Surf & Turf

The only problem with New Zealand is that you may never want to leave.

Sailing Destinations: New Zealand
George Sass Jr.

I don’t have an easy answer. It’s not the jet lag. I’m no stranger to long flights across the International Dateline. Nor is it my inability to package large concepts into concise tag lines. After all, I pretended to write advertising copy in a previous life. “It’s a tough question,” I confess to the gentleman in seat 38C, who asked me to describe New Zealand in a few words.

During my trip, I take copious notes attempting to extrapolate the essence of New Zealand. I think, oh, this looks like Ireland. Then I turn around the next bend and think oh, no, look at this, it looks like Thailand. Nope, it looks like the English countryside. This looks like the South Pacific. Just when I think I can place New Zealand in context, she reveals another, even more seductive face (view the complete photo gallery).

Two weeks before, a block back from the water on a quaint side street in Piahia, we find a sidewalk café offering a hot, flat white coffee and moist muffins. Tunes from The Greatest Hits of the 1950s float above the chatter and clanking dishes. I slump into my chair, lacking the motivation to return to the boat and sail to Whangaroa Harbour for the night. The light, the setting, the view: It’s perfect. My friend Graeme Mellor — a Kiwi who recently moved to Australia after living in the U.S. for 20 years — concurs with a slow smile and a nod.

Walking to our tender, I notice the sleepy little town, nestled in the Bay of Islands, start to shake off the morning haze. A few pensioners looking over the tour bus schedule giggle away like school children. A family waits patiently for the ferry to take them over to Russell. The little girl offers a “good morning” and a smile as we make our way to the dinghy dock.

With a few pulls of the outboard and adjustments of the choke, we putter back to our Moorings 4600 sailing cat. The off-season means an empty harbor with the exception of a rugged French steel sailboat in the distance that hosts a raisin-of-a-man who appears to embrace a clothing-optional policy.

The Bay of Islands lies within the Northland region, on the eastern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. The area was first discovered more than a 1,000 years ago by the pioneering navigator Kupe. Later the Maori followed, then the Dutch and finally the famed Captain Cook, who gave the area its name. Whalers settled in, and of course so did the missionaries looking to save a few souls. Today the Bay of Islands is one of the most popular cruising destinations in the country. During the high season the area is overrun with boats and tourists. The autumn weather and quiet streets we find during our April visit are good reasons to consider an off-season cruise.

Sailing to Whangaroa is easy. The wind is volatile, funneling through the numerous valleys — seven knots of wind then, bam, 20 knots, back to seven. The beamy catamaran just accelerates with only a slight heel and clicks off the miles, carrying us out of the Bay of Islands and north.

We’re in no hurry and drop the hook off the northwest corner of Motukawanui Island for lunch. Except for an aluminum skiff searching for snapper, we have the area to ourselves. The gentle slapping of the waves on the hulls suggests a short afternoon nap is in order.

We find the entrance to Whangaroa Harbour and pick up a mooring at the Kingfish Lodge for the evening. Towers of green peaks lined with evergreens and the occasional palm define this deep harbor. Smells of garlic and butter combined with the soft soulful voice of Dusty Springfield lure us to the Lodge for an unforgettable dinner.

The former army base began hosting anglers from around the world in 1954. It seems to mirror New Zealand in its contrasts and contradictions. A musty, old summer cottage odor clings to the walls and carpet, Bucky (the dog) lounges on the sofa next to the fireplace, while the pool table waits for an all-night session. The slightly shabby atmosphere camouflages the gastronomic delights being concocted by Chef Paul. Duck à l’orange and a sumptuous venison main course certainly were unexpected, and far better fare than the diet of chips and dip Graeme and I practiced on board.

In the morning we meet lodge owner Roger Cairns, Chef Paul and mate Austin, to head out on New Zealand’s famed marlin fishing grounds. Cairns offers several packages with rooms and charter combos. The foul weather smacks us around a bit and the fishing Gods give us the finger, yet it is still a glorious day on the water.

“Well, I guess we should head down to Whangaroa before it gets dark,” I suggest to Graeme after we return to Kingfish. Graeme possesses a no-nonsense pragmatism that I attribute to his Kiwi DNA. “We could, or we could just stay here for the night and go in for another dinner,” he replies. Secretly, I know Graeme is torturing himself for not ordering one of Chef Paul’s dessert soufflés the previous evening. We stay another night and we both have the soufflé.

The Moorings 4600 is the ideal boat for exploring the area. Four staterooms and four heads will easily serve a large family and the covered cockpit is the place to be for morning coffee. I like the standardization across the Moorings fleet. Our 4600 is exactly like the ones I’ve chartered in the British Virgin Islands. Even the bucket is in the same place. It means less time learning about a new boat and more time discovering magical cruising grounds. The Moorings closed its base in Auckland, but offers one-way charter packages between the “City of Sails” and the Bay of Islands. You can explore Auckland, cruise around Waiheke Island and head for Great Barrier Island before sailing north.

After several days of cruising, we return to the charming little village of Opua. Ending the trip here would leave me fully content and gushing with accolades about New Zealand, the people, and the cruising. Yet we decide to make the most of our time and continue the adventure. I tell a shopkeeper in Opua we’re heading for Eagles Nest across the bay in Russell, and receive a wistful sigh and a smile that hints that we’re off to somewhere special.

A short ferry ride away from Opua is the charming town of Russell. The intoxicating Indian summer weather and sleepy pace of the hamlet entice me to pick up a few listings from the local real estate office. We feel compelled to enjoy an ice cream cone (for research purposes, of course) while sitting on a bench along the water. Before reaching Eagles Nest, I plan out my entire escape program for the next decade. A house along one of Russell’s waterfront streets, a dinghy pulled onto the town’s sandy beach to serve a day sailor tugging at my mooring, and a midsize powerboat for more extensive cruises.

Eagles Nest shatters my vision, however, and makes my aforementioned fantasy seem less than average when compared to this award-winning retreat of five unique villas set across 75 acres. In our villa, Eagle Spirit, it is difficult to determine where the outdoors ends and the interior begins. Graeme makes the colossal mistake of taking a picture from our deck and sending it to his wife in Australia. Our ruse of roughing it while sailing around is fully exposed.

The next morning I wake at dawn to savor as much time as I can in this self-contained capsule of tranquility. After lunch I drop Graeme off at the ferry and make my way to Kauri Cliffs Lodge and Golf Course on the Karikari peninsula north of Doubtless Bay. Although my stateroom on the Moorings 4600 was extremely comfortable, the serenity and luxury of Kauri Cliffs make me consider that I may have been slumming it for the previous week. After walking the property, it’s easy to see why the David Harman-designed course won numerous awards. A golf and yacht charter combination trip would be an obvious part of the perfect New Zealand adventure.

Later, as I am flying over the sand in a dune buggy driven by Andrew Kendall as if we’re leading the Baja 500, I almost forget that I woke in the plush luxury of Kauri Cliffs only a few hours before. Now I’m exploring the Hokianga sand dunes with Kendall, the entrepreneurial and energetic owner of Hokianga Sand Trails. And yet again, I’m presented with another face of New Zealand. Kendall is of Maori descent, and beams with pride when speaking about his culture. Having a scone and cup of tea with him and his wife in their house in the waterfront village of Mitimiti, I take note when he tells me that some homes are offered for short-term rental in this remote and stunningly beautiful Maori village. I’m so there!

When I arrive on Great Barrier Island, off the North Island’s east coast in the Hauraki Gulf, I’m even more confused, and finally decide that the perfect New Zealand adventure will have to either be a month-long affair, or consist of multiple trips. Trevor Rendle, who with his wife, Carol, owns and operates Earthsong Lodge, meets me at the airport. Trevor possesses a contagious laugh and a razor sharp wit. On our way to Earthsong he points out a memorial that a local resident built to honor herself while she was still living. “Yeah, I guess you have to get the timing correct on that one. Not too early, not too optimistic.” Indeed. The dinner prepared by Trevor is the perfect ending to a long day.

Great Barrier Island is home to about 800 people, down from it’s maximum of 1,500. Named by Captain Cook because of the protection it offers the Gulf and Auckland to the west, the island remains largely undeveloped. Residents are a hearty bunch, generating their own electricity and operating largely self-sufficiently.

In the morning I meet Chris Ollivier on board his charter boat Sundancer. He reminds me of most of the New Zealanders I meet on this trip. On the one hand they’re welcoming, eager to share the charm and beauty of their country like proud parents. Yet on the other hand, my note taking and constant photography seem to make them uneasy. I expect somebody to finally blurt out “If you tell too many people about this place we’ll kill you. Seriously, we’ll kill you. You want another beer, mate?”

During the Christmas holiday, nearly a 1,000 boats pack into Port Fitzroy and nearby coves. Miles of white sand beaches and a serious swell attract beachcombers and surfers from around the world.

As I suck down grilled lobster and a cold Heineken on board Sundancer, I’m amazed at how tranquil the area is and by the lack of development. Trying to compare New Zealand to anywhere else I’ve been in the world is futile. It’s a land overflowing with contrasts, succulent beauty, unique characters, and incredible cruising grounds. Now, if I could just figure out a way to move here for good.