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It was as winter deepened that we got it in to our heads to take a break in the Bay of Islands.
This was to be a splendid escape from the dreary monotony of months spent going to and from work under street lights; a vouchsafe in the heart of New Zealand's hospitable, historic North of better days to come.
The Bay of Islands. The very name was a connotation cornucopia. Beaches, yachts, seafood and wine, extended family holidays, million-dollar baches with 10 million-dollar views, all set in the birthplace of our nation.
My connections, through my mother, dated back to the 1950s when her Hokianga dairy-farming family had taken mid-winter holidays at Russell, presenting freshly caught snapper to the governor-general who holidayed two doors along from their borrowed bach at Long Beach. But it was a good decade since I had taken a break in the Bay of Islands. And my wife had last visited here as a 5-year-old, staying in a tent and caravan with her parents and five siblings at a Paihia camping ground. The two of us were overdue a lavish, leisurely return visit.
As the Opua vehicle ferry carried us across the water to Okiato, on the southwestern arm of the Russell peninsula, the late-afternoon drizzle gave way to a bright rainbow; a multi-hued, heavenly gateway to the start of our holiday.
What a pleasure, each morning, to pull back the curtains of our spacious waterfront room and step on to our own balcony overlooking the gorgeous bay.
The Duke wears its years with a jaunty pride and a knowing smile, typified by the quirky history-bending artwork of Lester Hall that adorns the walls of rooms, hallways and the classic colonial-style restaurant complete with enticing open fireplace.
It was here we enjoyed fresh pan-fried hapuka, Romaine hearts salad with Matakana blue cheese and poached mandarin with white chocolate mousse. But dinner climaxed with the entree; tempura battered Waikare Inlet oysters. The appreciative noises my wife made with each crisp, soft, tasty mouthful said it all. The only words she uttered were as she finished the last one. "I think we need another half-dozen.''
We spent our days in a leisurely way. Unwinding, enjoying the beauty of the area, engaging with its Maori, English and French history. The skies weren't always clear; if it wasn't drizzling then rain wasn't too far away. But it was reliably warmer than home and everywhere we looked there seemed to be a rainbow.
Another evening saw us back in Paihia, at Charlotte's Kitchen, set over the water and beneath the stars at the end of the local wharf. Notwithstanding the delicious toasted goat feta salad and pork and prawn sui mai entrees and double chocolate mousse and orange ginger catalana desserts, Charlotte's triumph was the slow-roasted free range pork knuckle with red cabbage kraut, mustard seed potatoes and jus. Enormous, tender, flavoursome, with ample crackle, it is no wonder this has become the restaurant's signature dish.
Fuller's GreatSights' Hole in the Rock cruise is de rigueur for a visit to the Bay of Islands. It's also a great way to experience that this is indeed a bay of many, and beautiful, islands. Approaching Motukokako, when the angle is right, with its famous hole (just big enough to sail the catamaran through) visible, the island suddenly becomes a gigantic woolly mammoth lumbering towards shore. Once spotted, it is hard to see it any other way. Dolphins are also in the offing. But if none are apparent, passengers are able to get a voucher for a return visit.
Waitangi is a special spot. And not a small one. It is spread over several hectares of groomed grounds and native bush. From the museum and the waka taua, war canoes, to the carved meeting house and James Busby's Treaty House, it is a suitably impressive living memorial to the site where two peoples became one nation. We were treated to a guided tour, a carving demonstration, a cultural performance, and, while standing on the expansive flagpole grounds overlooking water and islands, another gorgeous rainbow.
Could this luxury break get any better? Yes it could, with two glorious nights spent at Donkey Bay Inn.
It is fitting that the entry to Donkey Bay Inn is through a canary yellow tunnel. Although it is only over the hill from Russell, this unique boutique hotel is in a parallel universe.
View the property from the air or a boat and you see a large, distinctive, glass-fronted building with a living roof of native plants; an off-the-grid luxury retreat set in to the bush-clad hillside high above a picture-perfect sandy bay with an eastward view of Te Rawhiti inlet and the Bay's larger islands.
Pass through the entranceway tunnel, however, as we did on an overcast afternoon, and you enter a mesmerising, opulent world where colour, curves and magnificence reign supreme. From the soaring ceilings and sumptuous, iconoclastic decor in the sitting room, bar and library to the stunning sea and sky views from all four bedrooms, including our Sky Fall suite, we knew we had been transported to somewhere special.
Designed and built by our gregarious host, philosopher, wine-maker and entrepreneur, Antonio Pasquale, Donkey Bay Inn is an invitation to experience a new way of being - luxury to free the body, non-linear shapes to free the mind and a view to free the spirit.
It was an invitation we readily accepted.
Our second evening, for example, began neck-deep in hot water and bubbles, soaking in private outdoor baths, watching cormorants return to roost from distant fishing grounds. The mid-evening was spent snuggled on the plush velvet couches in the sitting room, sipping Donkey Bay's own excellent gin, supping on a delicious antepasto platter kindly laid out by Amelia, the manager, and occasionally sharing snippets of what we were each reading.
The next morning, preparing to leave, another skiff of rain passed across the Bay. It left behind yet another vivid rainbow, emerging from the sea directly in front of our room, arching high and disappearing over the roof.
We stood together silently, taking in the striking scene.
Rainbows are a promise. But, I thought, their beauty is also something to be enjoyed in itself. So, too, I realised are breaks in our schedule; those pleasant diversions in the midst of the grind. Spring breaks are a needed reminder that summer and holidays will arrive; that a better day is on its way. But equally, like rainbows, they are something to be savoured for all the goodness they offer right here, right now.
Bruce and his wife explored the Bay of Islands in a compact SUV courtesy of Jucy and travelled with assistance from the Bay of Islands Marketing Group.
Visit jucy.com or www.visitboi.co.nz for more information.
If you go
Jetstar operates daily flights between Dunedin and Auckland from $75 (one way, checked baggage not included. Other conditions apply, visit jetstar.com for more information).