We arrived pretty much as planned even though the roads to The Bay of Islands are windy and go through many small towns. With Auckland in the middle it adds to how long it will take us. Our last leg is a short 5-minute ferry ride. Even though Russell is not on an island, the route driving around the peninsula would have taken a lot longer.
Off the ferry and the last 8 km to the White House, our home for the next 3 nights. It is an older house from 1840 and they have maintained the style while modernizing the kitchen and bathrooms. All four bedrooms have ensuite which is fantastic.
The kitchen is very well appointed with anything you would want. While there is a very old stove that gives it that quaint look, right beside is a large modern gas stove and oven. The backyard has both shade and sun and comfortable spacey spot for a glass of wine.
Russell itself is a quaint little seaside town, with the main part of town only have about 3 blocks deep and 5 blocks along the sea. Russell does however have a wonderful history.
It was once known as the Hellhole of the Pacific. Originally called Kororareka, it was the traditional home of the Ngapuhu Maori tribe. In the early 19th century they allowed it to be the first European Settlement in New Zealand and it quickly became the home of convicts, whalers and drunken sailors. Charles Darwin referred to it in 1835 as “full of the refuse of society”. In one of our guides books it tells us that we are only a mere 170 years late for the nightly beach orgies.
Today, of course it is a city of restaurants, shops and holiday homes. We are two blocks off the beach, so we stroll into the town for our dinner. We have made reservations at The Gable. It is Auckland Day this weekend so plenty of people have come up for the holiday.
We have a lovely table right by the large front window which is open to allow a breeze off the water. It is very warm summer night and the breeze is welcomed. The food is delicious but as is typical for higher end restaurants the portion sizes are small. For the first time we do not experience the New Zealander’s friendliness. Instead our waitress is more than a bit surly. No one is too impressed with her.
Back for an early evening with everyone a bit tired after the long day of travel.
The next morning Gail and I put a load of laundry on … as we have 3 more weeks and need as much clean as possible. Everyone heads separately into town at different times. We don’t leave till almost 11 with wanting to hang the clothes so they are dry before we leave.
We wander down our street and along the sea of patches of deep blue and emerald green, we are going up the to the top of Flagstaff Hill, passing along the way some truly lovely holiday homes. Our favourite is the Cavalli house, built in 1889. It is truly spectacular, right on the waterfront, huge glass windows, a beautiful covered porch and attached gazebo.
The walk up the hill, while only 20 minutes, is incredibly steep but when we get to the top the view is stunning. Three hundred-and sixty-degree views of the bays. A great view of many of the 144 islands that make up the Bay of Islands.
At the top is the first signal flag from the signing of the Treaty of Wairangi from 1840. The Maori cut down the staff and therefore the British flag five times from 1840-1845. Destroying Kororaraka such that the British moved the capital and did not re-resurrect the flag.
Finally, a small group of Maoris, many of whom had been involved in cutting down the flagstaff decide it was time for peace. Four hundred strong carried a new giant flagstaff up the hill. Early in Jan 1850 the flag was once again raised and given the imposing title of “Whakakotahititanga” or “being at one with the Queen”. Today part of the flagstaff still remains.
Back down the hill to explore the little town but first after that walk, in this heat, we deserve a cold one. Bob and Jan find us in the tavern and let us know that we are all meeting back at the house at 3 pm to go to one of the wineries.
We spend some time in the local cemetery where there is an interesting collection of tombstones for both Maori and British that died in the battles of the early 1800’s. From there you see the change with the families create when the two cultures married. The graves surround a rather basic church but all and all a great stroll through the history of the area as told in the stories on the tombs.
Time for a little lunch at a nice little café with tables right on the beach. We sit down and order and notice that Ruth and John are at a table across of us. As we have room for four, they join us, and we have a nice light snack. Washed down with a glass of chardonnay from Middle Earth Winery, of course there needs to be a winery with a Lord of the Rings theme.
After lunch we go into the Duke of Marlborough Hotel which has been a part of the town since the early 1800’s and has the oldest tavern in New Zealand. That means we must partake of a glass here. The pictures on the wall show how the hotel and the town have grown over the years.
Back at the house in the end only Bob, Jan, Gail and I decide to go for wine tasting. We head back down the road toward the ferry and find the way to Omata Winery. They are small winery producing only 15,000 bottles a year out of 2.6 hectares of Syrah, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay. It is in a beautiful setting overlooking the bay from on high. The view of the server is equally easy on the eyes... The wines are delicious, and I buy a Chardonnay to take home.
Tonight, we are taking the 20-minute ferry ride to Paihia and our Maori Hangi and Concert on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This is the site where the 1840 treaty between the Maori and British was signed formally creating New Zealand.
Before the presentation begins over a cocktail, they introduce us to the cook. He introduces us to Hangi, the Maori tradition of cooking in a pit, today made of metal. The pit or umu is filled with hot stones that is cooking all our meal together. Volcanic rock is heated to 250C, wood is stacked on top and then the food is covered for minimum 3-5 hours.
Our first presentation is that of the 3 gods; forest, uncultivated food and war. Three men are chosen from the guests to face off with the gods. First, they must learn the Hongi, the traditional Maori greeting by touching noses.
We are brought down into the forest where the men, acting as British soldiers, each meet one of the fierce gods. Each then must accept the offering from the Maori god/warrior of a leaf to make peace. It is an amazing spectacle and all 3 tell us later that their experience was humbling, a bit frightening and very much one on one in the moment.
From here we head inside the Ceremonial building built to commemorate the treaty signing on Feb 6, 1840. Here both men and women preform the Haka song and dance. It is both beautiful and frightening when they yell, roll out their tongues and bug out their eyes. Quite incredible.
After the performance we are able to talk to the singers and dancers and those playing the warriors. They do this 8-9 times a day which is amazing when you consider how intense it is. After pictures we are back for our BBQ meal and then return to the ferry. A very special evening.
We are off and up early the next morning for our catamaran dolphin experience in the Bay of Islands. It is a beautiful sunny day not at all what was forecast. Those rain ponchos will just stay in the bag. Instead we have our bathing suits under our shorts and t-shirts as there may be an opportunity to swim with the dolphins.
Our captain, Veronica, tells us that this boat is specially licenced to bring people close to the dolphins in their natural habitat. A part of the proceeds from our excursion goes to conservation. We will only be able to swim with the dolphins if there are no babies around and/or they are not sleeping. The other conservation boats tell each other if they have had a sighting.
There are strict rules as to how long you can view a pod with babies and how long you can be in the water with them if it is an adult only pod. Our captain has been doing this for more than 20 years and knows most of the dolphins by name.
Not long after setting off we come across the pod with babies. They stay closer to the town and not in the open seas until the babies mature. They stay with their mother for 18 months feeding every 10-15 minutes.
There are many of them and they recognize the sound of the boat and come closer. The babies jumping out of the water. In fact, what is actually happening is the mother is giving them a helping push to teach them. It is beautiful to watch them leap out in tandem. Some of them come right under our boat and Veronica is able to tell us who is who.
One of the babies is called French Toast. As the story goes the All Blacks badly beat France in Rugby in the morning and she was born that afternoon. So, she was named for the day the French were toast.
After our dolphin sighting, we head to Robertson Bay for some snorkeling and a BBQ. This is a private island for the most part but there is one little bay anyone can utilize. The snorkeling is good but not awesome like in the Caribbean. Here the fish are larger and not as plentiful, but we still enjoy the experience. A walk on the beach to the lagoon and then the swim back to the boat about an hour later.
The crew has BBQ’d up some wonderful beef sausage, which we wash down with a nice beer or glass of wine. Sitting here in the sun gives us a chance to dry off and we meet some folks from Auckland that give us some good tips and restaurant suggestions for the end of our trip.
We head out to the more open sea to find the miniscule Blue Penguin. Apparently, they are plentiful in the area and travel in twos. With the relatively calm seas we might be able to find them … even if they are pretty tiny. With the bigger winds out in the seas up come the sails and Bob is in his happy place, even if the captain won’t let him take the helm.
We spot a couple, but they are far out, and no picture really captures them. An hour sailing time and we come about to head back into town. This gives us about an hour and half with the sails up it is perfect end to a perfect day.
For out last night we head to a small place, again on the water, called Butterfly. It is definitely cheaper and less pretentious then Gable. The food is good and the vino flows. Back for a night cap and it is time to open “The Flame”, the pepper stuffed aperitive from Silver Sage.
It was like a Maori event, with everyone taking a shot or a sip and the tongues coming out … too funny. Not everyone’s favourite for sure but made for a great moment. We pretty much finish off all that we have left for some reason leaving 5 beers, one small bottle of bubbly and two small glasses of white wine.
We are off, a bit hungover to Auckland about 3½ hours away with a coffee stop at Ruakaka Beach. When we are just about to leave the house, I comment that Gail isn’t here yet. To which Bob says, “oh no I have locked Gail in”.
We get to Auckland, gassed up, at 2 pm just in time for the van pickup. Our hotel is a Sheraton with big beds, modern and good for our last night. We meet downstairs to walk down to Britomart which is an old waterfront warehouse district made into shops and restaurants. The walk is up and down and now we are all really hungry. The area is a bit disappointing when I had Yaletown in my head, but we find a nice pub for a small snack. Having said that the boys chicken wings are huge.
We split up from there and Gail and I get a bit of the lay of the land for our return, pick up some brochures and find out there is a luggage storage right at the Cruise centre. We wander the waterfront and then head into the back streets. This is much better, and we decide Britomart is pretty cool. We find a cute Italian restaurant and make the executive decision to make a dinner reservation as the menu looks like it will work for everyone.
Drink just before 7 and then down to the restaurant which does not disappoint. The Gnocchi that I order is the best I have ever had, and Gail and I decide that we will definitely come back. Everyone really enjoys the spot and the location, and it is perfect for our finale.
Tonight, is Auckland’s anniversary and there is as fireworks show that starts just before ten. A great ending! Nightcaps and then the sad goodbye for us all. The Brits off early for a 10 am flight, Gail and I for 1pm and Texas for 3:30 pm.
It has been a wonderful trip. We have seen and done so much on these 18 days. Travelled many, many miles and stayed in some wonderful places. Really love New Zealand and its people. Glad we will be back in a week.