A few days in pristine Paihia is scarcely adequate to revisit all the area has to offer, says Isobel Marriner.
It had been, oh, decades since I last visited Paihia and my memories were of a simple, sunny place where a busload of schoolchildren dug for pipis at low tide before carting them off to a local school for a tin-plate barbecue. Had to have changed for the worse, I thought, with all those stories about skyrocketing Bay of Islands real estate. So it was with a fair amount of curiosity and a little trepidation that we headed north.
The weather wasn't promising much; Auckland's late-blooming summer had turned to leaden skies and persistent drizzle and, the closer we got to the winterless north, the cooler it became.
By the time we reached the bay it was dark - that enclosing dark that you forget exists when you live in a Big City - broken only by pinprick house lights and the intermittent sweep of the headlights of fellow travellers.
Whoops. Around a corner and bang smack in front of us there was a huge hotel, shining like a beacon. Big hotels have their place, but I was hoping it wasn't a sign of things to come, the town lit up like Vegas, a northern Mt Maunganui.
And then, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the vision was gone. We turned into Paihia proper and everything was still as it should be. One main street running parallel to the beach, next-to-no cars; an old-fashioned, seaside place.
We were staying at the Edgewater Palms, probably the most imposing building on the street, a three-storey apartment complex straight across from the beach that managed, despite its modern appearance, to blend in with the surroundings. There was one of those "on a clear day you can see forever" infinity pools outside; unfortunately, as we later found, it was cold, but in summer you'd be able to swim with nothing but the islands in your sights. That night, however, there was far too much of a nip in the air and we were grateful to be cheerfully directed into our first-floor apartment, which was warm as toast.
"There's your balcony," we were told, "but don't go out, you'll freeze." Well we had to, of course, just to get that smell of the sea and watch the lights of Russell twinkling across the bay. Yep, it was raining, but it was still pretty and there's a lot to be said for drifting off to sleep in a king-sized bed to the sound of waves crashing below; even more to wake with the sun streaming in the windows, the bay turning on a gorgeous winter day.
There were more stunning seafront views over a huge breakfast at Caf No 6 (whose larger-than-life owner Michael Frank was happy to prepare non-menu items for fussy Aucklanders and even happier to spend time talking to his guests).
Waitangi was another of those places I hadn't been to in ages and felt I had to see again. And I was lucky. Due in no small part to the dignity with which our guide Wil Napier explained the cultural and historical significance of the place to the (mainly overseas) visitors, I began to get that sense of connection with the past.
Concentrate for a moment and you can almost see the chiefs gathered there, the British uniforms, the tents and the tables. It's perhaps too easy to look at Waitangi with a cynical eye, when its name is bandied about so much and has become a bit of a political football. But, as Wil reminded us, the site itself is not about politics, it's the birthplace of the country; the politics came afterwards.
I would have loved to have stayed and wandered through the grounds, but had a pressing date with some dolphins and the Fullers Dolphin Adventures catamaran Tutunui, aptly named after the whale of Maori legend, was waiting. A brief moment of panic as they snapped pictures of us all - presumably in case we didn't come back? - and we were off.
First job today, said Captain Phil, was to keep our eyes peeled for pods. "We stop for shags, seaweed, pieces of wood, so don't be afraid to shout if you do see anything."
An hour or so later - it must be something about that fresh air, but the exhilaration was rising and I was telling myself the cruise was going to be worthwhile even if I was the Jonah and the dolphins were a no-show - the shout went out.
Heads down under the railing and for a few precious moments we were head to head with a couple of cheerful bottlenoses.
Those made of stronger stuff donned wetsuits, jumped from the back end and swam like mad to reach the pair. Some even got close. But these two were lovebirds interested only in themselves and a bit of hanky panky (for recreation, rather than procreation apparently). They teased the boat a few more times, coming close, then shooting away, until finally they gave us the flipper.
Next stop was Urupukapuka Island, the largest in the bay, for a welcome cuppa at the café and a chance to stretch the legs with a short hike to the top of the island. Then it was back to Paihia, threading between the islands and, no longer desperately seeking dolphins, taking a little more time to soak up the beauty of the place.
Sea air definitely sharpens the appetite so we were licking our lips as later that evening we were ferried across to Russell and the waterside Kamakura restaurant to indulge in their degustation menu.
We began with fresh-that-day oysters from Orongo Bay. I've never been much of an oyster fan, but these were mouthfuls bursting with the taste of the sea. Next up a subtle and inspired snapper and chilli mousse, served sushi style, heightened with locally grown wasabi and ingenious crisp-tender tempura salad and matched with the delicious, complex and mouth-filling Black Rocks chardonnay from the Marsden Estate vineyard.
Other highlights were a quail and chorizo salad, with grape jelly from Kerikeri's Magnolia House, the grape flavours perfectly picked out by the accompanying rose from Ascension vineyards in Matakana, and a standout fork-tender pork belly with orange and star anise glaze, this one paired with a rare-for-New Zealand wine - a spicy chambourcin grown using organic techniques at Ake Ake Vineyard in Kerikeri.
The next day food was still on the menu. Magnolia House was the source of the delicious grape jelly I had enjoyed the night before at Kamakura, and I rolled up into its pretty cottage garden to meet Cedar Corban, local foodie extraordinaire. Cedar runs Magnolia House as a bed and breakfast, raises organic table grapes in its gardens, takes lucky folk like me on culinary tours, holds cooking classes and demonstrations and does catering, all while exuding a warmth that puts her visitors instantly at ease.
We headed straight for the bustling Kerikeri farmers market and Cedar showed me around to the warm greetings of the locals and stallholders.
The market encourages sustainable production and the stallholders must sell their own produce, so you are talking to the growers, with all the firsthand knowledge that entails. The Northland climate means seasonal crops have a longer growing period and goodies on offer included a mouth-watering array of vegetables, as well as olive oils, cheeses, breads, teas and spices.
No visit to Kerikeri would be complete without looking in at Makana Confections' chocolate factory, where from behind huge glass windows you can spend an age watching the sweetmakers at work.
Cedar and I later shared a fresh market salad lunch that she had put together in no time. Eggplants and tomatoes gently roasted, maori potato bread and delicate tuna over fresh watercress were served with a crisp rose from the Marsden Estate vineyard, followed by wonderful Mahoe cheeses and local quince paste.
Simple but delicious. A memorable and appropriate final taste of the winterless north.
Where to stay: Try Edgewater Palms Apartments or Magnolia House Bed and Breakfast at 1369 State Highway 1, Kerikeri. Phone: 09 401 7944.
What to do: Visit the Waitangi National Trust.
Go on a dolphin cruise with Fullers.
Kamakura Waterfront Restaurant
Kerikeri Farmers Market: Books & More carpark Hobson Ave, Kerikeri. Every Sunday from 8.30am till noon.
Makana Confections: 504 Kerikeri Rd. Phone 0800-MAKANA