It's 8.30am and we've exchanged the cosiness of our unit at the Paihia Top 10 Holiday Park for the fresh air of Waitangi Mountain Bike Park. I'm wondering whether my slightly cranky "it's-too-early" face and barely veiled disappointment at the coffee shop not being open have prompted the uber-cheerful Jonny of Paihia Mountain Bikes (on-site hire) to give me an e-bike to try, rather than a regular bike, like my boys have. Having never ridden one before, I force a weak thank-you smile - not realising how life-changing this is about to be.
Jonny explains the trails to us, many with Māori names linked to legends or physical features of the land. His cheerful enthusiasm is infectious and I can't help but thaw, slightly. He asks me to give the bike a practice spin and watches, bemused, as a huge smile spreads across my face. I love the "assistance" boost I get every time I pedal when this super comfortable mountain beauty is in trail mode. This is the mountain biking I've been looking for; all the joy but none of the red-faced puffing. I actually have the headspace to take in the sights of the serene forest as we whizz through swoopy turns and over little jumps on the trail. The boys are green-eyed, but I'm thrilled to finally be able to keep up with them. The park has tracks for all levels as well as the option to be driven to the top for a magical all-downhill blast.
After our exhilarating morning, we head to the wharf for a quick bite before heading out on the Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise. Jimmy Jack's Rib Shack is just the ticket for hungry, carnivorous kids and the boys quickly devour their racks. We board the Fullers GreatSights catamaran and settle in; it's a cracking day and we sit back and relax, absorbing the blue-water vibes of the beautiful Bay of Islands.
Our cruise takes us out past rocky outcrops and along the Rakaumangamanga Peninsula to Cape Brett, near the Hole in the Rock on Motu Kōkako (Piercy Island) - we even spot seals on the way. It's a spectacular ride with the sun glittering on sapphire waves giving way to clearer turquoise hues closer to shore. When we arrive, the sea is teeming with kahawai as we line up to head through the narrow gap amid riotous cheers from everyone on board.
We head back, thrilled, but with an edge of disappointment at the lack of dolphin action. Our eyes are peeled but no one can spot the classic fins or sleek grey bodies anywhere. Just as we've almost given up - the Paihia wharf in sight - a cheeky pod of 20 appear out of nowhere. The kids are in raptures watching the dolphins frolic around the boat, and our lovely local expert knows them all by the names they have been given, identified by the unique markings on their fins. She gives us a great who's who as we stop to watch their antics. Nice work Bay of Islands! After our exciting day, we step straight off the boat and into gorgeous Charlotte's Kitchen located right over the water. Some great sharing plates and a glass of Prosecco finish the day off perfectly for this tired mum.
Just before checking out of the Top 10, we cave to the boys' pleas for some kayaking time. It's a pretty stunning setting, right on the water and only a few metres to drag our hired boats into the sea. After that, it's time to go home but not before a stop at Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Both kids have learned a lot about the Treaty at school and are fascinated to see where everything took place. The adjoining museum is beautifully curated with stories and taonga to help us all learn about this defining - and contentious - time in our country's history (in a very modern, interactive way). As we head back to Auckland, we reflect on how special this part of the country is. In my 10-year-old's words "It's super awesome - now I see why all those tourists come here."
Drive: Paihia is an easy three-hour drive from Auckland.
Stay: The Paihia Top 10 Holiday Park is perfect for families with everything from camping to cabins and fully self-contained units. Right on the water, it's a gorgeous location.