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Culture cache in the Bay of Islands

January 21, 2007|Debora Vrana and Helen Sissons, | Special to The Times

The remote Bay of Islands in New Zealand's northern tip has some of the best scenery in the country. An added plus: It's an area rich with the history of the nation's native Maori people and the first European settlers. You'll get a chance to eyeball Tane Mahuta, or "Lord of the Forest," one of the largest rain-forest trees in the world, sail through prehistoric rock formations in the bays where author Zane Grey loved to deep-sea fish, and quaff some tasty Sauvignon Blanc at local wineries. The sheer natural beauty of the Bay of Islands, just three hours north of Auckland on the northeast coast of the North Island, remains almost unspoiled. You'll see more sheep than people.

A drive up the coast

A drive to the Bay of Islands means curving roads through rolling green hills of sheep-dotted farmland and forests with occasional stunning views of coastline, similar to those from California's Highway 1. After flying into Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, we went straight to Kerikeri, one of the country's fastest-growing urban centers. It has a warm climate and is home to a collection of arts-and-crafts centers, with beautiful green stone necklaces and amazing wood products, including furniture and chess sets from well-preserved 50,000-year-old kauri trees dug up from swampland. Stop in at Ancient Kauri Kingdom and Origin Art & Craft. The town is bustling with families and new European residents.

On the waterfront

Take a short drive to the seaside town of Paihia, where you'll find loads of souvenir shops. From the Paihia wharf, take a ferry ride to the quaint town of Russell, a former whaling village and New Zealand's original capital. For lunch, try the Duke of Marlborough, one of the original whaling pubs with colonial decor. We also liked child-friendly Sally's Restaurant, right on the waterfront, where we enjoyed some fantastic scallops. You can't go wrong with seafood, veal or beef in this part of the world.

Dive, dive, dive

There are many scenic dive locations, including the Poor Knights Islands, which Jacques Cousteau declared one of the world's top 10 dives. Another diving landmark, the Rainbow Warrior, sunk in Auckland harbor in 1985 and moved north, is now one of the world's top wreck dives. Check with your hotel to arrange trips.

Where to stay

There is a huge range of accommodations in the Bay of Islands, from exclusive golf resorts such as Kauri Cliffs to backpacking dormitories. What follows is just a selection. Copthorne Hotel and Resort Bay of Islands sits on the sea, near excellent big-game fishing and right next to the historic treaty grounds at Waitangi. It's a good central location and offers a large selection of rooms priced from around $100; 011-649-402-7411, Nearby, at the Beachcomber Resort, guests enjoy sea views from every room. Doubles from $100; 011-649-402-7434,

Getting there

From LAX, Air New Zealand and Qantas fly nonstop to Auckland. Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui offer direct flights (stop, no change of plane). Air Pacific and Qantas offer connecting flights (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,673.

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