Kia ora: Paihia

Elisabeth Easther finds a touch of Northland paradise

Explore the scenic wharf area, from which you can also set sail to some of the region's beautiful islands. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Explore the scenic wharf area, from which you can also set sail to some of the region's beautiful islands. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Origin of name: The explanation some locals go with involves Reverend Henry Williams. Though he knew very little Maori when he arrived here, he understood that "pai" meant "good", so when he came to Paihia, he said to his Maori guide, "Pai here", and it stuck. Other locals, and Williams' descendants, say this is nonsense.

Where it is: The main town in the Bay of Islands, Paihia is 60km north of Whangarei, or about three hours' drive from Auckland.

Population: 1770 (2006 census).

Town slogan: The recently formed community group, Focus Paihia, is on the hunt for one.

Town mascot: A carved wooden dolphin recently installed by the aforementioned Focus Paihia.

Interesting historical fact: In 1834 William Colenso brought the first printing press to Paihia and, with William Williams, printed bibles in Maori.

The Treaty of Waitangi was also drafted and printed here.

Most prominent industry: Tourism - it's the region's lifeblood.

Most famous local: Photographer Frank Habicht, who's famous for many things, including his black and white shots of The Beatles. He recently moved to Russell, but Paihia still owns him.

Best local website: paihianz.co.nz has everything from food and accommodation to festivals, events and activities. Also handy is paihia.co.nz.

Source of pride: The friendly community spirit. Because tourism is so important here, customer service seeps into everyday life.

Town competition: The Summer Festival sandcastle competition is huge. The snorkel race from Russell to Paihia in September is also a hoot, the State Ocean Swim Series does a leg here, and there are loads of fishing competitions.

Best reason to stop: The beach. When you arrive, you catch your breath it's so spectacular. It's exactly how foreign visitors dream a coastal New Zealand town might look.

Best place to take the kids: To swim with, or watch, the dolphins.

Best place to get a drink: 35 Degrees South for a glass of wine. The premises, an old wheelhouse on the wharf, has an aquarium in the middle, but take your credit card as it's not cheap. Alfrescos on the beach is a great spot to a enjoy Sunday afternoon jazz with a coffee, beer or wine, and The Pier Lounge Bar & Cafe on the wharf is perfect for a bevy while waiting for the ferry.

Best food: All three of those venues do great food; Google 35 Degrees South's Sanity Sunday, an amazing deal from 11.30am to 4pm. The salt-and-pepper calamari at Alfrescos is delicious, and you can take your dog there. The Waterfront Restaurant is also a cracker.

Best flat white: Cellini's Gelateria & Espresso Bar. Other places do good coffee, but this is the snappiest joint.

Best bakery: Paihia Bakery, next to the 4 Square. Their custard squares are ace.

Best Museum: Paihia is loaded with history, and the Mission Station Museum, where you'll find that printing press, is filled with gems from Aotearoa's rich past, colonial and Maori.

Best gallery: Ipipiri Art is fabulous. There are also lots of artisan gift shops with really good-quality, locally produced pieces.

Best walk: There are heaps. Paihia to Opua is heavenly and takes you along several beaches. It takes about 90 minutes to get there, so if you're not feeling super frisky, take a cab one way. Haruru Falls is also a classic. The Bay of Islands' Walking Weekend in October understandably attracts ramblers in droves.

Best view: Between Paihia and Sullivans Beach, walk along the rocks and look out to Russell, the Omata Estate vineyard and the outer Bay of Islands. Historical and beautiful.

Best facilities: Paihia's Wee Toilets are not only practical, they're lit up at night. They used to be the worst public toilets in the country and now they're up there with the best thanks to Focus Paihia. Sculptures and mosaics make them anything but bog standard.

Best playground: Of all the playgrounds in the world, Te Ti beach has the best view. There's a ship, slides and tunnels for under 5s, and for bigger kids there's a climbing area, a fireman's pole and a big slide. And because it's on the beach, the play possibilities are endless. Swim, dig, play, repeat.

Here for a short time: Don't come for a short time, you'll only regret it. Get out on the water and see some of the areas 144 islands (Urupukapuka Island is a jaw-dropper). Go kayaking, cycling, fishing, diving, horse riding and parasailing, and dive the wreck of the recently sunk Royal New Zealand Navy ship Canterbury, or the Rainbow Warrior (nominated by Lonely Planet as one of the world's 1000 ultimate sites).

Did you know: The Kaikohe to Okaihau Cycle Trail is fabulous and keeps getting better? Eventually it will extend coast to coast.

Best shop: Flying Fish Design Store, for the finest gifts in all of Northland.

Best swim: Paihia Beach - safe and fun.

Anything else: Go during the boutique food and wine festival, It! Bay of Islands. Held during Labour Weekend, this will be its fourth year and Dave Dobbyn is the headline act.

Wildest wildlife: Dolphins, whales, stingrays, sunfish, marlin - the marine life will blow your mind. There are kiwi and little blue penguins around these parts, and the bird life on the walking tracks is also prodigious - fantails follow you everywhere. Opua State Forest is a predator-free zone that's bursting with bird life.

If you're lucky: Orcas and dolphins might follow the car ferry when you're on it.

Visitors say: Look at that dolphin!

Locals say: Look at that dolphin!

- NZ Herald

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