It was winter solstice when a friend and I spent a girls’ weekend in the beautiful Bay of Islands.
The Vehicle Ferry
It’s a three-hour drive from Auckland to catch the vehicle ferry from Opua to Okiato, which goes every 10 minutes. It’s a great service that takes 10 minutes to reach Okiato (New Zealand’s first capital). From there, it’s a seven-minute drive to Russell.
The beauty of Russell wasn’t lost on us when we arrived but hunger took priority. Spying Butterfish Café we settled into a window table and ate while looking out on tranquil waters dotted with boats. Lovely view. Lovely food. Lovely service.
Mini Bus Tour
We then embarked on a tour of Russell with commentary by Kelly. Did you know Russell was a major hangout for the infamous Ngapuhi chief Hõne Heke, the first Maori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi? And home to whalers and brothels in the 1800s? Or, that the town’s been burned down three times and was once known as ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’? The oldest church in New Zealand, Christ Church, is also in the township – complete with musket holes. Some of the beautiful homes in the area are owned by Europeans – known as ‘Swallows’ – who fly in on helicopters for a few months a year.
Driving up the high roads we looked over the beauty of Long Beach and spied Queen’s View Road, so-called because Queen Elizabeth proclaimed it ‘the best view in New Zealand’. We visited the flagstaff Hõne Heke chopped down in protest of unfulfilled promises and noticed a multitude of birdlife including weka and tuis.
The Donkey Bay Inn
Back in the car, we drove through a pair of ‘golden gates’ and were instantly enamoured by the colours and artistic brilliance of Donkey Bay Inn. The vivacious manager, Amelia, took us on a tour where we were entranced by exquisite views and a clever mix of eclectic interior design, art and furnishings.
Owned by Antonio Pasquale, the inn is off the grid with a native flax roof and solar power and has an almost show-stopping uniqueness. We were appointed the brightly hued Skyfall suite which boasts a private sitting room, verandah, a massive bathroom with a bath for two, and floor to ceiling windows looking out on 180-degree views of the bay.
The Donkey Bay peninsula earned its name as donkeys were used to transport munitions up the hill when it served as a lookout during World War II. It sits atop a naturist beach where nature lovers embrace freedom swimming in summer. Antonio has also planted vineyards (here and in Otago) and his organic Pasquale wines are wonderful.
The Duke Of Marlborough
We had a 7pm dinner date on the waterfront at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel. Amelia chauffeured us in the inn’s vintage Daimler. Entering the doors of The Duke feels a little like stepping back in time with décor reflective of its history. The menu focuses on local produce and we shared the Heirloom Beetroot with French Goats Cheese entrée followed by the Crisp ‘Grinning Gecko’ haloumi and oven roasted snapper.
Day Two: Saturday
The sunrise saw us taking photographs on the deck, and heading downstairs for coffee where we met the big personality that is Antonio Pasquale. Before we knew it, it was 11am! We’d missed the Kerikeri markets and raced off to catch the car ferry.
Even in winter the vine leaves and ambience of Marsden Estate lend itself to outdoor dining. We enjoyed a tasting of their excellent pinot gris, rosé and the Black Rocks chardonnay – Marsden’s signature wine named after the volcanic rocks in Paihia. Moira dined on the locally caught fish while I had the cumin falafel dish, and we shared the 72% Whittakers Chocolate Mousse, brownie, sour cherries, chantilly cream and Marsden Port syrup. We’ll be back!
La Spa Naturale Paihia Beach Resort
Replete, we headed to La Spa Naturale at Paihia Beach Resort for a couples massage using the Maori healing herb kawakawa and hot stones, which gave the sensation of hot oil being poured on you. Our therapists, Linda and Jade, shared that duo treatments are a popular choice for couples and friends.
Going back to the inn for a quick change Amelia chauffeured us to the ferry and we landed at Charlotte’s Kitchen on Paihia wharf. The story goes that the restaurant’s namesake, Charlotte Badger, was a criminal from the UK and one of the first white women settlers in New Zealand. There’s a casual vibe and live music ideal for sharing delicious pizza and a glass of vino.
We’d planned to finish the evening lying in steamy hot water under the stars in the inn’s outdoor baths overlooking the bay,but were all magic’d out and had to hit the hay.
Day Three: Sunday
Sad to say goodbye to Donkey Bay Inn, we left for our 9am Hole In The Rock Dolphin cruise, though we would have been more than happy to spend the day at Donkey Bay Inn indulging in the outdoor baths and blobbing.
The Hole In The Rock Dolphin Cruise
Boarding the Fullers boat we set off on waters known to be a playground for whales and dolphins. At one point there was great excitement as orcas were sighted – they’d been spotted the day before– but it wasn’t to be.
Nevertheless, we enjoyed sailing through some of the 144 beautiful bays and islands such as Otehei Bay where American author Zane Grey lived in the 1920s. He made the region’s game fishing world famous with his book Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado; Marsden Cross (Rangihoua Bay), where a stone cross marks the place where Reverend Samuel Marsden held New Zealand’s first Christian Sermon in 1814; Roberton Island (Motuarohia), where Captain James Cook anchored the Endeavour in 1769; and Motukokako (Hole in the Rock), or Piercy Island, as Captain Cook named it. The crew’s commentary was priceless, even Antonio earned a mention for the extraordinary Donkey Bay Inn.
It was a magical tour in this beautiful region – a historic area that boasts incredible food and wine and hosts a wonderful mix of people including Kiwis, Europeans and ‘Swallows’.
Verve travelled with assistance from the Bay of Islands Marketing Group. See visitboi.co.nz for more information.