History and scenery are a winning combination for the road-tripper.
Enjoy a break in the winterless north, where so many salivating experiences are in easy reach from your launch-pad of Paihia. The Double K, Kawakawa and Kerikeri, fits that bill perfectly, being steeped in some of New Zealand's grandest heritage. Proudly strutting down Kawakawa's main street, Gabriel the green and red steam engine, circa 1927, is the poster-child of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway. An inspirational triumph of can-do community spirit, this is a railway of famous firsts. Following the discovery of coal in 1864, the railway at Kawakawa was the North Island's first line to be opened and the first to run a rail passenger service, as well. The track ran all the way to Opua from 1884.
Following the railway's closure in 2000, 9 years later, the vintage railway roared back into life and continues to wow the crowds.
A high point is the Long Bridge, a magnificent restored structure that straddles the Kawakawa River. The 230 metre long bridge, is the longest curved wooden bridge in the Southern Hemisphere. The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway is fabulously unique - it's the only working railway in the world where the train travels down the middle of a State Highway and right through the heart of a town centre, chuffing past the whimsy of the Hundertwasser Toilets. From Kawakawa, it's a 25km hop north on State Highway 1 and 10 to the succulent citrus bowl of Kerikeri. Not one, but two of our nation's oldest buildings stand shoulder to shoulder on the upper reaches of the inlet, as time-honoured vestiges of the mission that was established in 1819, adjacent to the Ngapuhi pa site of chief Hongi Hika.
A sole survivor of the Musket Wars of the 1820s, Kerikeri Mission Station's Kemp House is New Zealand's oldest standing European building. Built to house the Rev. John Butler in 1821, delight in viewing the workmanship of this gracious home, which has been thoughtfully furnished to capture the essence of its pioneering occupants. After the Butler family, it was the home of the Kemps from 1832 to 1974. Next door is the landmark Stone Store, built in 1832 to house mission supplies and wheat from the Te Waimate mission farm. This sturdy, stately building brims with vintage homeware and hardware merchandise, plus an abundance of local crafts, traditional toys and old-fashioned confectionary.
Speaking of sweet tooth pursuits, pop into Makana Confections in Kerikeri, a boutique chocolate factory. Drool over the production process and surrender to the free tastings. Makana specialises in fresh, gift-quality hand-made chocolates. Not dissimilar to the winery/cellar door experience, you can watch the production process, taste some samples and shop till your heart's content. Butterscotch Panache and Creamy Caramel Supremes hit the spot for me! Their enticing Chocolate Café is a perfect pit-stop for a snack or lunch, with gourmet temptations galore.
I also struck out west, through Northland's heartland tucks and folds to the mighty Hokianga. This hauntingly beautiful area is home to the world's oldest and largest kauri trees and marks the land Maori first set foot on in New Zealand. More than a 1000 years ago the great explorer Kupe arrived here, and was also the place he left from to return to his homeland. Legend has it he left behind two taniwha in the harbour which guided the safe landing of subsequent Polynesian arrivals, including his grandson. Passing through picturesque Oponini, the rustic harbourside town will soon be home to a blockbuster tourism attraction.
The Manea Footprints of Kupe project is currently being developed, a multi-million dollar cultural heritage tourism centre that will celebrate the journeys and discoveries of the Polynesian explorer.
4D interactive wizardry will transport visitors across the ocean on-board Kupe's mighty waka. After soaking up the epic scenery around the Hokianga, and those humungous sand dunes, I met up with my fellow travellers in Omapere for a twilight guided walk with Footprints Waipoua. Led by Maori guides, this fabulous little tour operator will heighten your sense of awe for the natural world and the taonga of our kauri forests. Stretching from Cape Reinga to the Coromandel, 98% of our mighty kauri had been felled by 1900.
Waipoua, plus the adjoining forests of Matararua and Waima, make up the largest remaining tract of Northland's native forest. It's also home to the oldest and largest kauri trees. My guide, Charlie, who exuded a worldly aura, didn't gloss over the brutal reality bearing down on Waipoua. European settlers may have felled most of the trees, but the forest is now facing the menacing threat of kauri die-back disease. As an aside, Charlie's father is heavily involved in the Footprints of Kupe project – an all-the-more important tourist attraction for the region's economic livelihood if Waipoua Forest becomes a no-go zone. Currently over 200,000 people visit the forest each year to ogle the giants.
DOC has been upgrading tracks and boardwalks, with state-of-the-art shoe cleaning machines at the track entrances. The die-back disease is a remarkably hardy pathogen that can stay alive on shoes for six days. Ghost-white skeleton kauri trees are already a tragically conspicuous sight in Waipoua. Huge efforts are being made to safe guard the top-tier taonga, including Tane Mahuta. The pathogen is already lapping at its feet. The water or soil borne pathogen has jumped the creek and now a kauri only 60 metres from New Zealand's most famous tree has succumbed. Charlie blames wild pigs for unearthing the soil-borne pathogen from deep underground, spreading it like wildfire by carrying it on its hooves all over the North Island's forest floor.
There is no known cure for the disease but more research is being conducted into phosphate injections and traditional rongoa Māori healing methods. Charlie suggested it is an open question how much longer Waipoua Forest will remain open to the public or whether a rahui will be declared across the site. Leading us through the forest, we admired vast stands of rimu, northern rata and kauri, while also being enlightened about traditional Maori uses for a variety of plants. Charlie swears by the tupakihi tree for its powerful healing properties, particularly good for internal injuries, broken bones and sprains. He made us a cup of tea using manuka honey and kawakawa, a native tree with a mint and peppery taste. Quite the health tonic.
The top draws in Waipoua include the Four Sisters, a family of four kauri who have been living together for 500 years, sharing their food. The second largest living kauri is Te Matua Ngahere, the "Father of the Forest." Estimated to be well over 2000 years old, and with the biggest girth of any known kauri, he's probably been standing longer than the Lord of the Forest, Tane Mahuta. The 51 metre high colossus, steeped in Maori folklore, is estimated to be between 1200 and 2500 years old. As darkness descended, we gazed upon his thrusting majesty, while Charlie performed a waiata to this living taonga. As we quietly drifted out of the forest, the kiwi were up and about, with the distinctive male call faithfully promoting a response from the female.
Where to stay? Strung around expansive sub-tropical gardens, Scenic Hotel Bay of Islands is a fabulous roost in Paihia, from which to explore the region. Extensive guest facilities in this resort-style hotel include a revitalising pool, tasty eats in the Nikau Restaurant & Bar, guest laundry, free WiFi and tastefully appointed air-conditioned guest rooms.
I tripped my way north with Jetstar to Auckland, for the short drive up to the magical Bay of Islands. Score even sweeter deals with a Club Jetstar membership. The programme offers travellers access to special 'member only' fares, 20% discount on baggage and seat selection products, and early access to the biggest sales. Bag a bargain fare deal and seat to suit at www.jetstar.com
For more touring tips and insights, check out the Bay of Islands travel website.