We were supposed to be in Italy. Pigging out on pizza and tortellini while overlooking a Venetian canal.
Then Austria was on the cards - our friends have built a forever home in the mountains in a postcard-perfect ski resort town.
But looking at the breathtaking views of the Ōpua harbour in the Bay of Islands from our boutique accommodation, it was hard to imagine how any place around the globe could compete.
The water was so blue. The surrounding native trees so lush. The birdsong, angelic. Holiday homes pepper the Ōpua hillside up to Paihia and over at the two towns across the water, Okiato and Russell.
Just a short three-hour drive from Auckland, Ōpua is known as "the gateway to the Bay of Islands". It's a bustling commercial port with a large marina and boatyard. A car ferry across to Okiato, which is then a short drive to Russell, leaves every 10 minutes.
With a population of 1137, Ōpua has just one cafe, a takeaway shop, a general store, the Cruising Club and a couple of boating stores. Less than 10 minutes drive north is the slightly bigger town of Paihia.
We left Auckland early so we could enjoy lunch at the Marina Cafe before check in. As the title suggests, it's right on the marina so you can enjoy peering at locals and those from further afar coming in and out of the harbour - fishing, jet skiing or just going for a sail.
The waitress said people came especially for the creamy mushrooms and I can see why. Balsamic reduction sauce and pecorino cheese smothered the mushrooms and toasted Kumara sourdough. I had been uber-hungry since becoming pregnant, so I added scrambled eggs. My husband enjoyed the gourmet beef burger and chips.
Back up the hill sits Marina Cove which offers two apartments - a one-bedroom place we stayed in which is $450 a night in summer, and a two-bedroom place for $650. An added bonus with travelling local is we could bring our miniature schnauzer Ralph; we'd checked ahead that the accommodation was dog-friendly. The lovely couple that run the place, Wendy and Mike Fisher, who have a 4-year-old shih tzu Harry, welcomed our little fluff ball with open arms. They even offered to dog sit when we went out for dinner later.
Wendy and Mike stumbled across the property when they were up from Auckland visiting friends. They fell in love with what was an empty shell of a house and bought it in May 2018. They live on the top two floors and have converted the bottom two into apartments.
Having worked in tourism for years - Mike as a coach driver and Wendy more recently for Fiji Tourism - they already knew a thing or two about the hospitality business. Mike's still driving but it's school buses instead of coaches now that there are no tour groups to cater for.
The beautifully renovated apartment is immaculate with tasteful Kiwi artwork and spacious rooms. There were all the luxury touches with white couches, big fluffy white robes, Koha Spa products, a super king-sized bed and a Weber barbecue.
The couple also provide a delicious fresh breakfast each morning including homemade toasted muesli, spreads, yoghurt and fresh fruit (there was even enough fruit for dessert later). They deliver freshly baked bread each morning - we got rye the first day and croissants the next (who says you need Europe?).
The fully functional kitchen has a Nespresso coffee machine with pods, as well as an array of tea options. A complimentary bottle of local wine was also in the fridge.
But it's the view that gets you. A deck wraps around two sides of the apartment. Binoculars are provided so you can almost see the eye colour of the kayakers down below and if you're lucky, you'll get to see dolphins, orcas and seals frolicking.
Before Covid hit, 99 per cent of Marina Cove's guests were international. Things dried up during lockdown but in winter it ramped up again with Kiwis unable to travel abroad looking to create luxury experiences at home. Now, they have partnered with Luxury Escapes, a global company with a database of three million members. Together they are offering affordable packages full of memorable travel experiences, which have been hand-picked by local experts.
There is much to do and taste in the area. We did the 8km Ōpua to Paihia coastal walk which runs right beneath Marina Cove and is dog-friendly. Ralph ran ahead off his lead for most of the way living his absolute best dog life.
The walk has a few hills but was relatively easy. During low tide you can walk along the beach in some parts, otherwise, stick to the path. It took about an hour and a half - and that was with an out-of-breath pregnant woman and a dog stopping to sniff everything.
If you're into cycling, the Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail spans 87km, and passes through some of New Zealand's earliest Māori and European settlements in the Far North.
As an official accommodation partner of the NZ Cycle Trail, Marina Cove is just a few minutes ride from the Ōpua start of the trail and the hosts provide secure bike storage, a wash station and support with planning your ride itinerary.
Waitangi Mountain Bike Park also has lots of world-class trails of varying grades.
If you aren't lucky enough to spot the dolphins below your apartment, or just want a close-up encounter on the water, there are plenty of cruise options.
There are also glow-worm caves, horse riding, kayak tours, golf, parasailing, scenic helicopter flights, fishing charters and boat trips to sightssuch as the Hole in the Rock.
There are many vineyards in the area too and group tour options if you'd prefer not to be stuck with a pesky car after those wine tastings.
But you really can't go past the white-sand beaches and sheltered bays, from the popular Paihia beach to Long Beach (Oneroa Bay) in Russell. From Marina Cove, it's an easy five-minute walk to peaceful English Bay or Lemons Bay for safe swimming and to get away from the crowds. You can also take an express ferry to Urupukapuka Island, or head north to Matauri Bay. Or if you just want to relax, do a local yoga class, or visit a spa and massage operator.
On our first night, we took the dog on a short car ferry over to Okiato, New Zealand's first capital, for $27 return and carried on up to Russell. The luxury continued with dinner at The Gables, New Zealand's oldest operating restaurant, built from pit-sawn Kauri in 1847 on whalebone foundations.
It's situated on The Strand, a charming street with many original buildings on one side and the beach and marina on the other. They sat us at a table on the beach edge, basically on the sand, giving us the best view of the harbour as the sun went down.
It was the best spot for people watching - boaties took dinghies from their boats to restaurants or to the local store for supplies. Locals and tourists on an evening stroll stopped to pat Ralph.
We walked off dinner up and down The Strand while watching the sunset and admiring the old buildings before catching the last ferry of the night back to Ōpua.
On the next night, we took the opportunity to enjoy the apartment and all it offered. It was so exciting to be able to stay put and soak up the view. We'd brought barbecue food with us so took advantage of the Weber as Ralph conked out on a mat.
After two nights of luxury, we reluctantly checked out, thankful to have discovered a place we may never have seen were it not for a pandemic.
Marina Cove has partnered with Luxury Escapes for package deals starting from $429 per night. luxuryescapes.com
You can also contact Marina Cove on: email@example.com and à21 778 146