Not at all. Everything here is superlative – the highest parasail, longest skydive, fastest boat trip, best chance of spotting dolphins – because this patch of Kiwi paradise is not only gorgeous, it’s geared up to show visitors a good time. Throw in the earliest European settlement (Russell) and the most significant site in Pakeha/Maori relations at the Waitangi Treaty grounds, and you’ve got history and culture on the doorstep to boot.
Pohutukawa-fringed Paihia is populated by bronzed backpackers and smug expats, who’ll grin expansively while gesturing to their “office” with an outstretched arm. There’s a gaggle of shops selling Kiwiana along the main street, interspersed with specialty food shops – try the sweet treats at Get Fudged or the ice cream at Cellini’s –quality restaurants and beachfront bars. Accommodation for every taste and budget jostles along the water’s edge, with the backpacker hostels and watering holes strung along Kings Road. From above the bay is a scene of turquoise and emerald perfection.
Looking down from the vantage point of my smiling yellow parasail I can see the 150-odd islands fringed by golden sand and basking under a beaming sun. It’s peaceful up here – just the sound of the wind and my harness creaking (that’s normal, I’m told) to keep me company.
Suspended in mid-air and animation, it’s like living in a postcard. On the water itself, paddling through a mangrove forest, I get that postcard-perfect feeling again. At low tide the Waitangi River estuary is ideal for exploring by kayak, accompanied by jumping snapper and preening shags.Silhouetted in the treetops the birds chatter loudly, periodically diving into the river to emerge triumphant with a wriggling fish.After a dunking at Haruru Falls we stop for tea and biscuits, soothing our aching shoulders in the warm rays of the sun.
Back on dry land, it’s time for an entirely new mode of transport.Tiki tours on a Segway at Waitangi are tremendous fun, battling with your balance on these improbably intuitive contraptions while learning about the background of modern New Zealand in the place where it began.
Really, though, a trip to the Bay of Islands is about getting on the water and you can do so in any way that takes your fancy.
I start with a high-adrenalin ride to the Hole in the Rock on the Excitor, a turbo-charged powerboat that races across the bay at up to 50 knots. Burning 300 litres of fuel in our one-hour trip, it’s not the greenest way to see New Zealand. But with Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” belting out of the loudspeakers and the thwack of the hull on the waves, it’s certainly a lot of fun.
At the other end of the spectrum, swimming with the bottlenose dolphins that call the bay home offers a different type of thrill. Although swims aren’t guaranteed, your chances of spotting these playful creatures (and orcas, seals, whales and other marine life) are exceptionally good. Sharing a splash with them can be exhausting work – expect to have to entertain them with somersaults and whistles or they’ll swim away,much faster than you can – but it’s a rewarding experience.
After lunch exploring the scenic lookouts of Urupukapuka Island, I return to Paihia under sail.A former racing yacht now retired to the bay’s tranquil waters, on this calm afternoon Lion New Zealand offers the perfect antidote to the morning’s activity.
Northland wasn’t just the first port of call for white settlers it was also the area first settled by Maori. Traditional customs are still very much alive here, and each year on February 6, Maori gather at Waitangi to commemorate the signing of the controversial treaty in 1840, and the conflicts that have stemmed from it since.
The Culture North Night Show, in the meeting house at Waitangi, explains how modern New Zealand was born, along with performances of Maori songs, games and dancing. On my last evening – watching the first stars prick the sky on Darryl’s Dinner Cruise – I’m told another story that illustrates the cultural mix here in the bay.“Paihia”, our host tells us, comes from the attempt by an early European settler to tell the local Maori it was “pai” (good) here.
Lulled by fine wine, hearty food, and the gentle slap of waves under the flat-bottomed boat, I’m inclined to think that whether the story’s true or not, life’s certainly good in Paihia.
Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s most northerly point,is shrouded in the long white cloud that gives Aotearoa its name as our tiny plane growls up to 16,000ft. But I haven’t come to admire the view. There are six of us onboard, four parachutes and a pilot. There’s no room for histrionics. In any case, my terror is of the controlled, silent variety: my mouth is dry, my palms are moist, my heart’s beating 19 to the dozen.
So imagine my sinking-to-the-pit-of-the-stomach horror as Gavin (who signs himself ‘Mad Dog’) slides open one side of the plane. A gaping hole to nothing yawns by my left foot, through which Dave is already climbing, clinging like a limpit to the underside of the wing to get the money shot of Seb as he jumps. Then, suddenly, the plane has left them all behind.
At this moment I know I can’t jump. “You’ll just have to tell Gavin no,” my brain says firmly. But before I can articulate the thought, I’m being bum-shuffled forwards, and my feet are dangling outside. “Too late now,” my brain notes glumly.
Instinctively remembering the instructions I’d been given on terra firma, I tuck my feet under the fuselage, thrust my head backwards and cross my hands over my chest. Gavin yells in my ear above the roar of the engine “smile for the camera”, then one rock forward, one back, and… we’re in freefall.
This is why most people do it. The adrenalin rush from skydiving has been described as better than sex or drugs. Looked at another way, it’s a primeval response to your brain concluding you’re about to die. That notion doesn’t actually bother me – I’m just a passenger in this enterprise – but I’m no adrenalin junkie, and I am scared of heights.
As we plummet earthward at 200km/hr, I look anywhere but down. It feels as though we’re not moving at all, but for the odd wobble and the buffeting of the wind. From 16,000ft you’re in freefall for about a minute. It’s the longest of my life – and it’s over in an instant.I count only to 11 before I feel the tug of the parachute unfurling, and everything slows down and gets quiet, but for the hammering of my heart. “Enjoy that?” asks Gavin, rhetorically.
It’s a textbook landing (I’d done some research on this subject).Grimacing like a Sumo wrestler with the exertion, I haul my feet in front of me as we approach the airstrip, and we slide neatly to a halt on our bums.So,is it better than sex and drugs? Would I do it again?
I feel under-qualified to comment on the former – and no, I wouldn’t do it again. But I sure am glad to have done it once!
The damage & the details: Naked Bus (Ph: 0900 62533) runs services to Paihia from $1.
Photo: New Zealand Tourism