Endless Summer – Bay of Islands, Northland

By Monique Witsenberg

Some of New Zealand’s most beautiful scenery and early history lies in the north. Sparsely populated, this area has rolling farmland and fertile hinterland fringed with breath-taking bays and sheltered beaches. This unspoiled aquatic paradise is home to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular diving and is a great place to enjoy a variety of other water sports including sailing, kayaking and some of the world’s finest big game fishing.

The Bay of Islands has superb subtropical nutrient-rich waters. An array of colourful marine species including corals, sponges, pelagic fish, reef fish and invertebrates are to be found here. Explore volcanic rock reefs, pinnacles, lava flows to huge drop-offs, canyons, tunnels, caverns, swim-throughs and kelp forests saturated with marine life. There are hundreds of dive sites within these 144 islands with depths ranging from five to 35 metres and visibility ranging between 10 and 30 metres. Pig Gully and Goat Gully offer great sheltered diving for novice to experienced divers with residents such as porcupine fish, sandagers wrasse, angel fish, blennies, and not forgetting the mighty crayfish.

Bird Rock and the Sisters is a dive for intermediate to experienced divers with isolated pinnacles rising from 40 metres to above the surface. Attracting masses of kahawai and kingfish, its volcanic rock glistens with soft corals and jewel anemones. Try the deep blue waters of Cape Brett, Deepwater Cove, the famous Cathedral Cave, drift dive The Dog and discover the beauty of Maomoa Reef, Putahataha Point, Whale Rock, The Nine Pin, Rocky Point and the Needles for a medley of dives.

For more information on great dive spots contact the friendly team at Paihia Dive Hire and Charter Ltd, who can also provide you with equipment, scuba diving courses and a fully equipped vessel with dive master.

Drifting back in time

The Bay offers a unique insight into the birthplace of our nation. In late November 1769, Captain James Cook sailed HMS Endeavour through these remarkable islands and hence named the Bay of Islands. For the Polynesians who inhabited the area, this was the biggest thing they had seen for 800 years.

The Bay of Islands went through many changes as the Europeans settled in the area. Whaling was one of the main drawcards and provided employment for both Europeans and Maori. There were several whaling stations set up around the bay and today you can still see the ruins of these scattered from Deep Water Cove round to Whale Bay.

Visit the famous Maori war canoe and learn all about the heart of New Zealand history at the Treaty House in the Waitangi National Reserve.

In 1926 American writer Zane Grey started the frenzy of big game fishing by catching the first marlin, bringing worldwide interest to the area. Continued international fishing competitions ensure the Bay of Islands remains a premier destination.

Commerce took its time to reach Paihia as beach access was poor and there were no roads. Although a drapery store opened in 1920, it remained isolated until the Second World War. Finally a road via Opua opened up and Paihia quickly established itself as the most popular seaside resort in the north. It now entices adventure seekers from all over the world, boasting world renowned sightseeing, diving and fishing with various accommodation, restaurants, cafes and bars.

Add a bit of adventure

Whether you’re sailing, hiking, cruising or flying, this preserved 7654 hectare region, now a maritime and historic park, is there for all to enjoy – whether it be a thrilling speed boat ride to Cape Brett and the fascinating Hole in the Rock or a leisurely sail on a tall ship. World class charter boats are available giving the keen diver or angler the opportunity to catch some of the islands’ many seafood delicacies, such as LeaRae charters which offers a high quality service with gear supplied if required.

The area also has extensive walking tracks such as the Cape Brett walkway,   the rainforest of Harrison Scenic Reserve and the Art and Craft Trail. Visit  award-winning vineyards with exotic fare such as emu steaks, hangis (Maori cooking underground), myriad fish and shellfish. All of this leaves you craving for more.

A passenger ferry is available between Paihia and Russell and a car ferry crosses from Opua to Russell. Opua supports several services. Boat moorings are available and a 240 berth marina is under construction. Russell is well known as one of the South Pacific’s most romantic destinations. In the late 1830s this unplanned European settlement was established as a thriving trading township. It’s hard to believe this picturesque place with its white picket fences once had a reputation as a fearful place with fighting, abduction and murder. In 1840, Russell (then called Kororareka) became New Zealand’s first capital. Now it is a haven for ocean-going wanderers, artists and travellers seeking somewhere unique, and offers safe anchorage in the bay.

There are various places to stay offering something out of the ordinary. The Bay of Islands Information office gives excellent reference guides to all historic sites, tours, accommodation, dining and adventure activities.

Diving on a rainbow

Now etched in history is the notable Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior which was laid to rest on 13 December 1987 with full Maori ceremony at the Cavalli Islands. It lies under the shadow of an old Maori hill fortification where a monument of the ship’s propeller now stands. This artificial reef offers enjoyable, safe diving at 25 metres and is host to regular visits from snapper and kingfish. Crayfish hide within its wheelhouse and scallops tile the floor. A mosaic of richly coloured anemones and sponges now adorn the railings of this ill fated vessel, which was bombed by the French Secret Service in Auckland Harbour on 10 July 1985. Greenpeace campaign photographer Fernando Periera was trapped in his cabin and drowned when a second explosion ripped through the hull.

The Cavallis themselves are a special place, with rare rock orchids, lustrous pebble beaches and panoramic walks.  Octopus Divers are among the friendly locals who are all too happy to show you around.

Take a walk on the wild side

Walk the enchanted forests. Catch a bus that skims the waves on a beach that stretches all the way to the Cape. Horse trek or four-wheel drive on sand dunes and bush trails. Skipper your own boat or crew on a wind-jamming sailboat. Dive into the clear blue depths. Hook a marlin. Swim with  dolphins. Pump up your adrenaline in a boat capable of 50 knots. Play golf. Enjoy the fine local wines as you indulge in the catch of the day. My God I’m exhausted – back to work for a holiday!

See you next issue for more exciting getaway opportunities – from high octane to more leisurely pursuits that this welcoming region of Northland offers.

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