Rob McFarland spends a night in beautiful waters once better known as a home to lawless ruffians.
New Zealand is hardly short of picturesque holiday spots but the Bay of Islands, located three hours' drive north of Auckland, is particularly idyllic. The natural bay provides a sheltered haven for boat lovers with dozens of islands to explore and plenty of coves and inlets in which to moor.
Looking at this tranquil picture today, it's hard to believe it was once known as the "hell hole of the Pacific". But if you'd visited the town of Russell in the early 1800s, you'd have found a lawless outpost famous for its drunkenness, gambling and prostitution. Sadly, I couldn't find any evidence of this but I did stumble across a fascinating museum and several excellent cafes.
This insight into Russell's colourful past is one of many things I've learnt about the region while on board Ipipiri, a new catamaran that offers overnight cruises around the bay.
Ipipiri's owners claim it's the largest cruising vessel permanently based in New Zealand and at 46 metres long and 11 metres high, it certainly towers above everything around it in Opua harbour.
After being welcomed on board by the boat's smartly dressed crew, we tuck into a selection of warm, homemade blueberry muffins while ship's master Robbie briefs us on safety.
And then we're off, cruising up the Veronica Channel past yachts, powerboats, dinghies and tall ships and admiring the decadent holiday homes on the tree-lined foreshore.
With scenery this mesmerising, it'd be easy to explore the Bay of Islands and be blissfully unaware of its historical significance. Robbie's commentary takes care of this. We learn about the violent tussles between the French and the Maoris and see where the New Zealand Declaration of Independence (1835) and the Treaty of Waitangi (1840) were signed.
After entering the main part of the bay and passing the islands of Motuarohia and Moturua, we drop anchor in a sheltered cove to the south of Urupukapuka Island.
A few of us paddle out in sea kayaks while others are dropped ashore by tender for a bushwalk. Ipipiri has a hydraulic platform at its stern which allows kayaks and tenders to be lowered into the water. There is also the option to snorkel or have a swim off the boat.
We anchor for the night in Parekura Bay and while the boat gently rocks on its mooring, everyone congregates at the bar for a pre-dinner drink. Given we're a captive audience and a long swim from the nearest bottle shop, I take a deep breath before opening the bar menu. But it's not too bad. House wine is $NZ25 ($20) a bottle and beers and spirits are around $NZ6 a pop.
Dinner is served in the boat's large, open-plan dining area. The food is hearty and plentiful with options including Thai curry, chicken chasseur and beef lasagne for main, and pavlova, mud cake and a devilishly more-ish cheesecake for dessert.
There are no TVs or internet access on board so after-dinner entertainment consists of board games or lying on the top deck admiring the stars. I choose the latter and am treated to a spectacularly busy night sky punctuated by satellites and shooting stars.
Unless you're on a five-star cruise ship, sleep doesn't always come easily on boats. They're not renowned for space and comfort and often groan and creak. Here Ipipiri excels. Each of its 30 ensuite cabins has either a twin or king bed and feels more like a hotel room. Decoration is tasteful, with dark woods and thick-pile carpet. Three panoramic windows provide a hypnotic view and the en suite, while compact, is functional with a decent shower.
As we cruise back after breakfast the following morning, I find myself wishing I was staying another night. The boat has to be back at Opua at 10.30am to depart again at 1pm, which has made the overnight experience feel a little rushed. A two-night itinerary or a one-night, two-full-day alternative would feel more leisurely.
Other than that, it's a delightfully relaxing way of exploring one of New Zealand's most scenic spots.
The writer was a guest of Fullers.
Air New Zealand flies from Sydney to Auckland up to five times a day. Fares start from $260 one way including taxes. Phone 13 24 76, see airnewzealand.com.au.
The cruise departs daily from Paihia at 12.30pm and returns the next day at 10.30am. Cost is $NZ339 ($268) an adult and $NZ169 a child, which includes all food and activities. Return coach transfer from Auckland costs $NZ100 a person. See overnightcruise.co.nz.