Bay of Islands by boat

Emma Bayly goes in search of wildlife in Paihia

Paihia, the locals are quick to tell us, is a translation of ‘pai’, meaning ‘good’ in Maori, and ‘hia’, a Maori interpretation of ‘here’. The bi-lingual translation is the result of two stories of colonisation – Kupe, the great Polynesian chief and navigator, said to have sailed here over 1000 years ago, and Abel Tasman’s discovery in 1642.

We found our holiday house, nestled at the top of a narrow, winding lane with views of both Opua and Paihia harbours. We had little time to revel in our flash new pad though; Darryl’s Dinner Cruise was leaving at 6.30pm and we didn’t want to miss the boat.

Our skipper, Mike, and the crew on board ‘Ratanui’ were eager to break the ice between the new group of six sixtysomethings and four twentysomethings by making us wear silly sunglasses and a captain’s hat while we introduced ourselves. Naturally, the age groups gravitated towards each other, and we soon found ourselves chatting away to a young couple who had gone on Darryl’s Dinner Cruise six years earlier for their honeymoon.

Coasting out of the Paihia harbour and towards the Waitangi River inlet, we were served two huge platters of green-lipped mussels and whole king prawns with garlic bread and dipping sauces. They could have saved the icebreaker introductions and just waited for the entrée; there’s nothing dignified about beheading a king prawn or ripping open a dripping mussel in front of a group of strangers while trying to stay upright on a moving – albeit slow – boat.

The food was fantastic, as was the commentary and before we knew it, we were at Haruru Falls, just in time for tea.

I ordered the Tuscan-seasoned lamb, and Nick – no surprises here – the T-bone steak. Later, when I asked him what the highlights of his trip were so far, the size of the steak was top of his list. Not the heavenly weather, five-star accommodation or the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with dolphins. There’s one lesson learned: feed a man a steak the size of a plate and you can’t go wrong.

It makes perfect sense to explore the Bay of Islands by boat. If you don’t get in, on, or near the water, then you haven’t really been there.

We went out on Carino, a 50-foot catamaran that’s the only sailing yacht licensed by the Department of Conservation for swimming with dolphins. There’s something to be said for cruising past all the other massive dolphin-tour boats packed to the decks with hundreds of tourists, while the ten of us lounged about on the trampoline between the bows, a gentle mist of saltwater spraying up between the mesh.

There are very few rules on board Carino. “If you spot a dolphin, yell out,” they advised us, “but if you’re wrong, you have to buy everyone on the boat a beer.”

Vanessa explained the fickle nature of wild animals, adding there was no guarantee we would see any dolphins at all. “Even if we do see them”, Vanessa said, “the Marine Mammals Protection Act states that if dolphins are feeding, resting, travelling, or have babies with them they should not be disturbed.”

So you can imagine our delight when, like clockwork, a pod of dolphins turned up just as we made our way into the middle of the harbour. After all the talk of wild animals and volatility, this pack of porpoises seemed almost staged. Unfortunately though, they had a baby with them and were engaged in a frantic feeding frenzy, after which they appeared to be on the move.

It was a lucky day all round. We were lucky to spot a pod of bottlenose dolphins soon after launching from the wharf; even more lucky to witness a humpback whale and her calf cruising through the bay en route to Antarctica; we heard the story of Lucky the dolphin, so named because of his dorsal fin scarring; and, I think, we were lucky to survive the snorkelling after encountering such huge sea mammals in the very waters we plunged into shortly after!

In the name of good fun, I was talked into donning a pair of flippers and snorkelling around a quiet cove on one of the many islands. My partner in fashion crime (ill-fitting wetsuits were the real culprit) was determined to find a crayfish for lunch; but luckily, once again, Vanessa already had that sorted, firing up the barbecue on board Carino for some good, old-fashioned Kiwi kai.

Later, gazing out over the Waitangi Treaty Grounds on my left to ‘Romantic Russell’ on my right, wine in hand, I thought this could quite possibly be the life. Good here? Yes sir-ee. In fact, this place definitely over-delivered on its ‘good here’ promise. ‘Perfect-hia’ is far more fitting.

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Bay of Islands baches