to New Zealand in 2005 to es­cape an ex­haust­ing job as a cruise­boat op­er­a­tor in Syd­ney, but found work in Auckland sim­i­larly tax­ing. A few years ago, he spent a sum­mer cap­tain­ing boats in the area and de­cided to stay. “Up here, peo­ple run on is­land time,” he tells me, em­ploy­ing a phrase that’s most of­ten used to de­scribe the elas­tic sched­ules

com­mon in the Caribbean. We pull up to the jetty at Rus­sell and, as if to prove his point, Nick says to me sim­ply, “I’ll meet you back here a bit later.”

Rus­sell has be­come a pop­u­lar spot for city folk seek­ing a sea change, and it’s also a con­ve­nient vis­i­tor base from which to char­ter boats and catch fer­ries across the bay. I stop in at the Duke of Marl­bor­ough Ho­tel — an el­e­gant, his­toric build­ing on the prom­e­nade, and holder of New Zealand’s old­est liquor li­cense — for seafood chow­der and fresh­baked bread with macadamia dukkah. There are 24 well-priced gue­strooms at the ho­tel and an un­pre­ten­tious vibe in the restau­rant, which seems a pop­u­lar hang­out for lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike.

My waiter tells me Mick Jag­ger was in here with a friend a cou­ple of weeks ago. “The staff recog­nised him straight away,” he con­fides. “But we de­cided to leave him in peace.”

Back in the boat, we skirt some more se­cluded is­lands in the bay, in­clud­ing a cou­ple of densely forested hide­aways fringed by pure yel­low beaches. I jump out at grassy Wae­wae­torea Is­land, known as one of the bay’s pret­ti­est spots, and clam­ber up the hill­side for panoramic views of the district. In sum­mer, it’s a pic­nic spot favoured by many lo­cals.

In the late af­ter­noon, Nick drops me at The Land­ing, a charm­ing 400-hectare prop­erty at the tip of the Pure­rua Penin­sula and the site at which Maori and Euro­peans first met and ex­changed goods. Cur­rent owner Peter Cooper, one of New Zealand’s most suc­cess­ful busi­ness­men, plans to cre­ate a pri­vate com­mu­nity here for up to 20 house­holds, set among vine­yards, farm­land and patches of care­fully con­served na­tive for­est. So far, four houses have been con­structed, all of which are avail­able to rent for short stays.

Spend­ing some time at The Land­ing, with its wa­ter frontage, bay views and gen­tly rolling hill­sides, is a deeply re­lax­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. There’s all man­ner of equip­ment in the boathouse should you wish to em­bark on an im­promptu kayaking trip, but there are also log fires, pure-wool throws and homethe­atre equip­ment if you’d rather hi­ber­nate. The staff here will cook for you, or leave in­gre­di­ents so you can whip up a meal your­self. There’s fresh John Dory, pro­duce grown on site, and baked goods de­liv­ered warm each morn­ing.

With The Land­ing as my base and its equip­ment at my dis­posal, I’m able to ex­plore parts of the Bay of Is­lands that most tourists never reach. But for my first 24 hours on the prop­erty, I de­cide to stay put. A suc­ces­sion of rain show­ers brushed the bay as I set­tled into arm­chairs to read, nap and talk. Is­land time, it seemed, had taken over.

FROM FAR LEFT The North Is­land has plenty of op­tions for walk­ing; dessert at Kauri Cliffs; ad­mire the kauri trees in Waipoua For­est; the water­side grounds of The Boathouse at The Land­ing. OPENER, FROM LEFT The Bay of Is­lands near Kerik­eri; Rus­sell’s his­toric town cen­tre. NEXT PAGE Kayaking in the Bay of Is­lands.

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