A round trip to the Bay of Islands ticks all the boxes for Donna McIntyre.
A long weekend in the Bay of Islands leaves us feeling refreshed. We enjoy the scenery, sample the attractions. We wine and dine. And more importantly, we expand our knowledge and nurture our souls.
We start the trip in Auckland, taking the route most travelled up the eastern coast and driving a sporty Citroen DS4, perfect for hilly routes with its six gears. The kilometres fly by as weave our way north, through Orewa, Whangarei and then across the single-lane bridge from Paihia to Waitangi.
The stunning landmark that is Waitangi has been witness to the makings of our heritage. We tag along with a tour guide explaining the Treaty. I especially like the tale about one of the women who signed the treaty and was entitled to take as many husbands as she wanted. She chose five. But the "bite" of the tale is how, when one of the five was unfaithful, she tracked down his mistress, killed her and served her as a meal to the unfaithful husband.
After lunch at the Whare Waka Cafe, we walk around Waitangi and Paihia and book into our Waitangi hotel before catching the ferry across to Russell to try the new menu at the Duke of Marlborough. The low evening sun is casting long shadows and the water views are framed by the shoreline trees as we start our meal with fresh, juicy Orongo Bay oysters. We rise to the challenge of working our way through all the courses, and even find space for dessert. Divine.
On Sunday morning we drive inland to meet Makareta and Quinton Hita who run Lake Omapere Horses. This enterprising couple spearheads a whanau operation, offering visitors and school groups farmland rides as well as teaching horsemanship courses.
Accompanying us is 8-year-old Manuao Hita, young but already an experienced rider.
Our calm-natured horses are perfect for nervous riders plus those comfortable western saddles help us feel at ease.
Quinton gives us riding tips and tells us stories about the area and events. He points out a chiefs' burial place, battle sites and where Hone Heke set up a pa. It adds depth to the experience.
We stop by the lake for a coffee and takakau (Maori bread) before one last ride up the hill to finish our horseback journey. (I later learn that our host is a former Shortland Street actor and produced Mt Zion, one of our favourite movies. Quinton really is man of many talents.)
We have a bit of free time and decide to use our Bay of Islands base to nip up further north to catch up with a friend on a lifestyle block. A tour of our friend's orchard, a cuppa, and then we make our way towards Omapere.
This is our first visit to Hokianga so we turn on our phone's map app for the quickest route and listen to the instructions. As we drive along the coast thinking we're only a few kilometres from our destination, an American accent tells us to pull over to a ferry ramp. Huh? A ferry? The map reader seems to regard it as part of the road route. Oh dear. We've missed a ferry by 7 minutes and have another 53 to wait for the next.
We double back to Kohukohu to check there is a ferry running today and ring ahead to tell our hotel what has delayed us. Could we drive around the harbour? Yes, but we would arrive 20 minutes later than if we stop for a drink in one of the town's cafes or the pub, and we'd spend more on petrol than the $22 ferry fare for the 10-minute trip with car and two people.
So we have a (non-alcoholic) drink at the pub and ensure we are in good time for the ferry. Gliding across the harbour, we appreciate how beautiful Hokianga Harbour is - huge dunes on the north side and the rock formations defining the southern land.
At Omapere, we learn about Kupe's arrival and settlement of Hokianga. More stories follow as we accompany Shane Lloydd, Maria Kire and Bill Mathews on the Footprints Waipoua Twilight Encounter to pay homage to Tane Mahuta, the giant kauri of this forest.
Bill and Maria offer prayers and sing tributes in the darkness to Tane Mahuta. The group is speechless as we share a magic moment. We're not the only ones to think so, either.
Lonely Planet Code Green rates it as one of 82 life-changing experiences in the world.
And that's all a part of what makes us rethink our route, the kilometres and the significance of respecting the heritage of this amazing land and taking the time to hear Maori tell their stories, passed down generations.
I like the way they approach tourism with a firm eye on sustainability. Sharing their resources without rendering damage. Giving rather than taking.
We're already planning our return trip, this time travelling up along the road less-travelled: the Kauri Coast route. We'll also factor in more time for the Kauri Museum at Matakohe because it is one of the best museums in the country. And then we'll carry on to Hokianga and the Bay of Islands.
This forest and harbour route is a logical gateway to the Bay of Islands. For just as Waitangi is the birthplace of our nation with the Treaty signing, Kupe's arrival all those centuries ago in Hokianga marks the beginning of New Zealand. Oh, and on our next visit north, we might just take along an old-fashioned paper map as a back-up to our phones.
Pack: Clothes for riding, swimming, dining, warm days, evening ferry rides.
Stay: At Copthorne Hotel and Resort Bay of Islands and Copthorne Hotel Hokianga, both rated four stars, both by the water's edge. Fall asleep to the sound of waves lapping on the beach, wake to the birdsong. Heaven.
Drive: A sporty car like our Citroen DS4. Vary the route through Whangarei one way, the Kauri Coast route for the other.
Dine: At the Duke of Marlborough or at Copthorne Hokianga's dining room. Superb meals.
Caffeinate: At Waitangi's Waka Whare Cafe or from the thermos on the shores of Lake Omapere during your horse ride, served with Maori bread and jam.
Shop: In Paihia for jewellery, at the Matakohe Museum for crafted kauri and souvenirs. Check out the museum shop's funky designer tea towels. And do try the local wines. Our pick: the 2012 Marsden Estate Black Rocks chardonnay.
Ride: With Lake Omapere Horses.
Visit: The Waitangi museum and cultural show. Explore the Treaty House and gaze at Ngatokimatawhaorua, the huge carved war canoe that goes out on the water every Waitangi Day. Take the Footprints Waipoua Twilight Encounter. Drop into the Kauri Museum at Matakohe.
Relax: Rest horse-riding weary muscles at the Ngawha Springs. The Copthorne hotels each have a pool (plus a spa at Waitangi) and are close to the beach.
Plan: Bush walks, horse and bike rides, kayaking. Catch the ferry to
Russell and walk over the hill to Long Beach. Sand-surf the dunes at Hokianga. Use your Bay of Islands and Hokianga bases to explore the region.
Plan your holiday
Celebrate the warmer weather by heading to GoBook to plan your next Cheeky Long Weekend away. GoBook offers the best bits of New Zealand right at your fingertips. Browse and compare activities, attractions and adventures by hundreds of reputable businesses all over New Zealand. Book a time that suits you, enjoy instant email booking confirmation, then rest easy knowing your dream holiday is sorted. And with loads of options to suit every budget, GoBook has something for everyone.
Spend Saturday on the water, Sunday at Flagstaff Hill and Monday exploring the long road home. With so much to discover in Russell, you'll need an extra day off.
Take it all in with a Budget rental car, and take advantage of our long weekend deal. Book a Budget rental today and get 1 day off a 3+ day weekend. Simply quote the coupon number TPNZ065 at the time of reservation. Call 0800 BUDGET.
Jetstar operates direct flights from Auckland to Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown, so getting away for a cheeky weekend is easy.
Save your pennies
Enjoy the journey with Caltex. Use your AA membership card or pick up a free AA Smartfuel card (from AA or Caltex) and start saving on fuel. This rewards programme lets you accumulate fuel discounts as you shop. Swipe your free AA Smartfuel card or AA membership card at participating Caltex sites and save 6 cents per litre when you spend $40 or more on petrol or diesel. Terms and conditions apply.
Donna McIntyre was hosted by Bay of Islands operators and travelled courtesy of Citroen.