The lovely Bay of Islands has something for all, writes Penny Lewis.
Apart from a psychiatrist friend who inexplicably hates dolphins, I think it's safe to say most people love them. Fortunately, in our island nation you don't have to travel too far to be lucky enough to see these beloved creatures.
The Bay of Islands is a great place for dolphin spotting - this reputation is even further cemented with news a couple of weeks ago of a special case of interspecies dolphin fostering. According to an article in the Northern Advocate, since January a bottle-nose dolphin known as Kiwi who lost her baby in the Kerikeri inlet five years ago has been nursing a common dolphin calf called Pee-wee.
My family and I headed to the Bay of Islands for a weekend getaway recently and although we would have loved to see Kiwi and Pee-wee, bad weather in Paihia dashed our plans for an excursion on the water with a Hole in the Rock cruise.
Luckily, the other animals in the Bay of Islands more than made up for the lack of dolphins.
We made the three-hour trip to Paihia on a Friday night, leaving Auckland late to accommodate kids' football. The trip was all about the destination rather than the journey.
We were eager to reach the Bay of Islands as soon as we could, which is why we ate dinner at the BP petrol station's Burger King before the toll road on the northern motorway. I then fell asleep as my husband Michael drove in the dark and rainy night.
We arrived at Paihia's Scenic Hotel Bay of Islands late - it was nearly 11pm. Reception was open, staffed by two people with greetings more friendly than I could muster working on a Friday night at that hour.
Our family's two interconnecting rooms were warm and welcoming, with plenty of space for all of us as we stumbled into bed after a week of school, work and the drive through the rain. The next morning we breakfasted in Scenic's restaurant Nikau, which had a great selection of fruit, hot food and pastries.
From there, it was time to saddle up. We were booked to go horse-riding in Kerikeri at Kate's Riding Centre. Kate is Kate Hewlett - and there couldn't be a better person to encourage a family of beginner riders. Her grandmother gave her a pony when she was 2, but she was riding before that - riding with her dad around the family's 188ha farm.
These days, Kate leases 89ha of the farm for her riding business. As well as offering horse treks, the riding centre grazes horses, hosts riding camps and runs cross-country and dressage clinics from Kerikeri to Rotorua. There were 131 horses in the paddocks on the day we visited and Kate professes to remember 130 of their names. One of them is Diamond Park Sinatra, a coveted Cremello thoroughbred stallion who provides breeding services.
Helping Kate on our 1½-hour trek around the farm was Swiss man Elio, here on a working holiday, plus local girls Becca and year-12 student Joy, who has been riding with Kate since she was 4.
My easy-going ride was a horse named Woody. Becca explained to me the basics of horse-riding - how to get Woody to walk and turn and how to make him stop. Michael was slightly nervous about the ride, but his slow-moving and slightly gassy horse Stanley allayed any fears.
Our daughters, Nina, 10 and Eva, 8, rode Fleur and Kiri, 37, respectively and were led by Kate and Becca for extra safety.
Kate's Riding Centre hosts international and domestic tourists of all abilities. Rides cost $70 for adults and $60 for children. After being fitted with your supplied helmet, you're paired with a horse at your comfort level. Even if you are a complete beginner like me, the trek is exhilarating rather than terrifying. My only nervous moment was when Woody made his way down a muddy bank faster than I expected in search of long grass to munch on.
After the ride, our lunch was at a Kerikeri bakery, filled with more locals than tourists.
The next two stops were more touristy - Makana Confections, where we spent more money than we should have on chocolate and watched sweet treats being made through a large pane of glass - then on to Kerikeri's famous Stone Store, built in 1836.
Our next destination was Kerikeri's The Parrot Place, which Vanessa and Mark Barratt have owned for six years. Originally from the UK, where they had a pet shop and Vanessa worked as a paramedic, they were sold on Kerikeri by a friend who married a local.
They bought The Parrot Place as a going concern only a couple of days after they landed in the country. This bird display and breeding centre also sells pet supplies and is set in subtropical gardens, complete with a children's playground.
More than 300 birds are on site and one of the largest and most vocal is Elmo the macaw.
The Barratts and Elmo were invited by the producers of New Zealand's Got Talent to audition for the show after Elmo was spied on YouTube, but they declined. "There was no chance as he's so naughty," Vanessa says. Elmo likes dancing to Pharrell Williams' Happy and Psy's Gangnam Style, but on his own terms. "If I could get him to do what he does on command it would be brilliant."
Family passes to The Parrot Place cost $25 for two adults and up to three children.
Visitors who love birds can enjoy a walk-in aviary where hand-reared parrots will come and land on you. People like me, who find flapping wings and those sharp little beaks alarming, can safely enjoy these feathered friends from a distance. It was more fun than I could have imagined.
Later that evening, we dined at 35 Degrees South, a family restaurant only a short walk from the Scenic Hotel. The circular restaurant's centrepiece is an impressive 60,000 litre saltwater tank in the middle that hosts a variety of sea life.
As well as enjoying watching the fish, Nina and Eva loved the children's menu, which had offerings such as $10 macaroni cheese or linguine, $12 generous and healthy chicken-strip, fish or mini-Scotch fillet meals, served with potato and vegetables or salad. I wolfed down my sticky pork loin ($27) and Waipara pinot noir.
From there, it was back to the hotel for a great sleep after a day of animal-filled adventure. Sadly, the next day's weather meant dolphin-watching was off, but after horses and parrots it didn't seem to matter.
Living travelled with the assistance of the Bay of Islands Destination Marketing Group.