Kayaking Bay of Islands, one of New Zealand's most stunning waterways

New Zealanders are either born with a paddle in their hands or a pack on their backs, and sometimes both. Tramping the high mountain passes and misty forests of Aotearoa is national pastime, but the country's Maori heritage really comes alive when you go kayaking in the Bay of Islands.

Waitangi, close to the township of Paihia, provides a handy departure point for a paddling expedition into some of the country's loveliest waterways.

The coastal settlement is steeped in Maori legend and, of course, gave its name to the historic treaty signed here between 500 Maori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840; the treaty grounds are now a major tourism showpiece complete with a museum, guided tours and cultural performances.

The Bay of Islands, named by James Cook in 1769, is the first landfall on our 15-night Australia & New Zealand Voyage with Azamara Club Cruises and the guests, mostly from North America, the UK and Australia, are keen to explore the North Island.

After breakfast – the full English with black pudding – the ship's bright orange tenders are busy ferrying guests to the little wooden jetty at the mouth of the Waitangi Estuary.

While most head to see the glow worms the Puketi State Forest, take a gentle stroll though Russell, NZ's original capital, or visit historic Hokianga Harbour, I join a few hardy souls for a three-hour kayaking adventure to Haruru Falls.

A five-minute bus ride deposits us at the oceanfront base of Coastal Kayakers, our host company, where we are kitted out with lifejackets, meet our guides Zoe and Maui and climb into our two-person kayaks.I buddy up with Sharron, a trim, energetic lady from Ontario who, like me, is a solo traveller who isn't afraid of some hard-core paddling and the vagaries of the NZ climate.

"How good is this?" she enthuses. "I can't wait to get started."

Our expedition leader Zoe, newly arrived from Vancouver, but proves to be an organised and informative guide with a good knowledge of Maori legend, an eye for local plants and birds and an irrepressible sense of humour. "Good morning, I hear you're all highly experienced kayakers," she says with a broad grin. "So you don't need me, right?"

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Although we are braced for a tough physical challenge, kayaking on the Waitangi Estuary proves to be fairly sedate – and despite the gloomy skies the rain stays away. With Sharron in the bow and me on rudder duty, we soon get into a strong, consistent rhythm. After a few minutes we reach a strip of remnant mangrove forest.

"People are surprised to find mangroves in New Zealand," says  Zoe. "But you've got to remember that we are pretty far north. Just look at these amazing trees – they actually breathe their aerial roots known as pneumatophores."

Much of the ancient mangrove forest was destroyed in the early years of British settlement when ships needed a clear passage to Haruru Falls, then a major river port exporting huge quantities of kauri timber. The mangroves are now protected.

Urban development around the estuary is a more recent threat, but the waterway remains an important bird habitat, with kingfishers, cormorants, oystercatchers and robins aplenty.

Our young assistant guide Maui has a special interest in the huge black and white cormorants, known as pied shags in NZ, that come here to nest along the riverbank and dive for fish in the tranquil waters.

"Look up and you can see their nests in the trees," he says. "In fact, shags are only web-footed seabirds in the world that nest in trees."

En route to Haruru Falls we stop briefly outside a small riverfront Maori village, or marae, one of seven such settlements that once occupied the estuary, forming a trading route from the falls to Waitangi. The place is empty and mournful.

"This marae was the setting of a great love story between a Maori princess and handsome young man from another tribe," says Zoe.

By the time our guide completes her tragic tale of maidens, warriors, starlit nights and talking dolphins we are in sight of Haruru Falls. Our little adventure is over. Three hours have never passed so quickly.

Trip Notes

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.

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FLY

Qantas, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia have regular flights to Auckland, the departure point for this Azamara Club Cruises voyage around NZ's North Island. See Qantas.com, airnewzealand.com.au, virginaustralia.com.

CRUISE

Azamara Club Cruises 15-night New Zealand & Australia Voyage departs from Auckland and sails to the Bay of Islands and then down the North Island to Wellington via Gisborne and Tauranga. The Australian leg includes Sydney, Mooloolaba, Airlie Beach, Townsville and Cairns. Guests can choose from a wide range of shore excursions, such as Maori cultural experiences, winery tours, reef walks and hosted city tours. Fares start at $5709 a  person twin share. Tariffs include gratuities, selected spirits, wines and beers, soft drinks and shuttle service to and from the port and concierge service. For bookings call 1800 754 500 or visit azamaraclubcruises.com.

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