Elisabeth Easther visited Russell for a sneak preview of the Bay of Islands Walking Weekend and found a wealth of wanders on offer.
The Bay of Islands Walking Weekend, in its second year, is the brainchild of a handful of enthusiastic locals to bring like-minded people together and show off the many tracks tucked away in the region.
Frustratingly, when we popped up for a sneak preview the weather wasn't playing nicely and the rain was relentless. But being hardy souls, we donned our sou' westers and plodded on undaunted.
Day one saw us visit Long Beach (aka Oneroa), one of the sweetest beaches in a region crowded with pretty coves. Our guide, Frank Edwards, took us on to his family's lush 81ha property at the end of the bay, bought by his grandfather in the 1950s.
Frank, who founded Cheapskates in the 1970s, is a charming chap whose walk and talk touches on family history, rongoa (Maori plant-based medicines) and anecdotes from his colourful life. Charlie the wonder dog verifies the facts. I especially liked the story about George Nepia being restored to match fitness in a bath filled with bark from the kowhai tree.
The path winds along the coast and up and down hills, through forests of wind-lashed manuka and kanuka, making for a magical walk to the headland.
At the edge of the property we lay down in the deep kikuyu grass, nature's own beanbag, and listened to tales of past scandal, slaughter and drama.
Back in town we fortified ourselves with bagels and mango lassi from the Hell Hole Cafe, a delightful new addition to the culinary scene, before marching up Flagstaff Hill for a kiwi walk with Helen from the Department of Conservation.
Russell is one of the few urban environments where you can hear kiwi and weka; one local fellow has even had his lawn pock-marked with beak holes - whoever thought they would come back in such numbers to become suburban vandals.
We could hear the birdcalls as we walked down to the Duke of Marlborough for the best ever lamb roast for two. Eating at The Duke is such a delight, the food, staff and views all second to none.
The Walking Weekend's signature walk to Cape Brett is sublime but can be tough going. Photo / Stephen Western
Next morning William Fuller, principal of the local school, took us on the Elliot Bay Trail. Undeterred by the rain, we drove to the start of the track, an unspoilt windswept surf break.
We traversed the beach, heading through bush: the three kilometres of Elliot's Elegance will take your breath away. Making like ragged rascals, we raced around the rugged rocks, the rain whipping our faces and sand stinging our legs, but the majesty of the landscape meant we relished every moment.
We were grateful to return to base, at Flagstaff Lodge, as our hosts are the sorts of people who go that extra mile. Soaked to the bone, we phoned ahead to ask if the outside baths could be filled, the perfect end to a fabulous day. The next day our sodden boots, socks and rain gear were returned to us warm and dry - you can't beat that for service (thanks Ruth and Jessie).
With time for two more trots we checked out the Whaling Walk with Lindsay, the local historian, learning what a wild place Russell once was, and finished up with an exploration of the mangrove boardwalks around Orongo Bay, part of the Forest and Feast Walk.
We timed it for one last treat, a sit down at Omata Estate Vineyard where the Forest and Feast Walk ends. We drank in the views (and a few wines) while gazing over the vines and down to the bay, a reward for our rained-on parade.
To be sure, the weather wasn't inclined to be kind but still we found so much to love - if Mother Nature chooses to change her tune come October, the hardest thing for visiting ramblers to do will be to leave.
NEED TO KNOW
Bay of Islands Walking Weekend (October 3-4, 2014): From a base in Russell, choose from over 20 walks spread over three days: secluded beaches, island strolls, meanders through mangroves or cultural and historical hikes. There's even an evening walk to listen for the call of Russell's swelling kiwi population.
Flagstaff Lodge and Day Spa: Charming hosts, luxurious digs, phenomenal breakfasts, private outdoor baths and sheets fit for a Pharaoh.
Hell Hole Cafe: Kent and Rachel will be making picnics for $15 a pop. 19 York St.
Elisabeth and her companion were guests of The Bay of Islands Walking Weekend Trust.