The Bay of Islands: Part I

Last weekend, we got up bright and early to catch the bus to the Bay of Islands. The Bay is legendary as one of the most beautiful and scenic areas in New Zealand, so of course we wanted visit as soon as we could! The 4 hour bus journey was nice and uneventful; apart from a welcome break for refreshments at a roadside tearoom halfway through the journey. For both of us, this was the first time we’d made it outside the city environs of Auckland and into the “real” NZ, a New Zealand consisting of rolling hills, farms, forest and palm trees. We were heading towards Equator after all! In fact, so far we’d been extremely lucky with the weather, with bountiful sun and barely any rain since the first few days of our arrival. This weekend was no exception to that so we had gloriously sunny views from the stunning coast road.

Arriving in Paihia around midday we checked in to our hostel then set about exploring the town. One of the most popular destinations in New Zealand, the boardwalk/town center was very pretty and looked recently redone. As you’d expect, there were a lot of hotels, hostels and souvenir shops in town as well as a helpful tourist office well stocked with brochures. Naturally, this was accompanied by a range of restaurants covering almost every cuisine, most of which overlooked the long, golden beach and in turn the Bay as far as Russell on the opposite bank.

The view towards Russell.
The view towards Russell.
The town of Paihia.
The town of Paihia.

We decided to start simple, though, so we booked ourselves in to the hostel’s nightly BBQ then headed to the beach to assess our options. After a lengthy and lazy comparison of the attractions — not to mention copious sunbathing – we settled on two main activities for our weekend days. Bearing in mind that a lot of visitors to the Bay regard any time not spent on the water as wasted, it should be no surprise that our picks were nautical too.

So, Saturday morning we went hunting for a kayak. As the BBQ was accompanied by a fair amount of cheap beer, we started slightly later than most people do, arriving just in time to see the staff of the kayak rental place had just left on a guided tour. Not being easily deterred by setbacks, we simply went to the other rental shop…on the far end of town.

The beach, with the kayak hut at the end.
The beach, with the kayak hut at the end.

After a slight trek, we arrived and were set loose on the waters, captains of our own destiny! That is, as long as said destiny didn’t leave the immediate area of Paihia: the rental guy was quite clear about that. This was fine by us; at some point overnight a cruise ship (the same one as in Auckland?) had arrived and although it was anchored a few miles out, it was still dominating the north portion of the Bay. Sadly, we don’t have any photos of the trip due to a feeling that the camera and a salt water environment would not mix well.

The rental guy helpfully pointed out a few interesting sights within paddling range, so we started by heading towards the mangrove forest south of Russell. It was a little bit farther away than we’d thought and since it was low tide, the mangroves weren’t even underwater, so we turned back towards the Bay. We then saw a group of kids in kayaks leaving a trail on a nearby island, so we landed there to check it out. The trail led up to the top, with wonderful 360-degree views of the Bay. We also discovered how laughable the time estimates are on the hiking signs here: this trail was 400m long and the sign said it would take 20 minutes. I think we were up and back in 10!

From there, we paddled to Russell, a quaint little village once described as the “hellhole of the Pacific” but really quite genteel these days. We pulled the kayak up on the beach and then split up. M set out to buy plasters to cover some developing thumb blisters while I went in search of a water refill. Tasks complete, we rested in the welcome shade of the trees and had an energy boosting lunch. Kayaking is thirsty and hot work in the sun!

After lunch, we set out across the Bay to another island, where we had spotted a beach. This route involved crossing the path of the ferry and other large boats, but I think that they’re quite used to clueless kayakers floundering around the Bay. We eventually got to the island and discovered that we had it to ourselves! We had the kayak for a few more hours, but were pretty tired by this time and so decided to stay. First we explored the rocks around the coast of the island, including a few caves and some green-lipped mussels (a New Zealand specialty, and very delicious). The island was not very big, though, so we soon settled in to our favorite activity, lying on the beach. When it came time to return the kayak, we only had a quick 15 minute paddle back to the mainland. The trip was exhausting and we both got soaked due to our poor paddling techniques, but it was a lot of fun too.

Our beach was on the other side of this island.
Our beach was on the other side of this island.

After returning the kayak, we headed back towards the Treaty Grounds. A mile or so north of Paihia is Waitangi, where New Zealand was actually formally created by the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Unfortunately, we were too busy to go this time; we’ll have to go some other visit! Instead, our objective was the Shippey’s, a fish and chip restaurant inside an old cargo ship. We had dory and trevally, both of which were both fantastic though mine (the dory) was best. We ate on the deck and enjoyed the sunset views. Strangely, next to the ship was some sort of outdoor amateur theatre setup, with orc actors pulling up as we left. We didn’t stick around long enough to find out what they were doing, for fear of being roped into some Middle-Earth reenactment.

On the way back we stopped at the wharf for had a beer in one of the nicer restaurants. We chose the one that advertised as a restaurant, bar AND aquarium, and were not disappointed. The local beer was decent and, as promised, the place was built around a huge saltwater tank holding local sea life. Because of its location directly over the sea, the water in the tank is replaced every high tide, which must make the population of fish happy. We watched the fish cruise around, but the real highlights of the tank were the huge crayfish. Mostly they hid in the rocky crevices but some ventured out and crawled around the tank. They were huge! I definitely wouldn’t want to meet one of them while swimming, though I would quite happily eat one.

After our beers we headed back to the hostel and spend a not-very-restful night there; I guess Saturday night is party night? Luckily, even sleep deprivation due to drunken shouting couldn’t keep us from waking up early for Sunday’s activity. Check back soon for Part II: this time there’s dolphins (and more pictures!).

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