This post was originally published by Megan Hutchinson in on 27th March 2017

We can’t get enough of the Bay of Islands! There’s no other way to say it, we’re totally taken with everything about the subtropical “Winterless” north. After two trips to Kerikeri already this year (including a weekend to celebrate our first wedding anniversary) we turned to neighbouring Russell for a romantic retreat, to make the most of a week of Blair’s holiday leave, and delay the onset of Autumn.

If you’re looking to take some time out together, Bay of Islands is the spot, with a multitude of beaches and secluded islands (we even found ‘Honeymoon Bay’). There’s plenty of adventure and activity for those who want to go beyond the Pohutakawa lined beaches too.

Russell Wharf, Bay of Islands

It wasn’t my first time in Russell, nor at The Duke of Marlborough, where you’ll have seen from instagram I’ve been very very comfortable. (Ever the bride) this time we stayed in a beautiful room that’s frequently used as the bridal suite for weddings at The Duke. This week is the longest time we’ve spent in the Bay of Islands and it was a great place from which to base ourselves to enjoy the best of it.

The Duke has proud claim to being the first establishment in New Zealand to get a liquor licence (in 1840), but the real honour (and its tagline) is Refreshing Rascals and Reprobates since 1827 so you know it’s going to have a good cellar! For us, holidays are all about trying local cuisine, and of course Bay of Islands has ample fresh seafood. After just a 3 hour drive to Bay of Islands, we decided we’d earned a day’s rest at the hotel, and between lunch and dinner at The Duke, I managed to try calamari, salmon, locally caught “Te Ika Mata” ceviche and local ‘Far North’ hapuka (with kina beurre blanc). One more mouth of seafood and I’d have become amphibious!

Seafood lover or not (Blair), we were pretty spoiled for choice there and the vista can’t be faulted either.

wine at the Duke, Russell, Bay of Islands
NZ Blogger, Megan Hutchinson, enjoying a local wine from the Duke

When we weren’t wining and dining at The Duke’s waterfront restaurant, we were essentially doing the same on the water, which of course the Bay of Islands is best known for.
Because nothing spells romance like a sunset cruise, for our first foray into the Bay, we set sail (literally! I hoisted up the ropes to set our sails!) on R. Tucker Thompson tall ship.

Captain Blair proved his aviation skills are transferrable to maritime, taking the helm and sailing around the inner bay of Paihia and Waitangi. Naturally, I drank wine.

We loved the very personable skipper, an experienced sailor and knowledgable Bay resident, and were also pleased to hear about R.Tucker Thompson Sail Training Trust which runs life changing one week adventures for young people. Our sail was a little shorter than that (and much easier on guests), cruising the Bays for a just couple of hours, but the boat is available for longer cruises too. I was particularly excited to hear that the Tucker Thompson also takes out bridal parties our for photos, and even hosts small weddings for up to 47 guests on board for a full day or sunset ceremony.

Following antipasto and aperitif on board, we set off for dry land in Paihia for dinner. Its newest restaurant, Charlotte’s Kitchen has the crown for best in-situ in the Paihia Bay, and actually took the crown for our favourite meal (between top contenders The Duke and Provenir)!

Relaxed, colloquial, homely and unpretentious was the vibe of Charlotte’s, and the food, while also pretty homely, was actually far more impressive than expected (don’t you hate when restaurants with prime spot on the water serve totally uninspired and outdated fare!). I later discovered Charlotte’s was inspired by Charlotte Badger, a woman of interest, passion, and strength (and a bit naughty – sounds like my kinda gal). A convict from New South Wales, became one of the first Pakeha women known to have lived in New Zealand, and considered Australia’s first female pirate.

dinner at charlotte's kitchen, bay of islands

Calamari was fresh and perfectly grilled to tender, and the “poke” was a pretty authentic taste of Hawaii – where I lived on ahi tuna poke last year. Steak was sous-vide to medium rare and good, but it was Blair’s pork hock which totally blew us away. Staff assured that this was the serving for one ($40) rather than for two ($60), and he began his very meat-centred mission. I never thought I’d see a day where he shared his crackling, and I’m glad to be wrong.

Waking up to another stunning day in Russell, I’d be content to just sit on the bed and gaze out of the window, but our final full day was reserved to cruise the Bay of Islands. It more than made up for getting out my robe.

With almost a private voyage, Fullers GreatSights treated us to an incredible Cliffs and Caves tour of many the Bay’s Islands, with a landing and walking tour of Motuarohia.

couple walking, bay of islands

The Bay of Islands’ history is incredible, and our Captain seemed to know everything that had occurred since the 1700s, when Russell first attracted visitors. For instance, did you know the French laid their claim to New Zealand just a few short years after James Cook! French explorer Marion du Fresne ‘discovered’ Aotearoa and appeared to be getting on well with local Maori, before apparently breaking tapu by fishing in Manawaora Bay. Maori were offended, and so killed and ate Marion du Fresne and 25 of his crew in 1772 at the now “Assassination Cove”. The remaining French buried a bottle at Waipoa on Moturua, containing the arms of France and a formal statement taking possession of the whole country, with the name of “France Australe” before promptly sailing off and giving NZ a bad reputation as a dangerous land unsuitable for colonisation.

In lighter history, we also saw the hut Queen Elizabeth changed into her ‘bathers’ at during a visit, and discovered Honeymoon Bay – so called becuase the beach is really only suitable for two!
A speedier way to get around the Bay than the Tucker Thompson tall ship, the Cliffs and Caves tour is a great way to see a lot of the region in just a few short hours. We particularly loved the trip into the caves, and the view and lagoon from our island stop.

On a previous trip I’ve been to the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi – a must do for kiwis and tourists alike, so we walked there on our way for dinner in Paihia.
Quite a contrast from the hāngi meal on offer at the Waitangi end of Te Ti Bay, Provenir Cuisine and Cellar is Paihia’s finest dining, and would rival most for fine dining in the Bay of Islands. Part of Paihia Beach Resort, the restaurant is intimate but doesn’t feel cramped thanks to its full glass outlook across the pools of La Spa Naturale and the Bay beyond.

girl at day spa, paihia, bay of islands

Cuisine is imaginative, expertly prepared and beautifully presented – think truffle crumb, mint and rosemary sorbet cleanser. Meals are very much fine dining quality, but are much larger than I’ve come to expect from similar (Auckland) establishments. Complementary warm fresh bread and olives was a welcome start, and only improved from there, culminating in Blair’s favourite, a creamy brulee. A great special occasion meal for a romantic weekend away in the Bay of Islands.

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