The sacred beauty of New Zealand’s Bay of Islands

The first thing that strikes me about New Zealand is the sky. Not its brilliant blue, but, rather, the clouds: white and morphologically inventive – fluffy, wispy, herringbone or translucent as angel wings. And in the Bay of Islands, they are doubly impressive, reflected in glassy waters protected by islands and promontories cloaked in native totara, rimu and manuka trees.

The Bay of Islands, so named by Captain Cook in 1769, is the most historic place in New Zealand. Home of early Maori settlers who paddled here from Polynesia some 1,000 years ago, of whalers and sealers, and of missionaries, who followed in their wake, this is where the famous Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, whereby New Zealand became a British colony, its terms a cause of Maori resentment to this day.

At Opua, I board the Ipipiri to explore some of the 144 islands that dot the bay, with flowering pohutukawa trees erupting on the cliffs in ruby-red clusters. Like Cook’s Endeavour, the Ipipiri moored off an idyllic sandy cove on Motuarohia, also known as Roberton Island, after its one-time owners. Moturua, we anchor for kayaking and snorkelling in the still-icy waters, the island a sanctuary for wildlife, including the endangered spotted kiwi. The remains of a pa – a Maori fortified village – sits atop the island. It was destroyed by the French in 1772, after the Maori roasted and ate the explorer Marion du Fresne, this being the ultimate sanction for his transgression against a sacred tapu.

Today, however, the Bay of Islands Maritime Park is a haven of calm and beauty, where dolphins leap and spin to the delight of seafarers, and red-back spiders pose the only menace to unwary explorers on the beach.

We dart around the frilly coastline, past Urupukapuka – the largest island and a fisherman’s paradise. Yesterday, we’re told, a pod of orcas convened in one of its bays; the marlin, their prey, have yet to arrive. We pass extraordinary basalt rocks rising sheer from the seabed, whose like are found only in two other places in the world.

With so many islands, peninsulas, promontories, bays and coves, I am by now thoroughly confused as to which way is up. But a scenic flight, next on the agenda, clarifies this peculiar topography. From 1,500ft above forested interior and emerald pastureland, down to 500ft above the sea at 90 Mile Beach to watch diving whales, we fly from coast to coast: the west, bordering the rough waters of the Tasman Sea, straight and featureless; the east, notched with deep inlets and sandy bays as though edged with lace, the turquoise Pacific living up to its name.

We land on a small strip in a middle-of-nowhere called Waikiki, where 7,000 cows and 5,000 sheep are tended by just three farmhands. With the nearest supermarket an hour away, locals hunt and fish for sustenance. “On a good day,” says our guide Stuart, who lives in an isolated cottage here, “you can catch seven large fish in 40 minutes.”

We drive through native bush, Stuart explaining the medicinal properties of plants, to the northernmost tip of New Zealand, where the oceans meet in dramatic confrontation at the windswept tip of Cape Reinga. A lighthouse marks the craggy spot. It is a numinous place whence, according to Maori legend, the spirits of the dead depart for their homeland, Hawaiki.

Among the dark red rocks below, you can glimpse the cave where spirits spend three days before descending, via the roots of a pohutukawa tree, into the waters for their final journey. That tree, bizarrely, never flowers. No one would even think of approaching this most sacred of Maori sites.

Back on terra firma, it is time to explore the little towns around the Bay of Islands. Giving short shrift to the commercial centre, Paihia, I head for Kerikeri, surrounded by citrus and kiwi orchards, on the mouth of the pretty Kerikeri inlet. It was chosen, in 1819, as the site of the second Mission by the Reverend Samuel Marsden, who bought land from the local chief, Hongi Hika, in exchange for 48 axes. The axes no doubt came in handy at nearby Kororipo pa during the intertribal wars, while Marsden busied himself setting up the Mission House – the country’s oldest standing building, completed in 1821.

But my prize for most charming town goes to Russell, the short-lived first capital of New Zealand, a 10‑minute ferry ride across the Bay. By the 1820s this town of ill-repute – Kororareka of old – was known as “the hellhole of the Pacific” and later branded by Darwin as “a stronghold of vice”. It’s still a little town of wooden houses along the waterfront – but the 17 “grogshops and brothels” that catered for the resident Nantucket whalers and convict escapees from Australia are now smart b & bs that swell with visitors during summer.

The pretty Anglican Christ Church of 1836, its hassocks embroidered with boats and seashells, stands as the oldest church in New Zealand. Three years later, the Catholic Bishop Pompallier arrived to instil Christian values, setting up a printing house for religious texts and tannery for their bindings, today a fascinating museum. These two buildings, complete with bullet holes, are the only ones to survive the settler era after the destruction of the town in the 1845 Flagstaff War between the British and Chief Hone Heke, whose repeated chopping down of the pole bearing the Union flag did not please the authorities.

I sit at a waterside café, watching the boats and the antics of a tui – the parson bird, whose unorthodox sermon of trills, whistles and cackles is the most entertaining I have heard. Across the water, I can glimpse the latter-day “Heaven” of pious Paihia.

If Russell was “Hell”, I have no doubt where I would rather be.