Catherine Smith discovers a vibrant dining scene in the gastronomic capital of Northland.

We were on a mission to prove an old cliche wrong: that the prettier the setting, the worse the food.

We've all had that experience, locally and internationally, of tourist-trap eateries fobbing off never-to-be-seen-again visitors with dull, overpriced food.

Despite it barely rating a mention in Tourism New Zealand's new luxury visitor strategy - odd that - our great fresh food is one of the key things overseas guests rave about our country.

I love visiting the Bay of Islands but frankly had never thought of it as a place of good eats. How wrong I was.

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In rainy early summer (remember that?) the food-obsessed husband and I drove north with a greedy list of places to eat. We knew we would be spoiled the minute we stepped into our digs, Allegra House, hovering high on the hill above Paihia.

Owners Brita and Heinz Marti have run hostels and lodges in the town for decades. Heinz is a former chef and Brita helps at the local information centre so enthusiastically plied us with more suggestions and foodie ideas.

Our room at the top of their purpose-built house was at tree-top level, complete with a beaut sunny deck and vertigo-inducing view of those islands and bay. There is a self-cooking apartment but we were far happier having Heinz's breakfasts with that wonderful Continental mix of cold cuts and cheeses as well as our usual Kiwi cooked favourites.

We left nursing his recipes for both the orange cake that was our in-room welcome and his wonderful seed-filled bread. To compensate, we made ourselves march up and down the hill to work off some of those calories.

But we weren't there to hang about, we had places to try out.

At least one dinner in the home of great game fishing had to be seafood, so Alfresco's it was. It's a quirky spot as you come into town (the painted bush murals were a labour of love, the covered porch a summer delight).

The place was full on an off-season Friday night, always a good sign, and we were immediately charmed by the smart, well-informed waitress and compact menu. The local oysters, the jump-off-your plate freshness of the fish, complete with greenery picked from a wee garden around the back, showed care. The chef, son of the owners, was proud of his local suppliers and happy to point us to tomorrow's shopping.

On our morning wander around Paihia we found some pretty new joints. The Thirty30 brew bar along the backpacker strip of King Street looked interesting, but more our bag were the two bistros right on the water.

With a huge appropriately nautical deck, Alongside - yes, it's right alongside the wharf - has menus designed by Michael Van de Elzen and boasts the biggest range of rums in the district.

On the wharf itself is the 35 Degrees South Aquarium restaurant (yep, there's one in the dining room filled with local fish) and there's a sweet family-run cafe by the ferry office, with a booth selling the freshest Orongo Bay oysters to take home. The Sauce is a hip pizza joint with more craft beers, joining other good places along the strip.

For a taste of tradition, take a short ferry trip over to the landmark Duke of Marlborough Hotel at Russell.
For a taste of tradition, take a short ferry trip over to the landmark Duke of Marlborough Hotel at Russell.

Our heavenly Saturday had another ingredient added to its perfect mix - a drive out to Matauri Bay for lunch at Kauri Cliffs.

There isn't a detail that the Robertsons haven't thought of in this, one of their three luxury lodges in New Zealand. From the wall-sized Stanley Palmer in the lobby, the lavish bowls of orchids, the antiques everywhere, guests feel pampered and honoured.

Our degustation lunch in the private garden room - botanical prints, sofas that we wished we could curl up on for a post-prandial snooze - featured produce from the Robertsons' huge gardens, local meat and seafood, enchanting flavours with a few amuse bouches tossed in, too. It was so hard to drag ourselves away. We can see why these luxury lodges consistently top global lists.

The venerable Duke of Marlborough has been an institution on Russell's shores since 1827. The reprobates and rascals have gone and the Duke has been sensitively refurbished over recent years with new owners but the history is retained.

There are terrific historic photos in the dining room and the huge front veranda frames views of the water. The place is polished and welcoming, the service spot on and the food outstanding. And there's nothing like a gentle putter on the ferry back to home base on the Paihia side on a moonlit night. You can see why travellers are enchanted by the place.

Sundays in Kerikeri are always buzzing, with a genuine farmers' market full of fruit, produce, cheeses and breads to sort out cooking for the week. We headed down to the dear Mission House - food was important then, the old vege gardens and fruit trees are still well tended, and the Stone Store is full of well-curated supplies (hand-made brooms, beautiful linen).

But we were soon digging into sub-tropical gardens of Food at Wharepuke just up the road. The converted army building with covered verandas serves a clean, fresh mix of Thai-inspired food from chef-owner Colin Ashton. Again, more fresh, local ingredients and a great back story: Colin deservedly appears in The Great New Zealand Cookbook.

When we're up north, we always like to do the "mission circuit" on the way home. As well as Pompallier House at Russell, there's the Waitangi treaty house and grounds, then homeward via the picturesque chapel and house at Waimate.

This trip we didn't have time to complete the circuit to Mangungu mission at Horeke, but drove back through the Hokianga so we could admire the pretty waterside village of Rawene, complete with Clendon House. Sadly the art centre in the old general store is gone, but the pub seems to take up the slack and it is still a town that time seems to have stood still.

Missions accomplished. The Bay of Islands is as good a place to eat as it has always been to play.

NEED TO KNOW

For more on where to stay, eat and play in the Bay of Islands go to visitboi.co.nz.

Allegra House, 39 Bayview Road, Paihia.
Alfresco's, 6 Marsden Road, Paihia.
Bay of Islands Farmer's Market, Hobson Ave car park, Kerikeri. Sundays 8.30am-noon
Duke of Marlborough, 35 The Strand, Russell.
The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, 139 Tepene Tablelands Road, Matauri Bay.
Wharepuke, 190 Kerikeri Rd, Kerikeri.

Catherine Smith was a guest of Bay of Islands Destinations Marketing Group.