OHbaby! staffer Marianne Prentice puts some sage relationship advice into practice and heads to the Bay of Islands for a child-free romantic getaway.
I remember once hearing a speaker (whom I won't name as I'm bound to misquote) saying something along the lines of "investing in your marriage is much cheaper than divorce". At the time I'm fairly sure I would have nodded sagely at this great advice, but I'm as guilty as anyone of putting off intentional relationship building for 'another day'. Until recently, that is, when all the stars finally aligned and the opportunity arose for a child-free long weekend away in the gorgeous Bay of Islands. Decades ago I did a whirlwind tour of Northland but my husband, David, had never been. The Bay of Islands is a wonderful destination –close enough to get to after work in Auckland but feeling like a world away.
I have somewhat rose-tinted memories of preparing for a romantic getaway prior to having kids: picking up a little something special at Bendon, smuggling a bottle of wine in the luggage to avoid mini bar charges, and being paranoid that if we lit candles the hotel sprinkler system would be set into action. These days my own packing is still laissez-faire, but the cleaning of the house, preparing of meals, and writing of timetables and rules to hand over to the grandparents (who had so generously agreed to move in for three days) was arduous. Apparently there was a 'what goes on tour, stays on tour' agreement between the grandparents and kids anyway, which rendered my fridge full of healthy food moot and cartoon-watching guidelines gaily ignored. Still, it made me feel like I had been responsible –before abandoning them for three whole days!
It’s normally an easy three-hour drive from Auckland to Paihia, but being a holiday weekend the congestion heading out of the city added an extra 30 minutes. Soon enough though we were enjoying the classic New Zealand landscape of rolling hills and toi toi in the golden evening hours. It was also a lovely three hours of chatting, or not. Ahh, companionable silence!
We were famished by the time we arrived so headed straight out to the main road running along Paihia Beach, lined with hotels and eateries. Like a moth to a flame we found ourselves at 35° South Aquarium Restaurant & Bar (35south.co.nz) beside the main Paihia wharf and ringed with an impressive blue light which reflected on the water underneath. The sea air smell, the shadows of boats tethered nearby, and the light sparkling on the water created a truly relaxing atmosphere.
Being right on the water, our waitress persuaded us it was only right to order fish of the day –delicious! Did I mention there is a huge aquarium right inside the restaurant? It's amazing and a brilliant diversion if you are bringing little ones with you. Feeling happily sated we headed back to our accommodation, The Scenic Hotel Bay of Islands (scenichotels.co.nz), for our first night of super-king-sized-bed comfort and an undisturbed sleep-in. Bliss!
One of the many things we loved about the Scenic Hotel is the clever landscaping. The resort has been designed so that you feel surrounded by bush, and every room or unit feels private. Outside in our little courtyard, we looked straight into a subtropical garden.
David, being of the healthy persuasion, headed straight for the muesli, drowning it in yoghurt and a vast array of fruit from the hotel breakfast buffet. I thought I'd go Paleo with bacon, eggs, mushrooms, and tomatoes. Until, that is, I saw they had croissants and Danish pastries. It's like skipping straight from breakfast into morning tea, which is, of course, a great time-saver if you have lots to see and do in a morning. That’s my justification, anyway.
We took the short drive over to Kerikeri for the morning, planning to check out the The Old Packhouse Market (theoldpackhousemarket.co.nz) and famed Stone Store and Kemp House (stonestore.co.nz). Note to self – it’s not just shops, but also markets and tourist attractions that remain closed until 1pm on Anzac Day. Consequently, we had plenty of time to wander around the grounds, following the path from the Kerikeri Basin up to the Ake Ake Historic Reserve. The Pear Tree restaurant (thepeartree.co.nz) is conveniently situated right beside the Stone Store so we settled on the verandah for an early lunch in the autumn sun. There were plenty of menu options for kids. However, since I didn’t have to share on this occasion, I went very adult with a blue cheese, beet, and locally-sourced roasted macadamia nut salad. David and I did tussle over the triple cooked chips, of course!
The Stone Store and nearby Kemp House, built in 1820, showcase the rich history and fascinating stories of the Maori and European people who lived in the area during this time. I was enthralled by our guide’s dizzying wealth of knowledge and her passion for sharing tales of the lifestyle and motivations of the early settlers and missionaries. Cool fact for OHbaby! readers: the first twelve European families who settled in New Zealand produced an impressive 114 children! I only wish we’d had more time for poring over the letters and artefacts.
We stopped by for a quick look-see at The Old Packhouse Market –a gorgeous assortment of fresh local produce, homemade goodies, and local talent entertaining the crowds. This would be a great place to take your basket and shop fresh, rewarding yourself with a coffee and snack at one of the many enticing food stalls.
We had limited shopping time though as, ultimately, we were on a mission. We had heard tales of the Kawiti Caves (kawiticaves co.nz) and were determined to make the last tour of the day. Located along a gravel road just outside of Kawakawa sits the humble ticket office from where Teina, direct descendant of Maori Chief Kawiti, began our tour. We felt privileged as he shared this special place on land that had belonged to his family for over 360 years. Not only was this a beautiful and informative tour of the stunning glow-worm display, but also a wonderful insight into the connection of this land to the Kawiti whanau. The bush walk back over the cave yielded an unexpected surprise –immense, pancake-style rock formations which were breathtaking.
Back to Paihia for some lounging before scrubbing up for a very special romantic dinner at the Provenir restaurant at the Paihia Beach Resort (paihiabeach.co.nz). We were greeted warmly by maître d' Elsa, and were wonderfully attended during our spectacular meal. There’s something about stunningly presented food that makes you slow down and savour every morsel. The Provenir is certainly the place for spoiling yourselves, and for a little candlelit hand-holding, of course!
The next morning we joined a guided tour around the Waitangi Treaty Grounds (waitangi.org.nz). As a Kiwi, the signing of the treaty has obviously been a part of my education. Standing on the treaty grounds at Waitangi, however, I really appreciated the recounting of tales and personalities; our nation’s history being brought to life with pictures and artefacts. We also enjoyed the cultural performance, beginning with a traditional welcome outside the meeting house and bursting with a packed half-hour of waiata, poi, stick games, taiaha and, of course, the haka. All so familiar, I could almost feel the rolled-up newspaper sticks I used to thump and throw at primary school and left the grounds smiling and humming!
From Paihia there is a regular ferry over to Russell, so it’s an easy 15-minute 'pop over'. Landing right in the heart of what was once the "hell hole of the pacific” –famed for its lawlessness and debauchery – this pretty little place is more Romantic Russell these days. It seemed only fitting that we enjoy a glass of wine and the stunning view from the verandah of The Duke of Marlborough (theduke.co.nz), site of New Zealand’s first grog shop in 1827. The establishment’s reputation has been smartened up over the years and the current building boasts a Victorian-chandeliered dining room, complete with sofas in front of a roaring fire in winter. Given the fabulous quality of lunch, I imagine this would also be a pretty special place to stay and enjoy an evening meal.
A stroll down the road found us at Pompallier House (heritage.org.nz) built in 1841 for the Catholic mission. The mission was to bring Catholicism to Maori through prayer books printed in Te Reo Maori, hence a printing house, with a tannery to leather-bind the books, was built. The tour of the house includes learning the technique of setting the print, printing the pages, binding and cutting the pages, as well as the tanning process. Being a bookworm I found it fascinating. I will note though, it’s not an ideal visit for small children – no stroller access and too many tempting curiosities for little fingers.
After drifting back over the water to Paihia, we found ourselves at the Alongside bar, sister to the 35° South restaurant. They have a lovely covered outside area where we’d hoped to settle under the gas heaters for a light meal, but the wind was rather crazy so we headed inside. A lazy lingering evening.
We had intended to take the Dolphin Cruise (dolphincruises.co.nz) in search of dolphins, whales, and a close-up of the iconic Hole in the Rock, but the wind would have made for rocky sailing. In retropect, we should have booked this tour earlier in our stay to give more options for weather postponements. Still, some mooching over newspapers and coffee in the hotel’s lounge was a nice way to finish off a special weekend together. The Dolphin Cruise is certainly on our 'to do' list for next time. With such incredible scenery, and so many fascinating stories shared by passionate people, we’ll definitely be back to the Bay of Islands.
For now though, it was time to hit the road; from blissful ‘us-time’ back to the jostle of our gorgeous family life. Nothing beats the cries of happiness, tight hugs, and fervent kisses from your kids upon return. Tales spilling forth of all the cool stuff they did with Nana and Poppa, the treat food and staying up late, and the hours at the playground well beyond what I would have patience for.
Reflecting back on that wise piece of marriage advice, a weekend away as a couple is indeed a wonderful investment –not only for us as partners, but also for our children who can build memories and relationships with grandparents, or aunts and uncles, or whoever the special people are in their life. I know that not everyone has the privilege of relatives who are able to ‘move in’, but I would heartily recommend building a village of close friends in your community so that even a reciprocal night away is possible. It’s good, I think, for our kids to know there are plenty of adults in their life who love them to pieces, can hug away their hurts, and who have their back. Happy parents, happy kids – it’s a win-win.
Marianne and David travelled with assistance from the Bay of Islands Destination Marketing Group. Go to visitboi.co.nz for more information.
Photography: DP Photography, DavidPrentice.daportfolio.com