Nature, wildife, culture, history, gorgeous food and a dose of adrenalin - Cate Foster takes advantage of the pleasures of the Bay of Islands.
We set off north from Auckland on a sunny Saturday and four hours later are surrounded by dolphins.
That's how easy it is to get among New Zealand's maritime wildlife when you head for the Bay of Islands. We drop our bags in the lovely room provided by the Scenic Hotel, trot down to the wharf and rendezvous with the Fullers Great Sights Dolphin Cruise. The vessel, the Tutunui, is a specially designed dolphin-watch boat, but will also allow you to do more than that. If you can swim well you can join the dolphins in the water, providing there are no "juvies", as our crew refer to them, to upset.
Unfortunately, my swimming is not up to dolphin standard so I don't intend to get wet, but plenty of my boat-mates are fizzing with excitement about swimming with these playful creatures.
Barely 20 minutes out on the amazingly blue waters of the bay, dolphins are everywhere. Breaching across our bows, skittering and playing tag with the boat - it's easy to see why we love them so much. Lying on my tummy with my head hanging over the front of the boat for the best possible view, I get a face-full of fishy dolphin blowback. The swimmers give it their best but the dolphins have other places to be. Off they go, leaving the fittest of the humans floundering in their wake.
Back on dry land we dress up (somewhat) and head out to eat at a place the locals tell us will give us a treat to remember. They weren't kidding. Pure Tastes is every bit of what I had been led to expect plus a whole lot more. This is haute cuisine Pacific-style, with food that looks as delectable as it tastes. The suggested wine matches are superb, the waitress a sweetheart, and the bill amazing - about half what I would expect to pay in Auckland.
But we couldn't dally, much as we wanted to, as our next engagement on this action-packed weekend beckoned. Five minutes later we were being ushered on to the national marae in front of Te Whare Runanga in the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to be greeted by the most impressive display of warrior machismo I have ever seen from Culture North. Their night show that followed, a contemporary production using drama, music and dance, leaves us proud to be New Zealanders and knowing a whole lot more about the blending of our shared histories.
Our tour of the Treaty grounds next morning, with locally born guide Ngatikawa, refreshes a few more aspects of our historical knowledge, although I admit the thoughtful mood we left in doesn't last long once we surge out into the Bay onboard Fullers' newest tourist baby. Called the Excitor, the grunt of its 1200cc of horsepower takes us to the Hole in the Rock and around the Bay in a mere 90 minutes. The scenery is, as expected, spectacular; and giving a thrill to my inner hoon, added a whole other dimension.
Our last stop in this active weekend is the family-focused Action World, where you can have a go on a trapeze and send the kids down a waterslide, among other activities. If your guys are too young to swim with the dolphins, this is the ideal place to raise their spirits, and tire them out, before the drive home.
How to get there: Paihia is about 225km or a 3-hour drive north of Auckland. SH1 to Kawakawa and then 15km on SH11 to Paihia. The Hundertwasser-designed lavatory block is worth a two-minute detour into Kawakawa itself and the Platform Diner (102 Gillies St, Kawakawa) or the Trainspotter Cafe (39 Gillies St, Kawakawa) both provide a good cup of coffee and home baking.
Where to stay: Scenic Hotel, corner MacMurray and Seaview Rd, Paihia. Ph 09 402 7826. From $125 per night per double room.
Where to eat: Pure Tastes, 116 Marsden Rd, Paihia. Ph 09 402 0003.
What to do:
* Fullers Great Sights offers a Dolphin Cruise and Swim or the Excitor Jet Boat Experience. Both experiences are $89 for adults, $44.50 for children 5-14. Consult the booking office regarding pre-schoolers. Phone 0800 653 339.
* Culture North Night Show: Te Whare Runanga, Waitangi Treaty Grounds, 09 402 5990. Adults $60, children $30 Waitangi Treaty Grounds. 1 Tau Henare Drive, Paihia. 09 402 7437. Entry to award-winning gardens and grounds free to NZ citizens. One-hour guided tour, adults $18, Children 5-14 $10, pre-schoolers free.
* Action World: 54 Puketona Rd, Paihia.Ph 09 402 6055. All-Day Family Pass $60 plus other offers.