A luxury break in the Bay of Islands becomes more than just a foretaste of summer writes Bruce Munro
As winter deepened we got it into our heads to take a break in the Bay of Islands.
This was to be a splendid escape from the dreary monotony of months going to and from work under street lights; a vouchsafe in the heart of New Zealand's hospitable, historic North of better days to come.
The Bay of Islands. The very name was a connotation cornucopia. Beaches, yachts, seafood and wine, extended family holidays, million-dollar bachs with $10 million views, all set in the birthplace of our nation.
Back in the 1950s my mother's Hokianga dairy-farming family had taken mid-winter holidays at Russell, presenting freshly caught snapper to the Governor-General who holidayed two doors along from their borrowed bach at Long Beach.
But it was a good decade since I had taken a break in the Bay of Islands. And my wife had last visited here as a 5-year-old, staying in a tent and caravan with her parents and five siblings at a Paihia camping ground. The two of us were overdue a lavish, leisurely return visit.
As the Opua vehicle ferry carried us across the water to Okiato, on the southwestern arm of the Russell peninsula, late-afternoon drizzle gave way to a bright rainbow; a multi-hued, heavenly gateway to the start of our holiday.
The Duke of Marlborough Hotel was a fitting introduction to the Bay of Islands, steeped as it is in local history.
Including its two former incarnations, the Duke, sitting on the Russell waterfront, has had a ringside seat to many significant moments in our history.
It stood here when this former capital of New Zealand was known as the "hell hole of the Pacific". When it came time to sign the nation's founding document, the hotel's first owner Johnny Johnston helped translate the Treaty into te reo Maori.
Famed American western writer Zane Grey championed the region's world-class game fishing during the 1920s.
And more recently future supermodel Rachel Hunter got her first big break in a 1980s hair product advert filmed aboard a yacht owned by Duran Duran lead singer Simon Le Bon, right here in the Bay.
It was a pleasure, each morning, to pull back the curtains of our spacious waterfront room and step on to our balcony overlooking the gorgeous bay.
The Duke wears its years with a jaunty pride and a knowing smile, exemplified by the quirky history-bending artwork of Lester Hall that adorns the walls of rooms, hallways and the classic colonial-style restaurant complete with enticing open fireplace.
It was here we enjoyed fresh pan-fried hapuka, romaine hearts salad with Matakana blue cheese and poached mandarin with white chocolate mousse. But dinner climaxed with the entree; tempura battered Waikare Inlet oysters. The appreciative noises my wife made with each crisp, soft, tasty mouthful said it all. The only words she uttered were as she finished the last one: "I think we need another half-dozen".
We spent our days unwinding, enjoying the beauty of the area, engaging with its Maori, English and French history. The skies weren't always clear; if it wasn't drizzling then rain wasn't too far away, but it was reliably warmer than home and everywhere we looked there seemed to be a rainbow.
One afternoon, we turned up at the Paihia Beach Resort & Spa for a couples massage. It isn't difficult to be relaxed when lying in a warm, low-lit, nicely decorated room having fragrant oils rubbed deep into your skin.
Another evening saw us back in Paihia, at Charlotte's Kitchen, set over the water and beneath the stars at the end of the local wharf. Notwithstanding the delicious toasted goat feta salad and pork and prawn sui mai entrees and double chocolate mousse and orange ginger Catalana desserts, Charlotte's triumph was the slow-roasted free-range pork knuckle with red cabbage kraut, mustard-seed potatoes and jus. Enormous, tender, flavoursome, with ample crackle, it is no wonder this has become the restaurant's signature dish.
Fuller's GreatSights Hole in the Rock cruise is de rigueur for a visit to the Bay of Islands.
Approaching Motukokako, when the angle is right, with the famous hole (just big enough to sail the catamaran through) visible, the island suddenly becomes a gigantic woolly mammoth lumbering towards shore. Once spotted, it is hard to see it any other way. Dolphins are also in the offing but if none are apparent, passengers are able to get a voucher for a return visit.
Waitangi is a special spot, spread over several hectares of groomed grounds and native bush. From the museum and the waka taua war canoes, to the carved meeting house and James Busby's Treaty House, it is a suitably impressive living memorial to the site where two peoples became one nation.
We were treated to a guided tour, a carving demonstration, a cultural performance, and, while standing on the expansive flagpole grounds overlooking water and islands, another gorgeous rainbow.
That evening we dined at Ake Ake Restaurant, a few minutes drive west of Kerikeri. After enjoying a very pleasant glass of organic 2018 chambourcin in front of the fireplace, we took our seats for the goat's cheese croquette and crumbed nobashi prawn entrees. The texture and flavour explosions continued with the mains — chargrilled yellowfin tuna and confit of duck — reaching a crescendo with the beautifully presented desserts; a dark chocolate delice with chantilly cream, grand marnier and orange sauce and a Greek yoghurt panna cotta with raspberry jelly, feijoa sorbet and pistachio praline.
Could this luxury break get any better? Yes it could, with two glorious nights spent at Donkey Bay Inn.
It is fitting that the entry to Donkey Bay Inn is through a canary yellow tunnel. Although it is only over the hill from Russell, this boutique hotel is in a parallel universe.
View the property from the air or a boat and you see a large, distinctive, glass-fronted building with a living roof of native plants; an off-the-grid luxury retreat set into the bush-clad hillside high above a picture-perfect sandy bay with an eastward view of Te Rawhiti inlet and the Bay's larger islands.
Pass through the tunnel, however, as we did on an overcast afternoon, and you enter a mesmerising, opulent world where colour, curves and magnificence reign supreme. From the soaring ceilings and sumptuous, iconoclastic decor in the sitting room, bar and library to the stunning sea and sky views from all four bedrooms, including our Sky Fall suite, we knew we had been transported to somewhere special.
Designed and built by our gregarious host, philosopher, winemaker and entrepreneur Antonio Pasquale, Donkey Bay Inn is an invitation to experience a new way of being — luxury to free the body, non-linear shapes to free the mind and a view to free the spirit.
It was an invitation we readily accepted.
Our second evening began neck-deep in hot water and bubbles, soaking in private outdoor baths, watching cormorants return to roost from distant fishing grounds.
Mid-evening was spent snuggled on the plush velvet couches in the sitting room, sipping Donkey Bay's own excellent gin, supping on a delicious antipasto platter laid out by Amelia, the manager, and occasionally sharing snippets of what we were each reading.
Late in the evening, relaxed, smiling, we headed upstairs to our suite and our king-sized, four-poster bed. When we fell asleep, it was to a lulling backdrop of waves breaking in the bay below and deep darkness above punctuated by the lights of unknown distant villages and shimmering stars.
The next morning, preparing to leave, another band of rain passed across the Bay, leaving behind yet another vivid rainbow, which emerged from the sea directly in front of our room, arching high and disappearing over the roof. We stood together silently, taking in the striking scene.
Rainbows are a promise, but their beauty is also something to be enjoyed in itself. So, I realised, are breaks in our schedule;pleasant diversions in the midst of the grind.
Spring breaks are a necessary reminder that summer and holidays will arrive; that a better day is on its way. But, like rainbows, they are something to be savoured for all the goodness they offer right here, right now.