Northland: Float on

By Rob McFarland

Rob McFarland spends a day cruising the Bay of Islands.

The overnight cruise ship Ipipiri was named after a sacred Maori name for the Bay of Islands. Photo / Supplied
The overnight cruise ship Ipipiri was named after a sacred Maori name for the Bay of Islands. Photo / Supplied

Unless you're lucky enough to be on a six-star cruise ship, staying overnight on a boat can often involve a lot of ducking under low doorways, squeezing into tiny shower cubicles and peering through murky portholes. Boats aren't exactly renowned for their spacious cabins, large beds and stylish bathrooms.

Which is why Ipipiri is such a pleasant surprise. Each of its 30 ensuite cabins feels more like a hotel room than a ship's cabin. Available in either a twin or king bed configuration, they've been stylishly decorated with thick-pile carpet, dark wood furniture and a small desk and chair.

Three large panoramic windows provide a mesmerising view of the passing scenery and the ensuite is compact but functional, with a refreshingly powerful full-size shower.

But perhaps the best part is that everything still looks brand new. The ship is only a few months old so there are no stains on the carpet or scuff marks on the walls - everything sparkles and shines and feels deliciously clean and fresh.

Fullers claims that Ipipiri is the largest cruising vessel permanently based in New Zealand and, at 46m long and 11m high, it certainly dwarfs everything around it in Opua harbour.

We're welcomed onboard by its smartly dressed crew and while we tuck into a selection of warm, homemade blueberry muffins, ship's master Robbie takes us through the pre-departure safety briefing.

Half-an-hour later we're off - cruising up the Veronica Channel and gazing enviously at the million-dollar mansions that dot the pohutukawa-lined foreshore. As we pass Paihia, Russell and Waitangi, Robbie, at the helm, provides commentary which is piped through the cabins and the common areas.

It's a little patchy in places, but it provides a reasonable overview of Russell's colourful past, the skirmishes between the French and the local Maori, and the Treaty signing in 1840.

After rounding Tapeka Point, we head out into the bay and past the islands of Motuarohia and Moturua. It's an overcast day and there's a bit of swell, but the stable design of the catamaran handles it with ease.

We drop anchor in a sheltered cove to the south of Urupukapuka Island and a few of us head out for a paddle in sea kayaks while others are dropped ashore by tender for a bush walk. There is also the option to snorkel or have a swim off the back of the boat.

There are only 16 of us on the trip so it would be interesting to see how well this would work with a full load of 60. Thankfully, Ipipiri has an ingenious hydraulic platform at its stern which allows kayaks and tenders to be launched and retrieved with ease.

Of course, you could just lie out on the rooftop sundeck with a book but having done a bit of exercise I feel justified in tucking into the platter of cheese and biscuits that are waiting when we return.

We anchor for the night in Parekura Bay and while the boat gently swings to and fro on its mooring people congregate at the bar for a pre-dinner drink. I steel myself for some eye-wateringly high bar prices. But I'm pleasantly surprised. House wine is $25 a bottle and beers and spirits are the same as you'd pay in most Auckland bars.

Dinner is a three-course affair with a choice of served entree and a buffet-style main and dessert. And, as seems to be the norm for any type of cruise, you'd be hard pressed to disembark weighing less than when you got on.

The prawn and shrimp cocktail starter is delicious, as is the pork korma, Thai curry, chicken chasseur, minted lamb, beef lasagne, vegetarian pasta, cold meats, mixed salads, rice, vegetables and potatoes.

For research purposes I'm compelled to sample them all, which unfortunately makes finding room for any pavlova, mud cake, apple crumble and cheesecake a more challenging, although not impossible, task.

A few people take advantage of the board games on offer, but I choose to retire to the rooftop deck with a coffee and admire the stars. It's a spectacular reminder of just how busy the night sky is when you can get away from the ambient light of towns and cities.

After a sound night's sleep in a bed considerably larger than the one I have at home, I wake up to sunshine, blue skies and another belt-notch threatening breakfast buffet.

As we cruise back to Opua along waterways busy with yachts, powerboats, dinghies and tall ships, my only comment is the overnight experience has felt a tad rushed. Just as I've got my bearings and am starting to relax, we're heading home again to disembark at 10am so that the boat can be turned around to leave at 1pm.

A two-night itinerary or at least a one night, two full day option would feel more leisurely.

That aside, it's been a wonderful escape in a beguiling setting.

IF YOU GO

Cruise departs daily from Paihia at 12:30pm and returns the next day at 10.30am. Cost is $339 an adult and $169 a child, which includes all food and activities. Return coach transfer from Auckland costs an extra $100 a person. Phone 0800 653 339 or see overnightcruise.co.nz.

Staying there: The stylish Scenic Hotel in Paihia has rooms starting at $109.

Rob McFarland was a guest of Fullers.

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