Lindy Laird samples the delights of the Bay of Islands.
With a panorama of islands, sea and sky laid out in front of me, I admire the view from high above Rawhiti and Oke Bay. From here I can see the Cavalli Islands to the north; faint sounds rise from the boats painting white streaks on the blue water in the Bay below, and birds sing their hearts out.
We're on part of the 17km long, rigorous Cape Brett (Rakaumangamanga) Track, a dragon-backed tramp your average walker-in-the-park would find hard going but experienced trampers relish.
This bushy, mild section winds up through bush, joining up with the Whangamumu track, and offers two routes down to the quiet little harbour once home to one of the biggest whaling ports in the southern hemisphere. That track folds down through the harbour's green cloaked shoulders to sheltered turquoise waters and the whaling station's ruins.
It's a great example of how well local conservation values and a fascinating human heritage will come together in the upcoming Bay of Islands Walking Weekend, showcasing the area's scenery, history and lifestyle.
"The Bay of Islands, most people associate it with boating and sea-based activities," says William Fuller, Walking Weekend board trustee. "We aim to show that there is much more here."
Our weekend in Russell/Kororareka started at the historic Duke of Marlborough Hotel.
The site has housed a local watering hole for nigh on 190 years, Johnny Johnston's Grog Shop opening there in 1827. Customers were the traders, whalers, whores, seamen and runaways who earned the seedy little settlement at the end of the world the title Hell Hole of the Pacific, said to be bestowed by Charles Darwin.
After the grog shop burned down in the mid-1840s Johnston rebuilt, and renamed it the Duke of Marlborough in an attempt at a bit of class, befitting the pub with New Zealand's first liquor licence. The pub with no peer would burn down twice and be rebuilt.
But the Hell Hole burned in other ways too - with the passions of seamen after a year on board ship; with the coming together of two cultures; the coming of the word of God, and guns; the politics and protocols that created the Treaty of Waitangi; a bombardment of cannon fire from British warships; and Hone Heke chopping down the flag four times to protest that Queen Vic wasn't keeping to her side of the deal.
The Duke, the Gables, Pompallier Mission where French priests printed the first bibles in New Zealand, St Michael's Church with musket holes in its walls, the church's peaceful graveyard - a who's who of early missionary families, soldiers, old coves and determined settlers. Those and other stories will be told during the historic Russell town walks.
The Friday night "club crawl" starts the weekend on an appropriate footing. Last year that tour started with six walkers but by the time it got to the last bar, had picked up around 30 more along the way.
In the olde-world charm of the Duke's busy dining room, we pore over a menu highlighting local produce.
To me, it seems the place is pumping but a waiter says it's fairly quiet for a Friday night.
Fuller tells me later that before this vigour was brought to the Duke by the current, community and tourism focssed two-couple ownership, "locals called it The Library, it was so quiet".
The next night we eat at Charlotte's Kitchen on the Paihia pier. Charlotte's is a funky fun establishment established in late 2015 "by the rascals and reprobates from the Duke of Marlborough Hotel".
It's named for Charlotte Badger, a runaway convict whose story grows all the more fabulous in every telling.
She was a British woman sentenced to seven years' penal servitude in New South Wales. Partway through her time, the story goes, during a transfer to Tasmania she and her friend Kitty used their considerable charms to incite the crew of The Venus to mutiny.
Somehow, they reached the Bay of Islands and, fact or fiction, the legacy of bawdy Charlotte lives on.
Our own ship board adventures the next day take place aboard the Tangaroa III, on a cruise out to the world-famous Hole in the Rock.
Skipper Tammy Jameson tells passengers the "swim with the dolphins" component is entirely reliant on these sea creatures playing the game. They are, she reminds everyone, completely free, with no tags or electronic devices, and if they want to come and visit they will.
The big boat weaves in and out of the islands on the way to the rock, aka Piercy Island, and we hear more about the Bay's facinating history.
It's a windless sunny day, but the swell off Cape Brett means this cruise will not go through the cathedral-sized cavern in the rock.
No matter. Heading back in to the Bay we see New Zealand fur seals, little blue penguins, gannets, shearwaters, sting rays, fish, and... bottlenose dolphins.
The skipper pulls up near the pod of juveniles, "just hanging around, up to no good," she says. They do what dolphins do, utterly delight their audience, and into the chill September water spill several wet-suited passengers. The dolphins play and leap and generally show off amidst the swimmers.
Later an ecstatic German tourist tells me this has been the best day of his month so far spent in New Zealand.
We have had a fantastic time, too, this entire weekend - experiencing the magic that is uniquely the Bay of Islands.