Calling the Bay of Islands the ‘Winterless North’ is a big statement, but if anyone can get away with it, it’s New Zealand. This country’s ridiculously beautiful bounty of mountains, waterfalls and lakes probably entitles it to an exaggeration once in a while.
I was too busy having a blast in the Bay of Islands to be googling the definition of winters and summers and where does and doesn’t have them. And after an action-packed week exploring pretty much the whole North Island, the Bay of Islands stood out as a highlight that took me by surprise.
First and foremost, it’s the history that makes the Bay of Islands such an essential stop. New Zealand as it’s known today was founded there, via the Treaty of Waitangi – the formal agreement signed between the Maori people and the British Crown in 1840. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the place to learn about it, and to get a feel for what the Maori people are all about – how long they’ve occupied the land, their traditional food, how they sing and dance, what they used to make from kiwi feathers and flax.
But knowing I was visiting several Maori traditional grounds later that week in Rotorua, I decided to capitalise on the fine weather and take a boat cruise around the islands instead. It proved a good move, both full of history and fine scenery. Carefully impartial, our guide Adam told the story of the momentous but problematic Treaty, the role played by Maori rebel Maketu in the dark history of Roberton Island, and the transformation of Russell, the ‘Hellhole of the North,’ the once-vile former capital of New Zealand.
A traditional hangi feast at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds would have been nice, but what I experienced instead was probably one of the coolest things I did on the whole trip. After our history lesson on the shore, Adam took us over to the rocks and cracked a few beach-fresh oysters open for us. I slurped mine down with a Bear-Grylls-like sense of duty, anticipating the fishiest of fishiness, only to be amazed by the flavour. No need for lemon and Tobasco here.
Swearing never to eat seafood anywhere inland ever again, I must not have noticed our knife-wielding chef disappear. He re-emerged in a wetsuit with a handful of spiky, shot-put-sized balls from the ocean floor. The next challenge. Surely we weren’t going to eat those, whatever they were. When he said they were sea urchins I thought of my brother, recently hospitalised from having stepped on a sea urchin in Spain.
But apparently these were a sought-after delicacy in Japan, or their reproductive parts were. And these were different to those nasty ones in Europe, Adam was saying. You could handle these (he picked them up like apples off a tree). So down the hatch those innards went – salty, slimy and as fresh as it gets. I admit a little wasabi wouldn’t have gone astray.
Having reached our epicurean peak far too early, my travel pals and I nonetheless took our trip leader’s advice to check out Russell, where the food was supposed to be top notch. But we kept it simple there, opting for a quick afternoon drink, a look at the giant Moreton Bay fig tree (circa 1870) and a brisk hike into the hills. Here a waka bird, which I excitedly mistook for the rare Kiwi, lured me down an unmarked path to a secluded beach, which I had all to myself.
In spite of the darkening sky, or maybe because of it, the view across the bay was a stunner. But the best panoramas were enjoyed over on Roberton Island. For me this scene summed up the bittersweet allure of New Zealand’s North Island, whose good looks were inseparable from its volatility, and often amplified by it.
When the sun came out again, a few of us went kayaking along the bay. The sun was still shining when we had paddled all the way over to Haruru Falls, stealthing our way past Australasian gannets and blue reef herons, trying to get some sneaky photos. Then we manoeuvred our kayaks right underneath the cascade for a late afternoon shower. Claims of winterlessness aside, it was pretty nice to be in a t-shirt, in April, showering in the spray of a waterfall at sunset.
Ready to discover all things Kiwi? Check out Intrepid’s immersive small-group New Zealand tours here.
All images by Damien Raggatt; sea urchin image by Mark Hewitt.