Card sharks and dancing dolphins

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:01 20/10/2013

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A wicked weekend away Miles of southern style Spring awakening in nature

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Good weather helped. So did great food, excellent hotel pillows and cameos from taiaha-wielding warriors and a few thousand glow-worms.

But if I had to pinpoint what really made a recent family weekend away in the Bay of Islands a success it would be two things: a new pack of playing cards from the Paihia $2 shop (the pack we packed before leaving Auckland was missing the all-important three of clubs as well as both jokers), and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - all 607 flatulent, yet irresistible, pages of the series finale.

Family card games can at times be testing ("I can see your cards!"; "A good game's a fast game!"; "I can still see your cards!"), but it meant there was always something to do, even when the dolphins were reluctant to leap entertainingly within view of the dolphin-watching cruise or when fish and chips were taking a while to arrive. (It helped that we've only just learnt a vicious card game called Scum, where the loser of each round forfeits their best cards to the winner, all but guaranteeing further failure and furnishing them with a valuable life lesson).

Meanwhile a new-found obsession with Hermione and Co meant that Eliza (at 9, she's the younger one) was for several days able to overcome her lifelong urge to bash down doors and tug duvets at any time from 6am on, and utter the menacing line that all parents dread: "I'm bored."

Because really, unless you find yourself at one of those Club Med-type places abroad where untrained teenagers take your children away for hours on end while you get drunk by the pool, the burning questions when holidaying with kids are the same regardless of destination: Will they let us sleep in? and, Will they also let us have an unearned afternoon nap? (There are other important questions too, such as whose idea was it to have kids? and do you think we could just run away while they're up at the counter stealing all the mints?, but I'd argue that these apply even when not on holiday.)

But anyway. This was the Bay of Islands, so in between the reading and card-sharping there was also a bit of sightseeing and eating - plus lessons in history and zoology.

It was hard to avoid good views - pick any beach, face the water and there's the beautiful bay James Cook named in 1769, with its blue waters, big sky and 150-odd islands and rocks scattered about.

We got amongst it with a two-hour cruise on the Dolphin Seeker catamaran, along with a few hundred other tourists.

It was a pleasant scoot past primeval scenery and millionaires' getaways, with a few pauses to drop mail to island-dwellers at the end of their piers, and a bit of adventure at the Hole in the Rock, just north of Cape Brett, where the skipper freaked us out by saying how risky the surging swell could be, before handily steering her vessel through the gap.

As the boat's name had hinted, we also saw dolphins: a few common dolphins faffed about at the bow as we headed north, and later a couple of the big bottlenoses lurked to starboard. On a good day, they'll linger long enough for a few passengers to leap out with snorkel and wetsuit.

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Noah (he's the 11-year-old) and I had our togs ready and even endured an alarming safety briefing on the dangers of dolphins and whirling propellers. But in the end the dolphins were shy, so no swim.

Fortunately, we had a pack of cards ready for the rest of the journey.

With only three nights in the Bay of Islands, we were determined to be mainly idle, but by world standards New Zealand is pretty light on history and much of it happened around here, so it seemed foolish not to squeeze a bit in.

So along with an English couple, some Brazilians and a handful of other Aucklanders, we took a guided tour of the Waitangi Treaty grounds, led by Ngati Kawa Taituha, a descendant of treaty signatory Te Kemara, and culminating in a by-the-book poi-and-taiaha cultural performance at the Whare Runanga. (Children were all given a clipboard, a pen and a school-trip-style worksheet, which is why their questions to Taituha were generally more intelligent than the adults'.)

While waiting for the tour to begin, we watched a short documentary about the signing of the Treaty, complete with posh-voiced narration from George Henare and costume-drama re-enactments: feather cloaks, frock-coats, ladies in mad bonnets and the naval officers with insane cocked hats.

There was one unsolved mystery though: "How," whispered Eliza, who is a child of the internet era but has also seen photos of the olden days, "did they have colour?"

As Taituha talked, I was at first uneasy about hearing a history of the Treaty which made no direct mention of Bastion Point or the Harawiras, of the Waitangi Tribunal or that nasty speech in Orewa.

I started fretting that this might be historic airbrushing for the benefit of tourists who come in search of Lord of the Rings mountains and a bicultural fantasy.

But as our little party tromped up the same hill that Hobson climbed on the morning of the signing; as we squinted at a treaty replica and heard tales of Hone Heke and Marsden, I realised this was a snapshot of what happened in 1840, not in the decades that followed, and that I should probably lighten up.

Also, if you really want the bigger picture, the gift shop is groaning with Michael King histories.

The rest of the long weekend was mainly about food: unreasonable amounts of bacon from the hotel buffet breakfast, excellent icecreams from the stall in Paihia's Williams Rd; lunch and then a vast dinner at the Duke of Marlborough in Russell; good but pricey fish and chips at Shippey's, which operates out of a 96ft 19th-century sugar boat marooned on the Waitangi Bridge mudflats.

The absolute highlight, though, was almost an afterthought: a side-trip to Kawiti glow-worm caves, 20 minutes south of Paihia, to break the drive back home.

Everyone has seen glow-worms before, but these were something else. The little beasts are so densely packed onto the ceilings and walls of the stalactite-studded limestone caves that they form constellations.

According to our guide Manuwai Wells though, there's a limit to how close the starry insect larvae will get to each other, as they are fiercely territorial.

They spend this part of their life lolling about in a slimy little hammock and luring flying insects to their glowing bum before catching them with dangling sticky threads. In the laboratory, they've been spotted physically turfing rival worms out of their hammocks.

Wells was good company and phenomenally knowledgeable, rattling off cool facts about everything from the enzymic reactions powering the glow-worms' torches to the geomorphology of the caves, and introducing us to the handsome long-finned eel Elvis, who's been living in the cave stream for 30 years, and in another 40 years or so will swim the 4000km home to Tonga to spawn.

We were underground just half an hour, but it was a blast. Sure, the dolphins had been kind of cute, but having been properly introduced for the first time to these vicious, slimy, glowing maggots, I'd found my favourite Bay of Islands wildlife.

For the last couple of hours' drive south, the threat of carsickness rendered cards and Harry Potter useless, but in a stroke of inspiration, someone remembered the best car memory game ever. Just for the record, my granny went to the market and bought a red bomb, a lemon-scented banana, a giraffe, a clone-maker, another giraffe, a lion to eat the giraffe, and I forget the rest.

Fact file

Where to stay: Scenic Hotel Bay of Islands. Birdsong, good pillows, and close to the beach. 58 Seaview Road, Paihia. Ph 09 402 7826 , scenichotelgroup.co.nz

Where to eat: Duke of Marlborough. Cool historic pub with huge, excellent meals.

Russell beachfront, ph 09 403 7670, theduke.co.nz. Shippey's Fish and Chips. Honest fish and chips from a marooned ship. Next to the Paihia-Waitangi bridge, ph 09 402 7757, shippeys.com.

Cellini's Ice Cream, Gelato and Espresso. Try the macadamia icecream. Cnr Williams and Marsden Rd, Paihia. Ph 09 402 5198.

What to do: Dolphin Cruise to the Hole in the Rock. Cross your fingers for a swim with cetaceans. $95/$47.50. Maritime Building, Marsden Rd, Paihia. Ph 0800 653 339, dolphincruises.co.nz

Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Entry to grounds, $10 suggested donation for New Zealand adult residents (bring ID; foreign visitors pay $25); children free. Guided tour $10/children free. Ph 09 402 7437, waitangi.org.nz.

Kawiti glow-worm Caves, 49 Waiomio Road, Waiomio. Best glow-worms ever, but take cash - they don't take eftpos or Visa - $15/$7.50. Ph 09 404 0583, kawiticaves.co.nz

Adam Dudding's accommodation and tours were supplied by Bay of Islands tourism operators

- Sunday Star Times

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