03/11/11 - Paihia
The sun was low on the horizon when we rolled into Paihia, a small town nestled in the Bay of Islands. Up on the northern tip of New Zealand is where Kiwis display a more tropical side to life. And though the waters may not be as warm and clear as the Bahamas, the beachside beauty is impossible to resist.
Even though we'd booked our hostel late into the trip, it was a winner through and through. Small occupancy. Extremely clean. No noise after 10pm. A wrap around porch with a sea view.
Cap’n Bob’s Beach House quickly became one of our favorite places to crash. We settled in quickly after a very long drive and made one of our favorite dishes - watermelon, tomato, and basil salad with balsamic vinaigrette. A refreshing treat at sunset.
During breakfast the next morning we found out about the tsunami that had just hit Japan. A couple from Canada had stayed up the night before watching the news and they told us about the coastal warning here at the Bay of Islands. No swimming in the ocean and all boat rides and cruises were cancelled. Luckily, Katie and I had already planned on going to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, which put us well out of harms way. On hearing this, the Canadian couple, Zosia and Jeff, said they’d just been there the day before and offered us their admission tickets for free! It was extremely kind and generous, and we were very thankful.
Our walk to the treaty grounds held a shade of tension since the pathway curved along the shore. Though there were no firm warnings of tsunami danger, we couldn’t help but cast our vigilant eyes seaward as we strolled along. Several dramatic plans of escape were concocted along the way, but we of course made it safely to our destination with nary a wave to worry us.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is known as the birth place of New Zealand. This is where, in 1840, several of the Maori tribal chiefs signed a treaty with representatives of the British Crown. This established a British Governor of New Zealand, recognized Maori ownership of their lands, and gave the Maori the same rights as British subjects. Needless to say, things didn’t fare too well for the Maori after falling under British rule (surprise, surprise).
We took our time looking through the small museum and exploring the treaty grounds themselves, which were quite beautiful with a vast, manicured lawn overlooking the bay. Several Maori war wakas (canoes) were on display to admire, one of which was the largest ever created. It was crafted from two massive kauri trees and launched in 1940 in honor of the centenary signing of the treaty. The immense size and intricate craftsmanship of the vessel was extremely impressive.
Nearby we toured the Treaty House, built in the 1830s, and then had the privilege of entering a beautiful marae built on the grounds for special ceremonies. We removed our shoes before entering the sacred meeting place. While admiring the carving and weaving along the wall, I overheard a nearby tour guide explaining some of the designs. I discovered that each wooden support stretching up to the ceiling covered in white spiral designs represented a rib – each curl symbolizing a member of the tribe. Unifying them in the center was the longest beam, running the length of the marae – that was the spine. Faces of men, women, and Gods gazed down upon me as I stared upward, standing within a wooden rib cage. I felt safe and peaceful within its walls.
Along the edge of the treaty grounds we continued on until we found a trail to Haruru Falls. This pathway led us over a boardwalk that threaded its way through a mangrove forest. Stagnant water spread out around us, feeding the trees and all the tiny straw-like sprouts bursting from the surface. Some of the trees were very close and, as you can imagine, I couldn’t resist the temptation. I hopped out onto a tree limb and gave it a climb.
Later on we were treated to the sight of black and white shags feeding their young in the trees along the trail. You’d think they wouldn’t like it there, with all the continuous trail-goers passing by, but they seemed unimpressed with our presence, squawking and honking while we snapped some photos. At the end of the hike we saw Haruru Falls, which wasn’t that large or impressive, but lovely nonetheless. A nice place to rest and have a snack.
In an effort to save time, we decided not to backtrack, but to hike along the road back to our hostel. Trouble was, this was the main road into town, and it wasn’t pedestrian friendly. We found this out the hard way. Not until it was too late to turn back did we realize how unpleasant a walk this was going to be. Crumbling roadside was our sidewalk and sometimes we were forced to leap into weed-filled ditches to avoid being clipped by speeding cars. Unlike most hikes in New Zealand, this one boasted no stunning views or bewitching vistas – just big bushy trees and the stink of car exhaust.
It was probably when the fourth wacked-out fire engine passed that Katie and I came to the conclusion that there must be some kind of bizarre car show going on in town. Flowering clown cars and music-blaring hot rods zipped by in gaudy colors. And wouldn’t you know it, these blokes were so friendly that they’d honk every time they raced by us! They’d appear out of nowhere, careening in from behind at 60 miles per hour, blasting their thunderous fire engine horns right at our backs… Yes, it was tons of fun jumping out of my skin every time they said "hello" to us. Tons.
By the time we got back to our hostel we were a bit weary and eager for a meal. Once satiated, we decided to partake in a bit of shopping. I know what you’re thinking: Katie and Alice shopping? Yes, it does tend to happen from time to time. And we were in New Zealand, which required some amount of memorabilia. But let’s not forget the most important item bought during this shopping excursion: Manuka Honey & Chestnut Ice Cream!! You can’t buy a more lasting memory than that.
We were early to rise the next morning since we’d booked ourselves a trip out on the Carino Catamaran. There were many tours offered on the Bay of Islands, but we picked this one because the boat was smaller, limiting the number of passengers to about twenty-five. Also, who doesn’t like a sail? I’ll take a catamaran over a clunky cruise ship any day. We found out rather quickly that there was an added a bonus – our Captain was a woman! She led a small crew which included a second woman who manned the sails. Kick-ass chicks! Woohoo!!
The crew was very friendly and seemed genuinely interested in showing us a great time. Our first order of business (after a complimentary cup of tea, of course) was to find a pod of dolphins. Our itinerary included going to Love Island, but if we got wind that a pod of dolphins was nearby we’d take a detour and hopefully get a chance to swim with them.
Now, when I say “swim with dolphins” I’m not talking about jumping in an enclosed space with a trained dolphin flapping its fin and wearing a little hat. I’m talking about wild dolphins. New Zealand has strict laws about how these tours are run, not allowing people to enter the water if the dolphins are feeding or with their young. Our Captain said there was a good chance we’d see them, but only about 20% of the time do the conditions allow people to actually swim with them. A few moments later she got word that a pod was nearby so we zipped over to see the bottlenose beasts for ourselves.
Right away, one dolphin came up and rubbed against the side of our boat. This guy was BIG. Bigger than I’d imagined. Easily a ton and the length of a small car. And just when I was realizing how large these animals really were the Captain was declaring that conditions were good to go: We could swim with them! Yayyy…er….ummm… I was excited, yes, but suddenly anxious.
x Dolphins the size of cars
Somehow this equation didn’t equal a sense of safety. Adding to my anxiety was the Captain drumming this into everyone’s skulls: Only strong swimmers need apply! No lifejackets were being provided, so we’d better hold our own out there because she wasn’t a fan of rescuing flailing tourists. I didn’t allow myself time to question my own skills in the water. This was a rare opportunity and I wasn’t going to miss it. I was going to swim with the dolphins, doggone it! Lickety-split, I jumped in my swimsuit and donned a mask and snorkel. Not being the biggest fan of the sea or its creepy critters, Katie opted to stay on board and document my brush with nature.
The Captain told us that once we were in the water we needed to swim. “Swim, swim, swim!” she insisted, as dolphins weren’t partial to playing with boring humans. We needed to move and chatter. Any sound or tune would do. Swimming and chattering would make us seem interesting and worth sticking around for. Because, bottom line, these dolphins were wild and free to leave at any time. “You’re not swimming with the dolphins. The dolphins are swimming with you.”
The stage was set. Just over half of us had chosen to go for it. A group of friendly gay men were geared up for action as well as a bunch of excitable Brazilians who talked as loud as an arena full of fans. We all bunched up at the rear of the boat tripping over our flippered feet.
“Go!” “Go!” “Go!” Three at a time, we sat on the edge of the boat, plunging into the water like navy seals. I took my seat for all of a second before the Captain sounded off. I was air born, then doused in frigid water. I switched on my propellers and started cruising outward, chattering like a maniac. My eyes stared straight below me. Hawaii, this was not. Visibility was probably 20 feet before the murky depths ate up sunlight. There was no telling what was down there. Open water in all directions. Bottomless. Limitless. I suddenly felt terrified knowing that at any moment a gigantic mammal could come racing past me. Did I want that? Yes! I was scared, but yes, I definitely wanted that!
I glanced up and saw bodies splashing but no dolphins. Then I looked at the boat. The Captain had instructed us to look back at the boat because she and the other crew members would be pointing toward the dolphins, showing us which way to swim. But none of them were pointing, they were waving us in. I’d put all my energy into swimming out as fast as I could, toward the dolphins. Now I had to swim back just as fast. They wanted us to hurry on board.
“The dolphins swam away the moment you hit the water,” she told us. One over-zealous swimmer, however, wasn’t coming aboard. “They’re over there!” He shouted, pointing towards a dolphin in the distance. He started swimming towards it. “No! Come back!” He eventually gave in and came back. “Yes, we may see them in the distance,” she explained, “but that doesn’t mean we’ll reach them.” She went on to explain that dolphins swim a hell of a lot faster than humans, so even if we can see them we will never catch up to them. If they’re on the move, forgetaboutit. Truer words were never said.
Thus began our dolphin dance, twirling around the bay while they strung us along. Those big teases. “There they are!” We’d arrive. They’d leave. “I see them!” We’d jump in. They’d dart away. “Dolphins, ho!” At this point I was as wrung out as a used wash rag. My swimming was lackluster; my chattering a series of grunts. I huffed and puffed every time I raised my head to look around. I saw dolphins, I saw fins, I saw splashing and bobbing, and I saw a group of Brazilians treading water and yell-talking at each other about God knows what. Seriously? Even out here they won’t shut up? What was there to talk about in the open ocean? We were supposed to be swimming and chattering, not having a mixer!
Right then I heard my thoughts take form: “Swim! Swim! Keep swimming!” The crew was pointing and shouting and urging us to move. Yes, yes. Swim. Head down. Stroke, stroke, stroke. Kick, kick, kick. Chatter, chatter, groan. The fear had left me entirely. Now I was utterly desperate to see one of those colossal creatures spin by. Near, far – any sign of them underwater would’ve been appreciated. Staring hard. Searching, searching. Chatter, chatter, sing. La, la, la! I’m fun! I’m playful! Come out and play with me, my dolphin friends!
Aaaaaaaaaand nothing. Above water I saw them dashing about, nowhere near me. Below the surface all I saw was wavy deep. Zero movement. Still and calm. Shortly thereafter we were summoned back to the boat.
OK, so I never saw a dolphin below water, but I saw them above, and I was in their proximity, so therefore I DID swim with dolphins. From the post-swim rumblings I learned that only one fellow traveler had actually seen a dolphin below the surface, so I wasn’t alone in my disappointment. But I had no regrets. It may not have been the magical “Little Mermaid” experience I had hope for, but it was fun nevertheless, and a serious workout to boot!
Aboard the ship Katie told me how the Captain kept pointing and yelling while we were floundering and treading water. "Swim! Keep Swimming!” Her voice then dropped, defeated. “They never swim.” Well, at least she tried.
The rest of the voyage was much more relaxed. We made our way to Love Island, which was a small strip of land with some high jagged rocks, soft sand, and a picture perfect lagoon. Katie and I dove off the back of the boat and snorkeled along a mini reef. Then we made our way to shore and followed a short trail up to the highest point. From there you could see a 360 degree view of the bay and surrounding islands. Positively gorgeous. We sat up there for a while enjoying the pristine beauty of the sea and land. The platform was rather small, and it got a little crowded once some of those handsome gay men from our boat arrived (one of whom was sporting a Speedo just shy of indecent).
The sudden influx of fabulousness left us feeling a tad claustrophobic, so we decided to head back down and explore the lagoon. It had crystal clear water and gentle waves that looked like rippling glass over my feet. I searched for a keepsake amongst the shells. A tiny iridescent one caught my eye. I tucked it away in remembrance of Love Island and our day with the dolphins. I could’ve easily stayed on that island all day, but soon the crew was calling us back out to the boat for lunch. My stomach was thrilled with this delightful turn of events.
Barbecue sausages greeted us on return. I was the last one to get food, deciding instead to dive and jump off the back of the catamaran over and over again. Totally spent, I picked up my sausage and coleslaw, digging in with fervor. I liked the food, Katie loved it. Barbecue sausages!? She was in heaven.
Grub done, we set course for home. Lying under the billowing sail, we basked in the sun, stretching out on the nets strapped across the hull. Water glowed aquamarine as it drifted by and occasionally splashed up to cool us. It was sublime. We chatted with a few other guests on the lazy ride back, and I even asked the Captain about the best place to eat sea food in town. She suggested a placed called Only Seafood. An apt name.
That evening we took her advice and dined at Only Seafood. We ate shrimp and each ordered the catch of the day, cooked two ways. Mine was marinated in bananas with cream sauce. I cannot describe how phenomenal it was. A divine dinner for a divine day. Afterward, we walked home in the moonlight and said goodbye to the Bay of Islands. Tomorrow we were heading south, toward Auckland. Our vacation was fast coming to a close.