Bays at Leisure

for Australian Boating

Whether it’s sailing, fishing, cruising or just relaxing, New Zealand’s Bay of Islands takes some beating. Roderick Eime explores from the deck of Oceanic Discoverer.

The renaissance in small ship cruising has created renewed interest previously overlooked destinations in our region. Cruise itineraries were fast falling into the “same old” category with port visits to Fiji, Noumea and Vanuatu reappearing with monotonous regularity. Smaller, more versatile ships have allowed cruise lovers to explore and experience remote and shallow waterways previously the domain of private pleasurecraft. New Zealand’s glorious Bay of Islands is one boaties’ paradise now open to this new wave of pocket cruise ships.

Cairns-based Coral Princess Cruises, who have operated small ship cruises for nearly twenty five years, expanded their sphere of influence substantially with the 2005 introduction of Oceanic Discoverer. Originally launched to bolster their small fleet in the busy Kimberley region, she has since ventured as far afield as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tasmania. As part of her South Pacific ramblings, she will spend December through February amid the picturesque aquatic landscape of the Bay of Islands and the wider Northland region.

Of all her journeys and destinations, it is this one that perhaps holds the most appeal for fellow boat owners and enthusiasts. Although labelled, “Bay of Islands” the title only reveals one end of this much more comprehensive exploration of the waterways between Paihia and Auckland in the region known to locals as Northland. This whole stretch of coast is steeped in nautical history, is one of the most popular marine playgrounds in New Zealand, perhaps Australasia and is populated with the most diverse assortment of pleasure boats imaginable.

During the five nights spent aboard Oceanic Discoverer, we noted luxurious superyachts and cruisers in the multi-million dollar stratosphere right down to modest runabouts, sailing dinghies and yachts. Of particular note was Reg Grundy’s magnificent $90 million, 70 metre Boadicea; NZ’s fastest commercial sailing catamaran, On The Edge; the 18 metre, 45 knot Excitor fast tourist launch and the sublime tall ship, the 44 metre Soren Larsen.

It’s easy to understand why this is such a haven for boat lovers – especially once you’re here. Kilometre after kilometre of intricate coastline, little nooks, coves and crannies, thickly wooded islands and headlands all interwoven to create a convivial natural latticework perfect for smaller vessels. At 63m, Oceanic Discoverer is a behemoth amongst all but the most lavish superyachts and we cruise somewhat pompously into the little ports and islands and anchor in the bays surrounded by adoring sports cruisers and sailboats.

But it’s not all sea chanteys and ‘yo ho ho’, we make numerous landfalls at some of the delightful islands and parks throughout the region and there’s plenty of time for energetic strolls and even some shopping at the little towns like Russell, Paihia and tiny Port Fitzroy way out on Great Barrier Island.

We set off from the local capital of water sports and recreation, Paihia and fittingly the launch collects us from the jetty at nearby Waitangi, site of the signing of the treaty of the same name and the birthplace of modern New Zealand.

Across the harbour, you’d be forgiven for thinking little Russell town was an island, but it’s actually attached to the mainland by a sliver of land that culminates in Tapeka Point, which in turn forms an imposing promontory in the centre of the Bay of Islands. It’s hard to imagine this picture-postcard village with dainty shops and ornate architecture as the “Hell Hole of the Pacific” as it was described in the very early 19th Century. Then, instead of the cappuccino set and floral hatted tourists, it was host to deserters, ex-cons, drunken whalers, marauding Maori and bawdy ship girls all in a swill of wanton lawlessness and licentiousness – or so the missionaries would have us believe. Russell, as it was officially known from 1840, was actually the capital of New Zealand for nine months until it was decided to move the seat of government to Auckland.

Within view of Tapeka Point, about three kilometres WNW, is Motuarohia (or Roberton) Island. It is here that a plaque remembers Lieut. James Cook RN who set foot on the island in 1769 during his epic first voyage. The entire area was well populated by the Maori who had arrived from the east over six hundred years prior and set up many villages through the region.

Maori and Pakeha (white Europeans) co-existed in the bay with some degree of co-operation. The Maori were enthusiastic traders and were soon resupplying the whaling and cargo ships, but at the same time falling victim to the attendant evils like alcohol and disease.

Motuarohia gained its European name after one notable collapse of interracial relations in November 1841. Maketu Wharetotara, the 17-year-old son of the Nga Puhi chief Ruhe of Waimate went on a vicious killing spree, slaughtering five people, including a woman and three children with an axe. In a celebrated and precarious case, Maketu was the first legal hanging in New Zealand and the island adopted the name of the widow and mother he killed, Mrs Roberton.

The most northerly extent of our modest exploration was to Whangaroa, a journey of some 70 kilometres from our starting point of Paihia. Another idyllic harbour and anchorage guarded by Taupo Bay to the north and Tauranga Bay to the south, it was deemed strategic enough to place a naval gun inside a concrete bunker overlooking the bay during the Second World War. The gun is long since gone, instead the surrounds are now home to Kingfish Lodge, a very smart fishing lodge where you can even purchase your own luxury, waterfront villa for a cool NZ$1 million.

To continue with the blood-thirsty tales, Whangaroa is also the scene of the so-called “Boyd Massacre”. In this regrettable chapter of European history, the son of a Whangaroa chief, Te Ara, was aboard the ship Boyd as a working seaman. But, as legend goes, the young chief, being of noble blood, ignored his orders and was flogged for insubordination. When the Boyd returned to Whangaroa, Te Ara documented his mistreatment in vivid detail and pointed out Captain John Thompson for punishment. In a rush of blood lust, Te Ara’s tribe massacred most of the crew and passengers in retribution. A party of British seamen later returned to exact their own revenge and so the spiral went, with a great many lives lost on both sides.

Our journey ended with an exploration of the Hauraki Gulf, the scene of the ignominious defeat of Team New Zealand in the 2003 Americas Cup. Our southerly thrust was interrupted by a detour to Great Barrier Island and the miniscule Port Fitzroy. Like so many of the islands along the coast, Great Barrier Island was a rich source of valuable kauri timber. The hardy wood is ideal for boatbuilding and, predictably, the slow-growing native kauri was all but eliminated throughout New Zealand. Small stands are reappearing on the protected islands and one such stand exists on Great Barrier.

En route to our final destination of Auckland, a stop is made on both Tiritiri Matangi and Kawau Islands, both as unusual as they are different. Tiritiri is the site of an intensive volunteer wildlife conservation programme. Rid of its feral vermin, the island was painstakingly restocked with numerous rare and endangered bird species including the vibrant saddleback, the delicate North Island Robin, the ungainly Takahe and boisterous Kokako. Pois
ed with my camera hoping to capture a shot of one of these elusive creatures, I’m suddenly confronted with a determined Kokako on the hunt. I think he’s looking at me and I snap him, but he’s spied a little green morsel on a twig and a bug is deftly plucked from a branch barely a metre away – and he’s off!

At the top of the island’s only hill is the famous lighthouse where a family of flightless Takahe stroll unmolested in the garden of the keeper’s cottage. A visitor centre is also housed nearby.

Kawau Island, just fifteen minutes by ferry from Auckland, is a delightful location with the most magnificent home built in 1845 for the manager of the copper mine established nearby. It later became the abode of Sir George Grey; soldier, colonial administrator, Governor-General, political prophet and perhaps New Zealand’s most significant 19th Century figure. He bought the island in 1862, renovated the house and created lush gardens stocked with exotic plants and animals including wallabies and kookaburras, many of which survive to this day! A perfect layover and picnic spot popular with locals and visitors alike.

The stops we made aboard Oceanic Discoverer could just as easily be made with your own or a chartered vessel and we saw many folks doing just that. Couples, families, parties and even one or two soloists were cruising or paddling aboard an array of vessels and taking full advantage of secluded bays and the easy legs in between.

Perhaps this magnificent gulf will come alive again to the towering masts and billowing spinnakers of the America’s Cup if Team New Zealand’s revenge is complete. Either way, boats and boat lovers of all sizes will continue to frolic in these perfect waters.

Fact File

For comprehensive information about the Northland region, see: or

The Oceanic Discoverer’s five night itinerary between Auckland and Paihia, the Bay of Islands explores the north coast of New Zealand and operates between 21 December 2007 and 8 March 2008. Priced from A$2990 per person twin share, the fare includes all meals and excursions. For further information, see:

© Roderick Eime 2007 [1600 words] [pics available at]

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