When you look on a map the skinny little strip north of Auckland is where we are. Northland may look skinny on the map, but when you zoom in and look at it from behind the windshield it gets much bigger. Especially if you’re one who is prone to car sickness. The twisting and turning of the car on our way across the island resulted in me feeling a churning, turning in my tummy. I had to take a reprieve from enjoying the green scenery and close my eyes for a bit. Once we got closer to Highway 1, I was able to resume the proper posture for viewing our surroundings. Finally, we reached Paihia, a little coastal town nestled on the shores of the Bay of Islands.
Nearly every kiwi we have talked to about where to visit in New Zealand has mentioned this place as a must see. This perhaps, resulted in us arriving with lofty expectations and much anticipation. Obviously the key attraction is the magnificent bay. Another major attraction to this area is the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. The Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document was signed there. On our way into Paihia we took a brief detour to see Horuru falls.
Then we had time for lunch at a café on the water at the wharf in Paihia. The house we’d be staying in was just a short walk up the hill from the beach. It was high enough though to provide a lovely view out over the bay. We were chuckling inside as we checked in and our host exclaimed how awful the weather was in fact “It’s the worst we’ve seen all year” she said. Aw, well, there’s nothing we’re going to do to change it and it really wasn’t that terrible. A bit chilly and cloudy, but there were heaters in the house. As we soon discovered the weather changed rapidly and frequently from sun to clouds to rain to sun and blue skies multiple times during the day. Our first day there, we took a stroll to the Waitangi Treaty grounds to view them from a distance.
Before coming back to the house we took a few minutes to get in some hacky sack during which Paul discovered that activity irritated his rib injury much more than simply strolling along the beach. From there it was off to the supermarket to gather groceries for our stay. The next day, it was back to work for Paul. After he finished we took our time having lunch because outside it was chilly and breezy.
Later in the afternoon we set out for a walk on a track along the beach. Once we reached the rock outcropping just at the end of the street it was evident that we’d not be going far on the so called “track.” The tide was too far in and it was obvious that the track had been washed away.
We abandoned the walking plans and simply wandered along the beach. I am very aware that my days of beachcombing will be ending sooner than I’d like. Next we walked through Paihia and browsed through a few of the shops.
The ice cream shops kept catching our eye and we kept passing by, for a while anyway. We stopped at Cellini’s and began browsing the flavors. Then I noticed a sign next to the chiller advertising a “dessert burger.” Well, I don’t know about you but that sounded like two perfect foods rolled into one. I caved when I saw they had one that included cherry filling with any ice cream. To me that screamed “black forest” one of my all-time favorite flavor combos. We eagerly watched the preparation of the dessert burger. The lady scooped a bit of ice cream into the center of a brioche bun, drizzled some cherry filling over it topped it with the other half of the bun then sealed the edges in what looked like a version of a panini press. The result was a deliciously warm sweet bread with a soft cool surprise inside shaped perfectly for my palm. Minutes later as I was wiping the sticky drips of chocolate ice cream from my fingers, I thought “That actually tasted as good as I’d imagined. I’m going to have a difficult time not frequenting this establishment for the rest of our stay.”
The Dive shop caught our attention on our way past too, resulting in a discussion about the possibility of refreshing our scuba diving skills. We’d first begun considering it when we were out on the boat with our friends in the Marlborough Sounds hearing of their adventures diving for scallops. My main concern was the water temperature and this remained concerning after visiting a dive shop in Kaikoura. The owner was honest and up front about what we could expect from diving but he did encourage us to check into the possibility of diving when we were on the North Island. So since we did indeed have this opportunity, the least we could do was go talk with the local shop. That’s where we headed the next day. After meeting Stu, his first question was “When?” This was certainly a crucial question as Sunday or Monday were really the only days we’d be able to go. The shop was closed on Sundays so that left Monday. It just so happened that they had two divers already signed up, a father and his son who was doing his certification dives which meant it would be the ideal scenario for us as we haven’t had SCUBA gear on for about fifteen years. We could easily join them, get a refresher course and enjoy a couple of dives all at the same time. Sounded perfect, though I still had to get the most important question answered. “How am I going to stay warm enough?” One of the key factors was that they would be using a boat with a closed cabin, so I could be out of the wind in between dives to have a better chance of getting warm enough to be able to enjoy the second dive. Stu was encouraging, yet realistic in addressing my concerns. There really was no question that this would be the time and place to experience diving somewhere other than in the tropics. We signed up for the trip leaving Monday at 8:30 am.
Once Paul wrapped up work on Saturday we had the opportunity to go exploring. We’d seen posters around town for the Russell “Birdman Festival” going on through the weekend. Intrigued by the name yet perplexed we hadn’t seriously considered checking it out, but when our host brought it to our attention and described how fun it was we decided see for ourselves. Russel, a little town we’d heard a bit about during our travels, was just a short ferry ride from Paihia. We hopped on the first ferry after lunch. As we approached Russel, we could see a crowd of people gathered at the wharf.
Our ferry arrived just in time for the start of the homemade boat race. We took a moment to watch a handful of people struggle to maneuver their crafts of corrugated plastic through the water. It was a bright sunny day and in my online research I’d found a walking track from Russel up to the lookout on Flagstaff hill. The main event, the birdman jump, after which the festival was named, involved contestants decked out in costume and hand crafted flying machines launching themselves from the pier to see how far they could fly. This was set to take place at 1:30. We wanted to be back in town to watch this spectacle so we had barely enough time to complete the walk. With a rather quick pace we set out for Flagstaff Hill. It was a beautiful day to get up there and have a look over the Bay of Islands.
Back at the wharf, an even larger crowd had gathered making it somewhat difficult to find a place where we could see. I perched on a fence and Paul stood next to me where we could see most of the action. The contest was indeed entertaining. The contestants had clearly put effort into not only their costumes but into their performances as well. It was much more than just a bunch of people jumping into cold water. As the festivities carried on, we watched the clouds gathering, then felt the wind pick up and it seemed inevitable that the rain would be next. We only had our raincoats, no umbrella, so if we were caught in a downpour we would only be able to stay dry from the waist up. Despite it being sunny, there had been a steady chilly breeze all afternoon. More than once we heard locals comment on how dreadfully cold it was, especially compared to last year. The chill seemed more apparent as we stood around spectating. Before the contest concluded and before the rain came, we retreated to the nearest place with hot drinks which just so happened to be a chocolate shop. We sipped on our decadent hot chocolate waiting for the rain to come and go, but it never came. False alarm, but perfect excuse to indulge the sweet tooth.
One other place I wanted to visit while we were here in Russell was the beach on the other side of town. That was where we headed next. The sun was shining again and it was a lovely walk. Once on the beach, I discovered it was one of my favorites for beach combing. The rocks and shells were so exquisitely polished. I so wished we could have stayed longer.
Dusk was approaching and as the sun sunk lower the chill increased. We strolled back to the wharf, just missed the ferry so we walked by and extended the stroll along the coast for a few more minutes before returning and boarding the next boat to Paihia.
As we got off the ferry we walked into Charlotte’s Kitchen, a place recommended by our host, just as they opened for dinner. Luckily we got a table without a reservation. The food was amazing. In my opinion, one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve been here. It was a perfect wrap up to the day and perfect start to the weekend.
Sunday was an all-around casual day. We spent most of it inside with a couple of breaks to get out for a walk around.
Feeling the swirling contrast of anxiety and excitement about diving, I turned to the internet for some tips on how to stay warm. For much of the day I mentally mulled over the small inventory of clothes I had and which would be the best for the diving experience. Getting dry and warm in between dives would be one of the most important pieces. Armed with that knowledge, I packed enough clothes for a week, borrowed a hot water bottle (hottie) from our hosts, threw in two blankets and decided I would take every layer of equipment they offered.
We toted our three bags to the dive shop under clear skies, arriving before they opened. After just a few minutes we met Craig when he came to open the doors. Craig would be the second dive instructor for this trip to take two Canadian guys down who were doing a wreck dive for an advanced certification. Once we’d filled out the paperwork and discussed our comfort and skill level for diving it was time to get fitted with our neoprene layers. At that point Paul was unsure if his sore rib would prohibit him from being able to dive as he’d never been in a wetsuit. Fortunately, after he tried it on he was confident that he could continue. It took some time to get everyone geared up and while we were waiting we chatted with another gentleman, Chris, who would be joining us on the dive trip to help out Craig and Stu. For me this offered another layer of comfort, knowing there would be three experienced divers available to assist the six customers. The dive shop sat in the heart of Paihia, less than a block from the wharf. Not really far enough to drive the load of gear to the boat but too far for us to just carry it. The solution was two large carts. Stu and Chris loaded them with all the supplies we would need for the trip and then we all helped push the carts down the street to the wharf where Craig met us with the boat. With all of us pitching in the boat was loaded quickly. We launched for the ride to our first dive site the “Canterbury.” Craig tied on to the line that was attached the center of the enormous sunken ship, Canterbury, and pointed out the buoys marking the bow and stern. All of us got to hear the briefing for this wreck dive and it certainly was intriguing so before we were even in the water we were imagining what dive we could do next time we’re here. The students for the advanced certification, Chris and Craig prepared to dive.
Once they were in the water we got the briefing for our refresher dive as the boat rocked more and more sharply making me want to just get underwater where it wouldn’t be so rough. We were ready to jump in just after the first divers surfaced. The sun had disappeared but reappeared as we sat in a line doing all the double checks on our equipment. My nervousness had given way to anticipation as I felt surprisingly warm bundled up in my layers (leggings, wetsuit, hood, gloves, neoprene gloves, wool socks and booties) The water temperature was 14 degrees Celsius that’s 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the preparation process and essential skills returned almost instinctively with a few reminders from Stu. Soon the five of us were bobbing on the surface preparing for the descent. The cold water began trickling into my wet suit and I wondered how long until I was shivering. The descent went smoothly and once we settled onto the bottom at a place where Stu could go over the underwater skills with his student I was breathing slow relaxed breaths, re-familiarizing myself with this unique experience. The sound of drawing air from the tank and the muted gurgling of bubbles as they escaped through my regulator and raced for the surface was soothing. It didn’t take long for Stu to review the skillset and then we were off to explore a bit. I found myself more absorbed in the wonderful floating feeling, weightless and calm than in looking for fish or plant life. I attempted to review what I could remember from the lessons when we first took the certification class and consciously checked my gauges, expecting to use my air quickly because of the cold. The father and son reached the end of their dive first and as they began their ascent I considered going up too because I was beginning to shiver. I had a lot of air left though and I was so enjoying the feeling of being underwater again, I wanted to make it last as long as I could. Stu, Paul and I stayed down for several more minutes. By the time I got back to the boat nearly an hour after our descent, I knew I’d stayed in the cold water a bit too long. Thankful for the help of the crew to get back on board, I shook and shivered my way to the cabin to peel off the wet clothes as quickly as I could. At that point, I didn’t think I would be going for the second dive as I felt like it would take me a month in a sauna to warm up.
Though, once I’d dried off and sipped down a hot drink I thought I might have a chance to make the most of the day. We got to enjoy our lunches, more hot drinks and everyone shared stories of what we’d seen on the dives as Craig navigated the boat to the next site. He took us to a more protected site than where he’d originally intended as the winds had increased. To my surprise I was warm almost all the way to my fingertips and ready to get back in the water when the time came. I really appreciated Craig and the crew for taking such good care of us. As I was faced with pulling on a wet cold layer of neoprene, Craig tossed a fresh dry hoodie to me. What a welcome sight. Off we went, this time getting to explore along a rock wall close to shore.
We saw a crayfish, forests of kelp and several varieties of small fish, some of which were very curious. They would actually swim toward us. Once again, I could feel the chill deepening but based on the previous dive, I knew I wouldn’t stay down nearly as long. Again, the crew made it remarkably easy to get out of the water, Craig actually lifted my tank off before I climbed the ladder. That makes me think I likely will never dive on my own. Having them to watch out for me makes for a much more stress free and enjoyable experience. I wasn’t as cold coming out the second time and was able to warm up more quickly once I had dry clothes on. Paul and I were both so glad we’d decided to follow through.
The underwater scenery was very different than what we’d seen in Hawaii, such a treat to see it firsthand. Throughout the evening, I felt like I was still swaying on the boat. A gentle, unique feeling, allowing me to prolong the experience but not enough to make me queasy. Our lovely host had freshened up our apartment and turned on the heaters so we had a wonderful warm place to retire to.
The remaining week was filled with lots of trips to the beaches in town, tons of beachcombing, skyping with family, and discussions of our mixed feelings about this adventure drawing to a close.
Oh, and only one more dessert burger.
During our walks around the area I gathered so many pictures of unique plants and flowers. The Bay of Islands was wonderful in the winter season we would love to see it in the summer.
Then there we were staring down our last days on the North Island and it was time to drive back to Auckland. The weather forecast was sounding rather severe calling for extreme weather for much of the country during our travel days. We drove south from Paihia along the coast making our first stop in Kawakawa to see the main tourist attraction there, the public toilets. Yes, you read that correctly. They are really a beautiful display of public art by Hundertwasser which just so happen to contain toilets. I’d read so much about it. I was glad to see the place in person.
As we drew closer to Auckland, the wind became stronger and stronger. We made a stop for a late lunch in a beach front town just outside the city. Just as we were finishing, the rain blew in we watched people flee from the playground to take cover in their cars as the rain intensified. We were content to keep watching until it subsided which we did. It was not too long of a wait and though the wind remained we didn’t end up driving through too much rain.
The sun illuminated the Auckland skyline as we entered the city. Our flight wasn’t until the next day but we didn’t want to risk getting caught in traffic so we’d booked one night at a hotel near the airport to keep the travel simple and unhurried. We escaped both heavy traffic and a close call with a big truck on our journey across Auckland. I won’t recount the details of the close call, but I am grateful that I am writing of it as a close call and not as aftermath. Still slightly shaken we dropped off our luggage at the hotel, returned the rental car and were happy to be on foot for the next several hours. We both were glad to have moved forward with plans to see some of the North Island. We now have some personal experience on which form our own opinions instead of simply having views shaped by what others have told us. Trying to compare the North and South Islands is like apples to oranges or maybe red wine to white wine. If you spend much time in either place you quickly catch on to the friendly rivalry between them by just by observing and listening to what the locals have to say. Each is beautiful and unique in its own way. Our flight to Nelson was smooth and short, thankfully the winds had subsided. It was indeed sunny in the city known nationwide as “sunny Nelson,” not to be mistaken for warm though. We each slid on another layer and walked to the house where we’ll be for the coming week.