Anabel Dean ditches the map and follows her heart on a trip from Auckland to Northland
There are probably more beautiful landscapes packed into the relatively confined geography of New Zealand than anywhere else in the world.
It's more than enough to induce a paralysis of planning. So we're opting for a simple way out, casting aside decision-making for six days to follow, more or less, a road northwards from Auckland.
This way to freedom leads through the city's fraying suburbs to Half Moon Bay where there is a Sealink ferry terminal staffed by an ebullient ticket attendant. "That's awesome: a road trip anywhere," she enthuses, instantly discounting tickets to the second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf.
Waiheke Island is not just anywhere. It's a floating green rampart about 45 minutes out to sea. We disembark at dusk and notice a sign: Slow Down. You've Arrived.
The road meanders along sandy coves and past clapboard cottages, through the bayside hamlet of Oneroa to one of New Zealand's more unlikely hip hotels. The Boatshed is a luxurious base camp of the sort not to be found on booking.com or Trivago. There are no online reservations and no infinity-edge swimming pools. Its 10 crisply furnished rooms, each blessed by ocean vistas, are discovered by strictly word-of-mouth recommendations.
We arrive in time for dinner on the terrace. Guests are busy with an array of candle-lit sensations prepared by a chef whose offerings bend to the seasons with a terraced vegetable garden that rivals Chateau de Villandry.
Long-stemmed lilies adorn a table with, quite possibly, the best coffee book selection of any small hotel in the world. There's a perpetually filled jar of home-made muesli biscuits in the bedroom and a beach-ready bag with towels, hats, sunscreen and insect repellent.
"Welcome," says host Jonathan Scott. "There's no need to dress for dinner."
Scott came to the old hippie colony of Waiheke Island as a barefoot child on family holidays. Things changed about a decade ago when London's Financial Times exposed the island as one of the top 10 places on the planet to buy a house.
"You'd be amazed at the number of people who literally took that as gospel and flew here from the United Kingdom to look for property," he recalls.
The travellers keep coming, drawn to the promise of 30 boutique wineries dotted over the island, or just the passing of an afternoon in serene seclusion.
"Pretty much every tourist who comes to Auckland now comes for a day trip to Waiheke," says Scott. "It's an easy commute for the 10,000 people that live here but with a small community feel and some of the best beaches you'll find anywhere."
One of those beaches is a crescent of sand beneath our bedroom window. It entices us to a stroll after dinner into artsy Oneroa, where galleries sell locally produced knick-knackery.
We travel further next day, circling the island on roads sometimes unsealed, often deserted. There are gorges where splinters of wild are tucked into the tame and, in the sheep-cropped hills at the northeastern end of the island, an abandoned network of wartime gun emplacements at Stony Batter Historic Reserve.
Eventually, in a vineyard down an isolated valley, we stumble upon a feasting crowd. They are gathered at tables laden with melting mozzarella, garlicky sausage and eggplant tart. The scent of truffle oil hangs heavy in the air. Al fresco Sundays at Poderi Crisci are legendary as Long Lunch day and the resulting experience is impossible to review here. Trust me. Just do it.
Leaving Waiheke takes fortitude but, nonetheless, we are ferried over water and soon on State Highway 1, heading through the winterless north to the Bay of Islands.
History runs deep in the safe harbours along this Northland coast and especially in the township of Russell - once "the Hellhole of the Pacific" - about three hours' drive away.
As New Zealand's first European settlement, Russell was such a magnet to fleeing convicts and drunken sailors in the mid-1830s that Charles Darwin described the roughneck town as full of "the very refuse of society".
The only refuse in sight, after a night at Russell's Eagles Nest retreat, is the discarded packaging of the smorgasbord that stocked our fridge. A provedore's stash comes as part of the package here with a private beach.
The pebbly seashore is obscured by subtropical foliage but we know it's there beneath the mezzanine bedroom with a floor-to-ceiling glass shower.
Eagles Nest is an impeccable lover's retreat with champagne, a jacuzzi, and 144 islands to gawp at through wrap-around glass walls. It's immediately clear, however, that all the big game fishing, scenic cruising, sailing, diving, kayaking, walking, biking, picnicking and helicopter-flight-seeing will take another day. We must move from the nest for lovers.
Launching into Russell with gusto, we move into the century-old B&B Arcadia Lodge, perched on a hillside above Matauwhi Bay.
It's about now that our itinerary is hijacked by hosts whose generous recommendations are rooted in a concept that plays a pivotal role in the lives of the indigenous people. The Māori word manaakitanga means providing hospitality that is genuine and uplifting, supporting travellers with kindness as part of the community. Arcadia Lodge embodies this concept. Hospitality has been enjoyed here since the 1920s by a smattering of international guests with no intention of leaving.
"But you can't come to the Bay of Islands without going on to the water," says co-owner Peter Gillan, rushing off to find a spot on a yacht.
Phantom is moored at the town jetty next morning: a 50-foot sloop with elegant waterlines under the command of a husband and wife team, Rick and Robin Blomfield, who have sailed the world for decades. Even on this day, with the biggest rainstorm in New Zealand's history brewing down south, they sail us to quiet anchorages in crystal bays.
There's a pod of dolphins frolicking in the shallows at Endeavour Bay. The sight of their rounded grey dorsal fins carving water is a rarity these days, even for Phantom, and we are reverential.
"Romance is anytime that you're awed by nature," reflects my companion.
The Bay of Islands is all about romance but it's time to hit the road again. Our Arcadia Lodge host urges us to forgo the sweeping dunes and wind-lashed shore of the west coast and head instead for the east coast town of Mangonui.
"It's famous for its 'fush' (fish) and chips," confides Peter. "Stay at the Old Oak."
It's about two hours further northeast to Mangonui where grey clouds are tearing at the land and the tide is out on Doubtless Bay. My companion gives me a glance of disbelief.
"This is where we are staying?"
The best moments in travel are serendipitous and a night in Mangonui's reputedly haunted inn is one of them. We are the only guests at the Old Oak, a boutique hotel with six rooms built in 1861, but the only spooky chill is from the drop in air temperature.
Morning yields an entirely different aspect across a cottage garden with harbour views. There's a bustle around the historic waterfront buildings retaining the character of the tiny fishing port that was once a centre of the whaling industry.
The excellent Little Kitchen on the bay is filled with breakfast chatter over oven-baked goodness. There are books, honey jars, healing balms and keep cups. I order the pumpkin and turmeric granola with warmed cinnamon apple and now claim this place as New Zealand's best Northland secret.
An impromptu remark from a friendly waiter prompts us to motor towards the nearby Karikari Peninsula. "It's epic," he says. "Go for Maitai Bay at the end of the peninsula down an unsealed road."
He scribbles a map that, an hour later, leads us into rugged landscape, windy and remote, with noisy birdlife in the dunes. These are Māori ancestral lands where we are not entitled to roam but, anyway, time is ebbing away.
We head back to Auckland, stopping at Tutukaka, where the Poor Knights Marine Reserve is one of the world's top 10 diving spots.
It's easy to get a crick in the neck on the scenic drive into Tutukaka. The marina is a beauty spot with a pearl string of shops, but first, we must settle into accommodation, and Lodge 9 will do nicely.
It's nestled into a green valley, an easy walking distance from the marina, where we join the Perfect Day Ocean Cruise to the remarkable underwater arches, caves, cliff faces, sponge gardens and kelp forests of the Poor Knights Islands.
The islands were named by Captain James Cook in 1769, either after a popular English pudding, or because they looked like a reclining knight. It's a pristine environment and, to protect unique species, only those with special permits are allowed to set foot on land. Anyway, it's tapu – forbidden - since a raiding party massacre by the Te Hikutu tribe in 1825 wiped out the resident Ngāi Wai tribe.
"Even from the water it can be an eerie place," admits our host, Kate Malcolm, co-owner of Dive! Tutukaka. "It's the land that time forgot where species evolved differently: insects and plants grow larger there."
What lies beneath is revealed after 45 minutes of ocean cruising.
The cliffs from the two main volcanic islands drop steeply to the sandy bottom. Sheer walls are encrusted with life, there are seaweeds and sponges, eels and rays, fish not seen in other NZ waters (because they are submerged here in the warm subtropical current of the Coral Sea).
I slip into a vast school of blue maomao and tiny two-spot demoiselles. They tip my mask in salutation and float fearless about my flippers, an organza curtain blocking out sunlight. It's just me. Silent. Grateful.
There's time for further exploration on a kayak and a stand-up paddleboard before we cruise back to port.
Suddenly, on the way, the sea boils in a huge plankton fish feeding frenzy, seabirds swooping from the sky. Thousands of silvery trevally flip over each other, transformed into the gleaming cobblestones of some ancient highway, leading us back to shore.
It's just another reminder. You don't need a map to discover the endlessly sublime and scenic beauty of New Zealand.