48 hours in the Far North

The lighthouse at Cape Brett.
The lighthouse at Cape Brett.
Islands as far as the eye can see.
Islands as far as the eye can see.
Views from the Cape Brett track.
Views from the Cape Brett track.
The Gables in Russell.
The Gables in Russell.
A church and graveyard in Russell.
A church and graveyard in Russell.

Saturday 8am: We left Auckland in darkness on Friday night and the next time we see the sun is from the ridgeline of Cape Brett, as it warms the archipelago of the aptly named Bay of Islands.

We stop to marvel and catch our breath at the top of the first long climb of a long day. In one direction the Pacific Ocean reaches all the way to the coast of the Americas. Back the way we came, white yachts dot the blue inlets of the bay.

It's a romantic start to our romantic weekend getaway in the far north. Unfortunately for my better half, my version of romance is a very hilly 16.3-kilometre tramp.

The Cape Brett track is a half hour drive from Russell, 3 hours from Auckland. It runs along the ridge of the headland and ends at the lighthouse that marks the entrance to the Bay of Islands.

Fantails dance down the track, keeping us company in the dense regenerated native bush that shelters us from the climbing sun. The track is famously steep and we sit high above the windswept Pacific which crashes into cliffs on one side of the cape, with calm inlets of clear blue water on the other.

11am: Despite the beautiful weather, we have the track to ourselves until we encounter two young men heading in the opposite direction. They thought it would be funny to reverse one of the Department of Conservation route markers, sending trampers headed for the cape's lighthouse to Deep Water Cove instead. It's a gorgeous inlet perfect for lunch and a swim in the warmer seasons. Don't worry, DOC, I stole their fun and turned the maker back.

1pm: From Deep Water Cove, the cape's tip seems so near but the hardest hills are still waiting for us. The track descends all the way to sea level before the bush clears, revealing a long steep climb in the full sun.

Sweaty and breathless at the top, the view down the tip of the headland, where the glorious lighthouse stands guard in all its white archetypal beauty, is a satisfying reward. We release our feet from our boots at the DOC hut, the old lighthouse keepers' quarters until the beacon became automated in 1978.

A long but beautiful tramp, I am always grateful to DOC for over-estimating the prescribed walking times, and we finish well within the recommended eight hours.

2pm: From the bottom of the rail tracks that the lighthouse families used to transport their supplies from the boat to their quarters, we are collected by a water taxi. The 45-minute ride back to Rawhiti where we left the car is nearly as gorgeous as the tramp itself.

Past Piercy Island's famous Hole in the Rock, the boat trip gives us perspective on the distance we tramped, and a close-up view of the intricate inlets and the bay's islands. Often you encounter dolphins and even orca. We aren't so lucky.

5pm: Our Bay of Islands base is the historic Gables in the country's first capital, Russell. The waterfront land was bought in 1844 for £30 from a local chief by a shoemaker when the seething whaling town was known as the "hellhole of the Pacific". In 1847, he built a home from kauri on a foundation of whale vertebrae.

The Gables has since served various roles in the community: Bakery, brothel, and World War II servicemen's quarters. For a number of years it has been the town's finest restaurant and, in a recent redevelopment, the upper two floors have been converted into a luxury apartment - our home for the weekend. Despite the conversion, the Gables retains its character. The deck looks out on the quaint town's pohutukawa-lined bay and is the perfect spot to put the feet up and have a cold beer after a long hike.

7pm: Downstairs for dinner in the Gables restaurant, the open fire, wooden floors and antique furniture make us feel like we have tripped back to old Kororareka. But there is no way the whalers were eating like this in the "hellhole". Fresh fish, local seafood and New Zealand meat are all subtly tended to.

We have worked up big appetites, so we share the whole rib eye of locally butchered scotch fillet. The huge steak is perfectly pink and peppery, and, served with a Northland pinot noir, feels well-deserved. We force dessert on ourselves, a dark chocolate tart and sticky date pudding, and a glass of local limoncello.

11pm: Having offset any calories lost on the walk, we head upstairs to the loft bedroom, where we quickly fall asleep to the sound of the sea.

Sunday 10am: A sleep-in feels well earned and we slowly wake to the creaking of boat julls. We make our own breakfast in the comfort of the apartment because we don't want to be seen limping through town.

12pm: When we eventually make it outside, exploring the town begins on the waterfront, where rows of cafes and restaurants front the bay full of boats. The best place to stop is the Duke of Marlborough Hotel with its big open fire and long history as the original watering hole during Russell's most debaucherous years.

The land was purchased in 1827 and "Johnny Johnston's Grog Shop" served the largest whaling port in the southern hemisphere. The first Duke burnt down in the battle of Kororareka. Now it is a grand pub and hotel, with memories of its past hung on the walls, including a 1972 menu featuring rissoles and a savoury sauce.

Hidden in the corner near the fire, we have much more pleasant options to choose from. The burger and fish and chips are a gourmet lunch disguised as pub food. The beer batter is light, the gurnard tender, and the mushy wasabi peas a clever remix of a classic.

2pm: Our legs still reluctant, we check out some of the town's historic tourist spots. Flagstaff Hill gives us a clear view all the way to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It was here the flagstaff was cut down three times between 1844 and 1845, twice by Hone Heke, as Northland Maori attempted to deny colonial sovereignty.

The third attack was the prelude for the battle of Kororareka and the town still wears the scars from the battle that started the Northern War. Christ Church, the oldest standing church in New Zealand, built in 1936, still has musket-ball holes in its walls and damage from a cannon ball.

4pm: An afternoon exploration of Pompallier House and its grounds is our historic highlight. Built in 1842, the two-storied French colonial building was home to a printing press and tannery, where the Catholic mission printed and bound religious texts in te reo Maori. Restored in the early 90s, the building is a perfect period piece, with the original printing press and tanning pits still working.

On the second floor, an exhibition on the building's history includes a display of mummified rats and letters preserved in the earth floors since 1857. The gardens are the perfect spot to enjoy the last of the northern sun.

5pm: As State Highway 1 keeps growing more efficient, the Far North and its secrets feel much closer. We manage to pick up a final piece of Bay of Islands bounty with a stop at an oyster farm concealed just off the main road out of Russell, returning home with two dozen fat, salty oysters, fresh from the sea.

Fact file

Where to stay: The Gables Apartment, 19 The Strand, Russell. Self-catering two bedroom, two bathroom apartment, ph 09 403 7188, boiholidays.co.nz.

Where to eat: The Gables Restaurant, 19 The Strand, Russell, ph 09 403 7670, thegablesrestaurant.co.nz. The Duke of Marlborough, 35 The Strand, Russell, ph 09 403 7829, theduke.co.nz. Sally's Restaurant, 25 The Strand Russell, ph 09 403 7652, sallysrestaurant.co.nz.

What to do: Cape Brett Track, 16km and eight hours one way, track fee $30 per adult, $15 per child, DOC hut adults $15, youth (5-17 years) $7.50, doc.govt.nz. Pompallier House, The Strand, Russell, ph 09 403 9015. Christ's Church, Church St, Russell, ph 09 403 7696, oldchurch.org.nz

Sunday Star Times