Bay of Islands: Blame 18th-century explorer James Cook for the understated name. He stumbled into this little piece of heaven in 1769, but perhaps his choice wasn't such a no-brainer, after all.
The bay has an astonishing 144 islands that pop up like welcoming party favours as you pass through the channel to reach the tendering spot off Waitangi.
Their profusion is more understandable when you learn that these bays and inlets are actually 'drowned' valleys, and the islands are peaks of what were the highest 'hills.'
On shore, it's hard not to feel like you're eavesdropping on what it is like to actually live here. Everything from the locals lined up at the wharf, eager to answer questions, to the free shuttle bus into town (driven by another local) and the genuine helpfulness in shops and cafes, makes you want to stay -- or come back and move in. Visitors say, 'I want to buy that island', or 'what's it like in winter here?'(Answer to the second one: They call this place the 'winterless north', where it can sometimes reach 25 Celsius, or 77 Fahrenheit, in July!)
The Bay of Islands' three main towns are not large, yet quite different. Village-like Paihia is the one most people reach first and has all the accoutrements needed: banks, shops, cafes and information centre. It's the jumping-off point for Russell, a 15-minute ferry ride away.
Historic Russell was once the bad 'un of the area, Long ago it was called the 'hell-hole of the Pacific'. Ask a local, they'll love to tell you about it. Today it's hard to imagine that early era, because now it is sleepy, relaxing, with a stay-forever feel. Kerikeri, further north, is the largest town, but has a rich cultural vein of arts and crafts (come here for pottery, art and sculptures) artisan food producers and a vineyard trail.
With so much on offer, it is hard to believe that the Bay of Islands is still relatively undiscovered. Prepare yourself for a walk-on part in paradise.
Ships moor off Waitangi and there is an approximately 20-minute tender trip to Waitangi Wharf. There are no facilities there, but arrivals receive a friendly welcome from local volunteers who can answer questions about what there is to see and do and pass out maps and other information. These 'cruise ship ambassadors', fairly rare anywhere, are part of a Paihia business initiative.
If you choose to self-drive in the area (vehicles available from Crazy Car Hire, Paihia) those drivers used to right-hand drive should take extra care driving on the left-hand side of the road; there are a few tight and twisting turns and several one-lane bridges in the area.
The local currency is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD), which has 10, 20 and 50 cent coins, and gold one- and two-dollar coins. Banknotes are coloured and come as $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. Take time to look at the beautiful artwork on them, featuring important New Zealanders as well as local birds, flowers and scenes.
ATMs can be found in Paihia and Russell, and there's a Bureau de Change at the ASB Bank in Paihia. For current currency conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
English is the main language, although the Kiwi accent may take some getting used to. There is a vowel-shift going on, so that 'ham' becomes 'hem' and 'best' sounds more like 'bist.' Fish and chips is hugely popular in this country of pristine waters richly endowed with seafood. Just be prepared to hear it pronounced like the 'u' in 'push' -- Fush'n'Chups.
Just so you know, many New Zealanders (who don't at all mind being called Kiwis, even though it is their national bird) think the accents of other English-speakers are pretty hilarious too. Be prepared for some gentle ribbing and invitations to say 'six', which sounds (to them) like ... well, you can guess!
Overall, New Zealand souvenirs are innovative and stylish -- the 'Scandinavia of the Pacific' -- with clean economical lines and skilled craftsmanship.
You'll find souvenir shops in Paihia and Kerikeri, as well as local markets. Watch out for wood carvings, often with traditional Maori motifs as well as articles made from the local iridescent mother-of-pearl paua shell. It is equally beautiful in pendants or earrings as it is for a key fob or cutlery handles. If your home country allows its import, why not buy some locally made New Zealand cheese and pair it with a paui shell-handled cheese knife and a cheeseboard made from kauri, a beautiful and highly regarded local timber?