Bay of Islands: Bubble, boil and rubble

By Estelle Sarney

Estelle Sarney gets into hot water in the Bay of Islands.

Waiariki Pools, also known as Ngawha Hot Springs, Northland. Photo / Estelle Sarney
Waiariki Pools, also known as Ngawha Hot Springs, Northland. Photo / Estelle Sarney

The first pool was black, speckled with pale green mud, and steaming. It took a second for the skin on my foot to register the scalding heat, and I pulled it straight back out again. I'd save The Doctor for later.

Soloman was much more inviting - a soft grey in colour and like a hot bath in temperature, I sank up to my neck and felt the tensions of the week slide away.

Sometime later, we found the milky green cold pools where we could scoop mud from the bottom and smear it over our bodies until we looked like washed-out versions of the Incredible Hulk.

Waiariki Pools, or Ngawha springs as they are still known to most, haven't changed since I visited as a child in the 70s. If anything, they're even more ramshackle - a dozen rectangular holes in the ground bound by a patchwork fence, linked by broken pathways and surrounded by attempts at gardens long forgotten. It costs next to nothing to visit them, your coins taken by a laidback guy in a shed where there's nothing else for sale - no drinks or food, no souvenirs. People come here for the mineral-laden hot water and nothing else.

It's the kind of place where you can have an easy conversation with the people in the same pool as you, tell newcomers where to find the mud for their skin, and see who's been stoic enough to brave the hottest pool of all. Someone told us that the man in the shed told them that you should get in the 44C Bulldog last, as it would wash the sulphur smell from your skin, otherwise you and your clothes would smell of it for days. The Bulldog was the hottest, blackest, smelliest pool, and as I sluiced the searing water over my shoulders I realised they must tell everyone that just to have a laugh as you try to endure it. We left smelling of sulphur.

After refuelling at the unbeatable Len's Pies in Kaikohe ($3.50 for a pie and a drink), we made the 20-minute trip back to Paihia and caught a ferry to Russell. We were in time to catch the end of the annual Birdman competition, when competitors dress up and, to the accompaniment of their chosen theme tune, leap off the end of the Russell wharf to see how far they can "fly". The man dressed as a singer from Kiss never did explain why he danced to the end of the wharf to a song by Tina Turner, and we missed the crowd favourite, Baked Bean Man, who set a jet of gas on fire as he plummeted seawards.

The Russell promenade must be one of the loveliest in the world. Gorgeous houses and pubs built a century and a half ago look through the arms of pohutukawa, across the bay to Paihia. Cars are discouraged and we saw only one crawl through the walkers all afternoon. The kids went to look around a small fair set up for the Birdman festival, while we followed a sign for mulled wine and enjoyed it from comfy chairs in The Gables, looking at the view.

We all made the hike up to the top of Flagstaff Hill to see where Hone Heke made his statement, and enjoyed another stunning view across the Bay of Islands. It must be little changed from when the first settlers discovered it, and you can understand why they wanted to make Russell the capital - it must have seemed like the centre of paradise.

The Duke of Marlborough Hotel has stood there since those times; it was built in 1827 and has been restored to glory. The warm dining room is sumptuous and elegant yet comfortable, and the food is not far off fine dining. Between us we had the hapuka, beef and oyster pie, salt and pepper squid and creme brulee- all were excellent.

Catching a ferry back to Paihia, across a calm harbour under the stars, is as lovely a journey home as you'd find anywhere.

We woke the next morning to the sun coming up over the same calm harbour, the sea as blue as the sky. As we headed back to Auckland, still smelling faintly of sulphur, we planned our next trip north, hoping that Russell and Ngawha would never change.

Where to stay: The Waterfront Suites Bay of Islands are part of the Heritage Boutique Collection of hotels throughout New Zealand. Warm, spacious and luxurious, our two-storey suite was perfect for a family getaway in the middle of winter. The complex is well located at the end of the Paihia cafe and shopping strip, and across the road from the ferry terminal. See www.heritagehotels.co.nz

Where to find:

Good coffee: At the Movenpick icecream shop, Williams Rd, Paihia.

Good fish and chips: Vinnies Fish & Chips Takeaways, 68 Marsden Rd, Paihia, ph (09) 402 5276.

A delicious a la carte dinner: The Duke of Marlborough, Russell, ph (09) 403 7829, www.theduke.co.nz

Perhaps the best hot pools in New Zealand: Waiariki Pools, Ngawha Springs Rd, near Kaikohe. Ph (09) 405 2245. www.nzhotpools.co.nz

A pie and a drink after a soak: Len's Pies, at the end of Broadway in Kaikohe.

- Herald on Sunday

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