Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Northland: Rising above summer snarls

Salt Air operates daily commuter flights from Auckland's North Shore to the Bay of Islands. Photo / Salt Air
Salt Air operates daily commuter flights from Auckland's North Shore to the Bay of Islands. Photo / Salt Air

Orewa sure looks great from the air. So do the Brynderwyns. And Whangarei. And Kawakawa. Sure, they're all nice places.

But if you happen to live in Auckland, they've also come to symbolise the worst drudgery of the long, tedious holiday drive north: the heat, the irritating detour, the traffic jams, the shop that's run out of your preferred Trumpet flavour.

But I flew high above all that, thanks to a new air service from the North Shore to Kerikeri, launched by Bay of Islands-based aviation company Salt Air, which eliminates the drive north or the equally wearying haul to Mangere to catch a flight with Air New Zealand.

It's a clever idea. If you live on the Shore, make your own way to the airport; otherwise, a shuttle bus picks up passengers from Britomart and Takapuna early each morning, nips up the North Shore bus lane and deposits them at North Shore Airfield.

The pride of Salt Air's aeroplane fleet, and the bird in which we travelled north, is the Cessna Grand Caravan, a 12-seater that rolls along nicely at 160 knots.

This Cessna-on-steroids is a buzz ride for a plane buff. And it's a swift mover too: from lift-off at Dairy Flat to touchdown, the trip to Kerikeri takes less than 45 minutes. Sure beats those hours behind the wheel on State Highway 1.

Best of all, as you roll along a couple of thousand metres up, you can see the less fortunate in traffic below, winding their way to the foothills of the Brynderwyns and slogging it out on the track into Whangarei - and this country really does look great from the air.

Once you're up north, there's a heap to do, much of it far too good to be left to international tourists.

Wendy at Salt Air popped us on a scenic run to Cape Reinga, buzzing north over stark miles of golden sand and rolling northern hills, the Rainbow Warrior memorial at Matauri Bay and the mangrove flats of Te Hapua, before touching down in a paddock to board a touring minibus for a 20km drive to Cape Reinga.

At the Cape itself, obligatory photos beneath the famous signpost followed, along with the obligatory question: why on Earth is Vancouver up there? And another one: why would signs for the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn point in different directions?

After checking out the place where two seas meet spectacularly and the spirits depart this world, we dropped into Tapotupotu Bay for a snack and a cup of tea.

The lovely little beach there is the New Zealand we tell foreign visitors about and urge them to see - but usually don't visit enough ourselves. Our little party savoured the ocean smells, soaked up the view, dipped feet in the cool water ... and interrupted a Nordic couple enjoying a private moment.

Next we drove to the Te Paki quicksand stream to blast the van along the waterway and get a taste of sand surfing. It's something of a Northland cliche, but sand surfing is well worth the effort; even the most frail retiree in our band managed to skid down a fair old slope on a plastic sled.

On the return flight to Kerikeri, the pilot had all the passengers on shark watch as we skimmed low over the northern harbours. Sure enough, in the shallows near Houhora Harbour mouth, I saw some sort of large thresher beast.

Doubtless it was toothless and no danger to swimmers, but its sleek silhouette was enough to put me off ocean swimming for a few weeks.

We saw marine life of a more benign nature when, with an afternoon to kill in Paihia, we did something most unusual for Kiwis - boarded an Explore NZ dolphin-spotting cruise and headed out into the bay.

Just a few minutes out from Russell we found ourselves in the middle of a pod of about 50 playful critters. They swooped in alongside the boat and gave the passengers a spectacular show of mammalian leaping, finding the boat's wake a thing of great joy.

There were a couple of little kiddy dolphins in the pod, too: no more than a metre or so long, they tucked in cutely alongside the grown-ups. The presence of adolescents meant, according to the laws governing the dolphin-spotting trade, that we couldn't swim with the pod. But the show they put on for us was wonderful all the same.

Our boat's departure inspired the dolphins to their best; prompting an amazing demonstration of acrobatics through the churning water. A few show-offs were getting a good 2m or so into the air, coming eye-to-eye with gob-smacked visitors.

From there we rolled out to the Hole in the Rock, catching the sight of two sunfish and a lonely hammerhead along the way.

Three or four boatloads of locals were fishing by the Hole and looked on in a bemused fashion as our vessel full of foreigners ooohed and aaahhed through the rock. The local anglers had a good boil-up going on and gave us a cheery wave.

We didn't see many Kiwis on our trip - the dozen or so fellow passengers for the flight to Cape Reinga and all 30-odd of our co-dolphin watchers were from foreign shores. Which is a pity, because these scenes - from the Hole in the Rock to the lighthouse at the Cape - are part and parcel of what makes our country so special.

But Kiwis get first dibs at Waitangi. The grounds where the Treaty was signed are free for all New Zealanders (be sure to take our driver's licence or passport as proof of citizenship). Foreigners have to leave behind a little of their valuable currency upon entry.

There are beautiful gardens alongside the path Hobson walked to sign the treaty document, James Busby's old home stands serenely despite the weight of its history and the meeting house with no name is an awesome site.

This wharenui was built to mark the centenary of the signing of the treaty; the interior representing all the tribes of New Zealand, and for me it was the highlight of Waitangi.

This is another place every that Kiwi should see.

Of course, all this sightseeing was extremely tiring. But, hey, that wasn't a problem because we didn't have to worry about the long drive back to Auckland.

We flew high above the cares and woes of the ordinary motorist and arrived home still in a state of good-humoured serenity.

Winston Aldworth went north as guest of Salt Air.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Fares are available between North Shore and Kerikeri and the plane can also stop off at Whangarei. Salt Air's helicopter service runs fishing types out to the good surfcasting spots around the Bay. It also offers golfing packages. A day trip from Auckland, including return flights, rental car and a round of golf at Waitangi or Kerikeri course is available, or, if you'd prefer, you can play at Kauri Cliffs. Overnight packages with return flights, rental car, stay at Decks of Paihia, helicopter scenic flight over the Bay of Islands and a round of golf are also available. See saltair.co.nz or ring 0800 472 582 for details.

- NZ Herald

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