GUEST ARTICLE:As you drive around North Island you’ll notice that many signs and speed limits are poorly placed, but at least special orange signs thank you for driving through temporary road works.
On the drive to Paihia, only detour through Whangarei Falls (literally pronounced Fungeray) if you’re excited by small-ish waterfalls or if you’ve never seen one before, otherwise, it didn’t really live up to its “most photographed falls” tag for me at all.
Paihia is a very small seaside town featuring wall-to-wall hotels, motels and apartments. It is a very popular hub to launch into various cruises, adventure boats, ferry rides and bus trips around the Bay of Islands.
Beware of the pressure to book expensive cruises instantly from the moment you set foot in town. You will need 3-4 days to take advantage of all the main sites.
You will find that the two big guns – Kings and Fullers to be very similar. Why? Not only did it seem like a cosy duopoly with both offering 99% of the same package covering Hole in the Rock, Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga at virtually the same rates, but Kings (an Australian company) just bought out Fullers (the original Kiwi operators) as well.
I booked the Fullers Hole in the Rock ($NZ69 off peak, $NZ77 peak) and Cape Reinga package ($NZ99 off peak, $NZ105 peak) over two separate days.
Don’t book a cruise on a stormy day like I did. Poor visibility combined with choppy seas and fierce wind gusts don’t make for good photography or viewing – especially from the top deck where you feel like you’re about to be hurled into the sea!
Take your Hole in the Rock snaps fast as you have a limited amount of time before another catamaran comes from behind and puts a blemish on your shots. The exclusive Fullers stopover in Urupukapuka Island is well worth it as long as you walk to the Cable Lookout and not just slump at the ordinary Zane Grey cafe.
Cape Reinga, the most northern tip of NZ where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean is best negotiated through one of the main tour bus operators because its not an easy drive on some of the unsealed roads, and trickier still on Ninety Mile Beach where an entire bus has sunk after failing to negotiate a twisty sandbar stream.
Plus, our tour guide was a friendly Maori who’d been doing it for 25 years and was full of historical anecdotes, which made the whole day journey a much fuller experience. We learnt that the beach is more like 65 kilometres instead? The sand dune boarding stop was fun and addictive once you got the hang of it and let go of the fear of flipping and mangling yourself.
A new operator called Dolphin Discoveries is also worth a look, but keep in mind that all three operators offer a 10% discount for booking two trip packages and a “see dolphins or come again free guarantee” – whether you’re spending enough time in Paihia or bookings are available is another question.
After a long day, the thin and crispy pizzas and the ambience at the Toast Wine & Cocktail Bar nestled away on the main strip in Paihia was perfect, particularly the gourmet greek pizza ($NZ21).
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds ($NZ12) are a must visit to learn how the Maori Chiefs and white settlers forged a lasting peace settlement. A TV NZ cameraman in the car park asked me what I thought of the plan to charge tourists an entry fee, but allow Kiwis in for free. I told him that Aussies will just ban all Kiwis from sun baking on Bondi beach in Sydney in return – he laughed.
Obviously the news director didn’t as I never made the evening news after all. I didn’t bother buying a guided tour ticket as all the exhibits were well posted with information displays. The Maori meeting house and the Busby house were extremely well maintained and rich in historical artifacts.
The agricultural town of Keri Keri (meaning “dig dig” in Maori), 15 minutes away from Paihia, is a fabulous way to spend an afternoon. Buy local farm produce – fresh and organic citrus all year round – particularly the seedless mandarins and tangellos.
Taste local handmade cheeses at Mahoe Cheese Factory, fine chocolate at Makana Confections, and exotic ‘chai latte’ fudge at the Fudge Factory. You’ll find quality Kauri wood handicrafts (from ancient logs buried underground) at the Kauri Workshop.
For lunch, try some Middle Eastern fare at the Café Jerusalem for friendly service and unique dishes with a twist served in a cobble stone alleyway. You’ll find the levivot pita ($NZ7.50) and salad (NZ$9) and cheese, zataar burekas pastry (NZ$4) both fresh and tasty.
Give the “historic township of Russell” a miss if you don’t have much time and unless you really want to see a bunch of antiques, arts shops, cafes and a museum in two streets and then walk to one of a few lookouts. If you do visit, catch the small Russell ferry run by a friendly local ($NZ10). It’s a short but peaceful trundle across calm waters. To escape the swarms of tourist in peak season, take a walk to a very quiet lookout uphill and on the other side of Russell through the lemon tree track and zigzag walkway – its worth it.
This article has been written by Pranav Bhatt. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Business at Sydney University. He has an interest in world travel, cricket, politics, technology and the media.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution