Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Trips: Russell and the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

There are essentially two towns to choose from when staying in the Bay of Islands: Paihia and Russell. Paihia has a greater selection of accommodations, particularly for the backpacker set, and more restaurants, cafes, and music venues. Russell, while a bit harder to get to (it requires a five minute car ferry ride), is smaller and a bit more laid back. It was also slightly more expensive from a hotel perspective. But it was beautifully quiet and relaxed, particularly as this was the shoulder season for tourism. 

We stayed at the Duke Of Marlborough, which claimed to be the oldest licensed hotel in all of New Zealand. Our room was small and plain, in a historic kind of way, but the location, free wifi, and breakfast were worth their weight in gold. In general, we found internet to be remarkably expensive in NZ, which was a bit surprising, and disheartening for parents missing their wee babe back home.

And the parking was included in the room rate. Although if you’re an uninvited guest you’ll ‘risk being towed or clamped by a man in a van...”. 

Cheeky, no? [oh my god, I’m picking up NZ sayings. Please stop me now.]

Russell is an old fishing settlement and has a fine selection of churches, historic houses, and Maori sites.

I told Chris I was going to be seriously ticked off if the best they could come up with for my headstone was “Sonja, beloved wife of the Above”. Not that it matters all that much as I’d prefer to be ashified, instead.

There is a nice little tramping trail that goes from the ferry all the way into Russell and part of it includes this mangrove swamp boardwalk.

I suppose this could suffice as my 6.5 month pregnancy photo:

The real reason people flock to the Bay of Islands is for the nautical opportunities. No matter what you do, it is imperative that you spend some time on the water. And if my husband, the man known throughout the world for his legendary levels of sea-sicknness can do it, you can too!

And there is a vast variety of vessels that can take you out into the Bay.

Since the two towns are only about five minutes across the harbor, most tour operators will pickup clients from both locations.

 We chose, again on my brother-in-law Eric’s recommendation, to hop aboard a small ship for a morning of dolphin fun. [See company info at the end of this post].

Our tour was billed as a ‘dolphin eco adventure’, which meant that we went out with the intention of spotting, and if we were fortunate, swimming with the marine beasties. 

And sure enough, there they were! We got lucky and encountered a pod of bottlenose dolphins frolicking about in a small cove.

 So we suited up and prepared for the icy blast of water.

One, two, three, GO! Chris was first off the boat and took off like a shot. The man has no fear.

The idea is that you jump into the water and swim like crazy until you’re in the dolphin's vicinity. There is no way you’ll be able to keep up with them but the general idea is that if you make yourself interesting enough (playing, splashing, making crazy sounds), they’ll stick around to check you out. 

At first though, all you can see is the murky water. And you can hear them singing. It’s rather eerie and a bit scary.

And then, slowly, you start to see shapes moving in the water:

Hazy, indistinct, but definitely dolphin-like:

They move quickly and effortlessly - half the time people don’t even know they’re in the immediate area (when in fact, they’re just below you).

Dolphin or shark? Impossible to tell, frankly.

Getting closer:

And make no mistake, my dears, this is a lot of mammal. Bottlenose dolphins are quite large and appear even more so when suddenly appearing out of the depths:

And then, bingo, at eye-level and only three feet away:

Right below:

Cruising by for a closer look:

Our captain claimed that they love pregnant women (a perk of their fancy sonar, perhaps); I’m not completely sold on this explanation but they did spend a lot of time in our vicinity at very close range. Chris thought it was because they were busy laughing at the big, white gangly human (him!).

This was a young adolescent pod and they were clearly in an inquisitive mood.

In the end, we spent 45 minutes with this group, watching as they weaved in and out among the swimmers. It was utterly and completely thrilling. 

Finally we got too cold and headed back to the vessel.

They still put on a pretty good show from the boat.

The final few hours we spent cruising the harbor and taking in the other wildlife, one of which turned out to be a large hammerhead shark (not pictured).  Glad the captain didn’t tell us about the sharks until after we’d exited the water...

A blue penguin (I think):

 Later we spotted a large pod of common dolphins. Slightly smaller in size than the bottlenose, they spent their time jumping directly in front of the boat. We could have reached over the side and given them a friendly pat. They were also much faster than their larger cousins.

Coming up for air.

My favorite shot of the afternoon. These guys were so quick that I spent most of my time clicking the shutter after they’d already gone back into the water. It was only at the end that I learned to anticipate the jumps and start shooting before they surfaced.

What a glorious day.  

That night we got fish ’n chips takeaway and headed down to the beach, figuring we’d earned our calories after the icy swim.

We got quite the crowd of onlookers:

The next morning it was up early for a trip up Flagstaff Hill, a heavily contentious historical site between the Maori and the incoming white settlers. We also got really excited because we thought we spotted the wild and elusive kiwi bird:

But it wasn’t. In fact, kiwi don’t really look much like these guys at all. Birding fail.

After that we hopped on the SH-1 South for a long drive down to Rotorua. 

But first we stopped at some fancy public bathrooms (welcome to life with a heavily pregnant woman):

Here’s another done-up toilet, this one with a green roof:

And on that lovely note, I think it’s time to draw this post to a close. 



Up Next:

Part 5: Karangahake Gorge: an abandoned gold mine in a stunningly beautiful valley

All New Zealand Posts: 

Part 1: New Zealand Travel Route: The North Island in 8 Days
Part 2: Auckland: the cosmopolitan heart of the North Island
Part 3: Waipoua Forest: giant trees and pretty views
Part 4: Bay of Islands: Swimming with Dolphins
Part 5: Karangahake Gorge: an abandoned gold mine in a stunningly beautiful valley
Part 6: Rotorua: The Yellowstone of New Zealand
Part 7: Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks: Two of the “Nine Great Walks of New Zealand”
Part 8: Waitomo: Glow Worms Galore! 

If You Go:


We stayed in a small queen room and it was just fine - no frills but quiet and convenient
Big continental breakfast, free wifi, free parking, in-room fridge, at the waterfront


Thai food meets British pub. The chicken curry was great.

Scales Fish Company
No website, but right around the corner from Tuk Tuk next to the pub.
Fresh, fresh fish from the counter, wrapped in butcher paper. Take your meal down to the park for a nice view (but also expect to be mobbed by gulls).


Look for coupons in the tourist rags
Bring your swimmers and plenty of warm clothes for after the chilly dip. They’ll provide snorkel gear.
Pickups from either Paihia or Russell.

Take a walking tour around Russell (free)

Hike (or drive) up to Flagstaff Hill

Other Activities We Also Considered:

Pompallier Mission - "built in 1842 to house the Catholic mission’s printing press, this rammed earth building is the mission’s last remaining building in the Western Pacific” [Lonely Planet, p. 127]

Waitangi Treaty Ground - (Really wish we’d had time for this one!) Just outside of Paihia. From Lonely Planet: “occupying a headland draped in manicured lawns and native bush, this is the most significant site in NZ’s history. It was here on 6 February 1840 that the first 43 Maori chiefs, after much discussion, signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown”.