Don't let winter put you off having an adventure. Three hours north of Auckland is an invigorating world of watery possibilities for all seasons, writes Sarah Daniell.
"I'm just going to look up, not down," I announce, to anyone who happens to be listening. It's one of those meaningless, banal mission statements made under extreme pressure, in an attempt to sound as if I am under control. To be fair, it's an acute adrenalin-packing situation. My kids and I are being strapped into harnesses and preparing for a triple parasail. "Just one last thing," say the crew, "don't, whatever you do, touch the clips. Only hold the harness straps." Why do extreme-leisure tourist operators always have a signature phrase of doom? Something they'll say seconds before you are launched off the precipice, too late to turn back? Has anyone in the history of parasailing ever played with the carabiner and come undone at 400m? Actually, don't answer. I look up, and repeat my pathetic cry-scream: "I'm going to look up, not down." The kids are admirably contained. We will lift backwards off the boat, and away and up from the ocean until we reach our final cruising height - the highest any parasailing operation in New Zealand will take you. There is a long tradition in our family of me playing chicken. Kids: "Mum, please do a bomb off the bridge with us." Me: "Sorry kids, I wish I could but I'm just too chicken." And here we are today, floating around, tethered to a speed boat that looks, from up here, like a small boiled sweet on the grey sea. Then something magical happens. The silence. It's clear and cold and eerily quiet. It's totally weird. The noise in my head stops and we see everything, all of the Bay of Islands. There's no wind, it's dusk and the sky is turning orange. "There's our motel!" says Isaac, pointing to a small toy building below. There's the fancy Eagle's Nest - holiday home to the stars. "It looks like a turtle down there," says Daisy. "Let's look for sharks!" It feels like we've been floating around for ages, but it's really only about 15 minutes. We return, landing gently back on the stern of the boat. The kids want to go back up straight away. It's exhilarating.
Flying Kiwi Parasail has been a family-run business for more than 30 years. They are total pros, smooth operators and they have a perfect safety record. The youngest parasailing adventurer they've had was aged 4, and the eldest so far - a woman celebrating her 104th birthday.
Some people are born to tour guiding and Chad and Dora are those people. Magnificent names, magnificent people. They run Coastal Kayakers, which takes paddling tours in and around Waitangi Inlet. Chad picks us up from Paihia wharf and gives us the rundown on the plan: First, he'll drop us at the start of the Haruru Falls bushwalk and he'll meet us, about an hour later, for the start of the kayak adventure. The bush track winds around the inlet, and along a boardwalk through glorious mangroves. We snack along the way and spot birds. Arriving at Haruru - big noise, in te reo - in a hidden valley on the Waitangi River, Chad runs us through a safety check, and makes sure we are all comfortable before kitting us out with pump-action sponge water pistols. As soon as we launch, it's war. It doesn't matter that it's cold and we are wet. It's serious fun. We eventually have to declare a ceasefire so we can get our photos taken at the foot of the falls, which rush violently and relentlessly into the inlet. Then we meander down the inlet, cruising with the tide, getting up close to a colony of kāruhiruhi - the pied shag, unique to this area. The birdlife is breathtaking. The pace is perfect. It's easy and effortless kayaking. The only thing you have to be wary of is amped 10 and 12-year-old boys, armed and dangerous with fully loaded water pistols. Chad's a natural storyteller, relating his knowledge of the area, the history, in a very real and engaging way. If I were to recommend anything, apart from just do this, it'd be to take a waterproof poncho in the winter. But we have so much fun, we barely notice we are wet and back at base, two or three hours later, we are too high on life to care.
We cut through the dark water just after dawn. The Russell wharf quickly recedes from view and we head past Tapeka Point, near the Black Rocks. We are in about 30m of water. Darren, the skipper, started this business when fuel was 14c a litre. About 30 years ago. He's easygoing, and furiously baits our rods while checking the sounder. We catch small fish for bait and the kids are entranced by the slimy mackerel and the little jacks leaping into the boat. Darren, of Days Out Fishing Charters , likes to catch fish and he likes to help others catch it too. But he's made submissions to Parliament to stop long-lining and commercial fishers coming in too close to the bay and stripping the stocks. The work ups used to be something to behold. Not so much now. But this day, Tangaroa rewards our patience. It's been about five hours since Darren picked us up from Russell's wharf. And we've caught two kingi about 90cm and eight really decent snapper, about 2kg. We head back to Paihia to process the fish and share the bounty.
Stay and eat
Russell's Duke of Marlborough Motel, owned by the Duke of Marlborough Hotel. This fabulous spot on the hill overlooking the town has a slightly retro feel and is the perfect base for a family break. dukemotel.co.nz
Former Euro head chef Dan Fraser is at the helm of the Duke's restaurant and the food is amazingly good. Fresh fish - hāpuku, kingfish, tarakihi - is supplied daily to the restaurant. A refined, innovative and elegant menu and the service is superb. The Duke has been on the scene since 1827, and the location is stunning, overlooking the boats at anchor.