By: Rebecca Bisset
The Bay of Islands is steeped in history, and although there are a few different versions of where the first inhabitants of New Zealand arrived from, we do know that it was around a thousand years ago, and probably to this part of the North Island. It seems that they left and returned several hundred years later to form the core of what is now the Maori people.
The history of the first European settlers is much better documented, from Abel Tasman’s visit – when he thought that the island was part of Australia – to when the first missionaries settled in what is now Kerikeri, the largest town of the Northland Region. The missionaries were apparently invited by the chief at that time to set up there because he wanted something from them – no, not redemption but muskets. The “locals” were very warlike and keen on grabbing as much territory as possible by force.
The second wave of missionaries were a little more Christian in outlook and decided that dealing in guns wasn’t appropriate, so the locals had to look for them further afield. They went on a very successful trip to England where they were showered with gifts by London society; on the return journey, during a stopover in Australia, they sold the gifts and bought guns. By this time, though, the little enclave of Europeans had grown and many settled near what was soon to become the first capital of New Zealand: the town of Russell. It later moved to Auckland.
The tourist bus back in ’87 included Russell and the place where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British and the locals, plus the picturesque surrounds including beaches, the old church and original buildings.
This time, we only had two nights to spend in the area so we concentrated on Kerikeri and nearby Matauri Bay. We went on a tour of the first homes built for the missionaries, Stone Store and Kemp House. We had dinner overlooking the estuary in the Pear Tree Restaurant, lunch at one of the many wineries, and we saw one of many waterfalls in the area, Rainbow Falls.
The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs
At the top end of the accommodation in luxury and price is Kauri Cliffs, which rated a 99.2/100 in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2013 Gold List. It’s set on 600 acres of farmland overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with three private beaches and one of the most impressive golf courses in the world – the fairway looks like a putting green!
The resort was built about 13 years ago but it’s been designed to look like a classic weatherboard house of the early 20th century. The main lodge holds the reception and dining rooms plus a wonderful lounge where you have pre-dinner, free-flow drinks and canapés in front of the open fire. We loved it so much we didn’t want to move.
I don’t know if I loved the décor more than the food. It’s a close one. The décor was just so different from most hotels and resorts I’ve stayed in – almost Hamptons-style but with great personality and individual touches. The floor – timber with thin cement strips – was fabulous. The semi-detached suites, in a similar style, were very cool, and the bathrooms were fantastic.
Then there’s the food. Sorry, I’m going to rave a little here, but Kauri Cliffs was ranked in the Top 10 World’s Best Hotels for Food in the aforementioned Conde Nast survey, so I think I can be forgiven! I’m not a “foodie” – I don’t eat out much, and I’m not much of a cook; I’m often disappointed when I do splash out on a nice restaurant. But every meal here was heavenly. The combinations were extraordinary, from a red chicken curry with couscous to an apple dessert with salted, caramelised cashew nuts and butterscotch. On my universal breakfast test (which is always eggs Benedict and a chocolate croissant), it scored ten out of ten.
There are golf buggies to take you to your rooms and around if you are too full after all the eating, but you need the resort’s 4×4 to get you to the beaches below. One of these is called Rose Beach as the sand is made up of pink shells – it’s very pretty. Weddings and events can be arranged on the beaches and at The Lodge itself.
Dinner is in front of the fire and breakfast is overlooking the fairways and the sea. If you have a bit of cash to spend then this is definitely a very special getaway or special occasion venue. If you play golf, it would be especially hard to beat, and there’s also a sister resort, Cape Kidnappers, near Hawkes Bay. The American owners also have another place in Queenstown so if you have time to travel around New Zealand and play golf, it’s a dream!
Kauri Cliffs is near Matauri Bay and about 25 minutes from Kerikeri and the tourist attractions.
Stone Store Lodge
If you’re looking for more “regular” accommodation but still want something that’s classy, Stone Store Lodge was recommended to us and was where my mum and my daughter stayed. It has lovely décor and views, and is within walking distance of two restaurants, the water and the historic Stone Store and Kemp House. It’s also about a five-minute drive to the centre of Kerikeri. Owner Richard is both breakfast-maker and host, and there’s a nice little lounge and breakfast area for gatherings. The bedrooms are a very good size and the décor is modern and clean with a homely feel.
The tour around the Stone Store and Kemp House is worth it if, like me, you’re into the historic stuff. For wine-and-dine fiends, there are various vineyards nearby; we went to Marsden Estate for lunch – it seemed to be on the tourist route, but we weren’t overly impressed with the service or aesthetics so wouldn’t recommend it.
Rainbow Falls is a nice place to visit; there really is a rainbow at the base of the fall. Nearby are plenty of nice drives and more beaches down the coast towards Pahia – and obviously Russell isn’t too far away. If you want to see more in less time then there are a couple of companies offering air tours either by small plane or helicopter. I always think this is the best way to see an area and the cost can be offset by a cutting a couple of days from your car hire or accommodation.
Many people try and do too much of New Zealand at one time. If you’re spending the majority of the time driving, one of you may not feel like they’ve had much of a holiday. My advice is to check distances and then choose a couple of quality places like these where you can stay for a few nights and do some day trips, flights or boat rides from there rather than checking in to a new place every night, and arriving tired from driving for hours.