By Jodi Bryant
Opua, the small settlement in the Bay of Islands, is often by-passed for the nearby bustling Paihia but was recently named most hospitable destination in New Zealand. Jodi Bryant hangs a right to see just how hospitable this town is.
Opua, meaning 'place of the flower', is believed to have been named Newport in the original 1870s plans for the town. The well-known sailing haven is often the first port of call for tired sailors to make land after crossing the South Pacific and recently topped Airbnb's latest local Hospitality Index for receiving the highest percentage of five-star guest reviews in the country in the year to June 2020.
Opua resident James Remi is not surprised. Having grown up in the area but then living in Wellington, he returned earlier in the year and enrolled his kids at Opua School.
"They love it," he says. "It's a friendly place and it's really beautiful."
Opua School, established in 1886, has an easy-going policy of enrolling the children of overseas families moored in the bay for months at a time – making it a highly international school for a small community.
Opua has an estimated population of 700 with a higher percentage of international residents.
As well as being the first port where sailors can clear customs, it is a popular destination for cruising yachts owing to its sheltered, deep water anchorage at the 250-berth marina, along with the numerous marine facilities.
The town centres around the marina, where there is a café, the Opua Cruising Club, hosting regular social events, a takeaway shop and a general store, which has been in operation for over 100 years, and the many marine services.
Opua is often described as a quiet alternative for exploring the Bay of Islands – apart from the Bay of Islands Sailing Week in January, the biggest regatta of its kind in New Zealand, when the town hosts hundreds of guests. It's also renown for the Pou Herenga Tai/Twin Coast Cycle Trail to Kawakawa and walking tracks and beaches, flanked by bush-clad hills full of native birds, including kiwi.
But it is probably more well-known amongst landlubbers for its car ferry across to Russell.
When Audrey and Bruce Toal sold their ranch in Texas and set sail for New Zealand in 2018, they planned to spend several months here. But one year on, and out the other side of a kiwi lockdown, they are happily part of the community.
Only it's fraught with the uncertainty that any day they could be asked to leave. The couple are awaiting visa renewal and, if declined, being the cyclone season outside of New Zealand, their options would be to fly back and either leave their boat on the hard or ship it back.
"We love it here but we're all in this uncertainty that we could be asked to leave any day," says Bruce.
The couple had a horse ranch in Texas when they bought their boat Wild Orchid in San Diego. They spent two years travelling back and forwards preparing it for the journey. Then mid-2018, they sold the ranch, put their belongings in storage, drove the rest to the boat and set sail.
Wild Orchid, named by Audrey for her love of the flower, is a 2010 58ft Beneteau Oceanis and one of the largest of its kind.
Their plan was to make it to New Zealand in the first year where they'd spend the cyclone season (November 1-April 30). All was on track when lock-down happened.
"Some (yachties) went to Fiji thinking they could return but we weren't willing to take the risk so decided to stay put. We didn't want to get stuck in a less developed area. We love it here, we really do, it's a great place to be."
After spending 21 days on passage crossing the Pacific Ocean to get here, lockdown wasn't too dissimilar. They spent the duration doing projects on the boat with Audrey undertaking virtual work-out classes and they utilised the nearby bike trail frequently. Post lockdown, they pulled the boat from the water and had it serviced, refit and refreshed, making use of marine services in Whangarei, Marsden Cove and Opua and have been using their car to access further afield hiking trails to continue enjoying the scenery.
Audrey now attends bootcamps, along with Les Mills classes in Kerikeri, and they both enjoy frequenting the cafes and wineries. Bruce has also joined the Opua Cruising Club after members found them a small sailboat to borrow for races in exchange for some repair work to it.
"I'd say we're the luckiest of any of our friends anywhere during lockdown," says Audrey. "This is by far the best place to be and I feel like we're part of the community. We've made lots of friends – mostly Kiwi people that we did business within the marine industry."
"Kiwis are friendly and I guess we must look pretty friendly," smiles Bruce. "So we got quite chummy with everybody here."
They hope to stick around at Opua until May, the end of the next cyclone season. However, they're aware they could be asked to leave any day.
"We're all scenario planning and our Kiwi friends are sad. They have their own colourful evaluation of the government," laughs Bruce, adding that they have cast their vote for elections back home.
"We thought Covid was handled great here. We thought Jacinda did a fine job, she was very eloquent and intelligent in the way she presented it. From our point of view, it's just been very well-handled.
"We look at the States as it's still a very dangerous place to be because of the virus," he said, adding that their Texas-based daughter, 29, is safe and well.
"It will be sad if we had to leave," says Audrey. "This is my home away from home and we wouldn't have a house to go to if we leave. We've been here for a year and it's just been fabulous. If we're ever able to leave as a cruiser, I would highly recommend this place to stick out cyclone season and to explore because of the people, the scenery and the climate."
When lockdown struck New Zealand, American couple Jeff and Molly Bolster purchased some groceries and sailed across to Urupukapuka where they spent 65 days of bliss in a bay combined with tramping and exploring.
"It wasn't a hardship at all," says Molly, from their 1991 40ft Valiant Chanticleer moored in Opua.
The keen sailors, from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, had retired from their jobs; Jeff as a history university professor and Molly running a small non-profit using a traditional vessel as a classroom for local environment education. With the possibility of sailing around the world, their first-year plan was to reach New Zealand and 'chill' during cyclone season.
"We sold our house, put our stuff in storage, gave our cat to our daughter and the plan was open-ended for a few years," says Jeff.
"Part of the plan was the expectation that it would be punctuated with the ability to fly home to see the kids," explains Molly. "Which we did. And our daughter was here when lockdown started so she scooted home."
The couple have two children – a son, 28 and daughter, 31. Their daughter and her friend had been staying with them on their boat and were using her parents car to travel around the South Island, three weeks into a six-week holiday.
"They were waiting to cross over on the Picton car ferry on the eve of lockdown and got stuck there. They flew back to California, leaving our car in Blenheim with a big-hearted bloke who owned a garage and we didn't see them again," Molly explains. "We retrieved the car ten weeks later! But it was all good in the end."
In the bay where they spent lockdown, there was limited internet coverage. However, there was enough to receive snippets of news and the tramping kept them sane.
"The first thing we did (after lockdown ended) was go to a restaurant in Russell – we were a little sick of our own cooking – and I went to the library. I'd run out of books and I love libraries. The Paihia library is a very special spot," says Molly.
The couple now spend their days, sailing, working on the boat, walking and biking trails.
"The two trails are a divine asset. Just to be able to get off the boat and go for a two-hour walk like that is a feast for the eyes," enthuses Molly, who has been enjoying the bird life.
Their routine also includes going to the Old Packhouse Market in Kerikeri for coffee.
Like many of their marina neighbours, they too are feeling blessed to be where they are right now.
"Here it is sane and safe and we come from a country that is insane and unsafe at this moment in history," says Jeff. "All the yachties recognise that New Zealand has been welcoming and the people here have been really friendly and it's just a great place. We feel lucky because we're not feeling worried every day about getting sick. Back home, there is also a lot of anxiety and depression and fear. We think it was all handled very well in this country and most places have made a hash of it.
"People here are just reasonable, they aren't being jerks about it," he said, adding that they both recently voted for their home elections, paying for a courier service.
"It was quite expensive to get that little envelope back."
While they miss their friends and family back home, Jeff says, "At this moment in history, we're actually pretty happy not to be there and that's a sad thing to say. The thought of not wanting to be in our country right now is pretty disturbing. But, of course, the great concern for international yachties is how long Immigration New Zealand is going to allow the marooned yachties to stay.
"Honestly, most of the yachties who are here, are just feeling incredibly appreciative. For the time being, we really appreciate the shelter from the storm and we're all spending money and obeying the laws and trying to be good folks but that is the single cause of concern.
"We'd all done these very long passages which is wearing on boats and Opua is known as the perfect place to fix your boat. You come in and you've been at sea for months or at these small islands where you can't buy much and you get here and there's just access to these refit services. The marine trades here in Opua are top-notch and it has a reputation that radiates out as far as the Caribbean. I'd been hearing about the Bay of Islands for 40 years – it's known in international yachting circles."
Adds Molly: "New Zealand is the land of the vistas. It's spectacularly beautiful and the people are welcoming and friendly. There's a nice peace, whereas at home it's always busy and hectic. And I think we buy into the outdoor activity, right up into the bungy jumping." she laughs.
Jeff: "I will say that with driving on the left on these twisted, tortured roads – we give a lot of credit to your road builders – they've put roads where there shouldn't be roads!"
"It's a white-knuckle sport," laughs Molly.
The couple have made friends with their fellow yachties and shop owners and regularly dine at the local Marina Café and attend the club trivia night and watch the sailing races.
"Opua doesn't look like much on the map but it has everything you would want."