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A Serene Escape : Basking In New Zealand's Bay Of Islands

May 24, 1987|SHARON DIRLAM | Times Staff Writer

AIHIA, New Zealand — Picture long sandy beaches with necklaces of shells, hillsides sprinkled with

sheep, green lawns and forests, waterfalls, a small ferry that chugs hourly across the bay between Paihia and Russell . . . yes, but what do you do at the Bay of Islands?

As any Aucklander heading north will tell you, the Bay of Islands is not a place where you go to do anything. There's certainly not much in the way of sightseeing, shopping or restaurant hopping. The bay is the North Island's getaway, New Zealand's close encounter with the Equator, where the sunshine is warm and the clouds billow on the horizon like great white spinnakers.

As you unwind, you realize that there's plenty to do after all, though the temptation may be great to simply sit in the sun and stare at shore birds flirting with the little waves or contemplate whether the piles of clouds outnumber the islands in the Bay of Islands.

If you're an artist, you can set up an easel and find enough scenic beauty for a lifetime's supply of paint. There are views around every curve and from atop every knoll--islands and inlets, bays and points, unfolding on all hands. The dreamer in you can dream of returning in the off-season . . . just you and the locals and the quiet sea.

You can rent gear for diving or charter a fishing boat, take a small catamaran out for a solo sail, play a round of golf, or go for a stroll past waterfalls and along well-tended trails through the Waitangi National Reserve.

One trail includes a wooden walkway, just above the high-tide line, that passes over a mangrove forest in a salt swamp. In this odd environment you may hear a clicking noise. "The strange clicking sound is made by shrimp with their elongated claws," a guidebook says. The avian population amid the mangroves includes the oyster catcher, the pied stilt and the white-fronted heron.

The town's history dates from 1823 when the Rev. Henry Williams established the third mission station in New Zealand. The area is considered the birthplace of modern New Zealand history because it was here that the Treaty of Waitangi, establishing British rule, was signed on Feb. 6, 1840. There's a moderately interesting tour of a Maori meeting house and the nearby Treaty House. The piano in the Treaty House is said to be the first brought to New Zealand.

The thing to do in Paihia is to take a half-day or full-day cruise around the Bay of Islands, a beautiful meandering waterway encircling no fewer than 140 islands. (One source claims there are more than 360 islands; 150 is commonly given as the correct number. Maybe it depends on whether it's high or low tide.) Capt. James Cook gave the Bay of Islands its name, noting in his log that the place was "very uncommon and romantic."

There are breakfast cruises, a lunchtime champagne cruise, a long run to Cape Brett and Piercy Island. The long cruise zooms along the shoreline to Ninety Mile Beach and calls at Cape Reinga at New Zealand's northern tip. Mount Cook Line in Paihia makes the arrangements and has bus tours available as well as cruises.

The First Settlement

Or you can take the ferry ($3 round trip) across to Russell, the first settlement in New Zealand and once such a brawling, crime-infested whaling port that it was known as "the hellhole of the Pacific." Not a whisper lingers of those rowdy times; Russell is a quiet village with a few pleasant restaurants, craft shops and tree-lined parks. The Duke of Marlborough Hotel on the waterfront claims to have the oldest liquor license in New Zealand.

Catamaran or launch cruises also take tourists through the "hole in the rock," where the sea surges through a 50-foot opening in a rock island not far from Paihia. This may be the most exciting thing there is to do in all of the Bay of Islands. How exciting, of course, depends on the skill of the pilot and the banter at the bar.

The Place to Stay

If you don't arrive in Paihia on your own private yacht, which many people do, then the place to stay is the Waitangi Resort Hotel, on the grounds of the Waitangi National Trust. It's a resort hotel operated by the Tourist Hotel Corp. of New Zealand. It has 145 rooms, three restaurants (gourmet, poolside and budget), piano bar, a pretty swimming pool (unheated) and a putting green; an 18-hole golf course is nearby. Rates: $75 N.Z. to $175 N.Z. ($1 U.S. equals $1.76 N.Z.)

The rooms are comfortable and airy, many with views of the water, and all with such amenities as small refrigerator and bar, coffee or tea service, television and private patio or balcony.

Waitangi's award-winning gourmet restaurant, Governor's Room, was expensive and disappointing. It was also nearly empty. The decor was beautiful, the food was quite good--an interesting seafood mousse and king prawns in a spicy sauce--but the service was sullen and slow. In contrast, the Poolside Family restaurant was doing a brisk business.

The Waitangi is about three miles from town. The road winds along the shoreline and over a white-railed one-lane bridge. The resort is on a 4,000-acre trust that also contains a forest preserve, the 18-hole golf course and the Treaty House, where the Maoris and English signed the agreement making New Zealand part of the British Empire. The local museum slide shows that highlight the historic event express some doubts about whether the pact was in the best interest of the Maoris.

However, politics seem quite removed from the everyday reality at Paihia, where fat white sea gulls stroll the strand, cicadas strum in the bush and sailboats float along opposite shores. At night the stars are out in force, Orion standing on his head, and at Earth level, the small waves lull one to sleep.

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