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A lot of New Zealanders are familiar with the historic and scenic delights of the Bay of Islands.
Most folk know it from land-based locations such as Paihia, Waitangi, Kerikeri and Russell.
Some see it from a variety of watercraft – yachts, motor boats and jet skis.
But taking in the bay’s many charms from a $7 million floating luxury lodge takes the biscuit.
Island Passage is a 42m, 500-tonne twin-hull boutique cruise ship which has made its mark over the last six years as a top quality international and domestic tourist “destination”.
Costlier-than-expected house foundation repairs put paid to our planned European river cruise this year and resulted in a search for something of good quality, shorter and closer to home.
Mr Google quickly obliged with Peter Bissett’s Island Escapes Cruises, and a stunning five-night Bay of Islands sojourn in January complete with sensational weather.
Island Escapes Cruises works its ship Island Passage between the Bay of Islands and the Hauraki Gulf as well as “wintering over” for five months cruising in Vanuatu. Next season Island Passage also cruises Marlborough Sounds.
Island Passage is an exceptionally well-finished stable cruising platform, ideal for the waters of the Bay of Islands, which – as Lorraine noted – can get a bit “muscular” off Cape Brett and the Hole in the Rock.
It accommodates only 22 guests in 10 spacious staterooms spread over three decks.
Our five-night cruise from Opua numbered 14 guests – a family of four (including teenage sons) from Victoria who had previously sailed with Island Passage in Vanuatu, a couple from Brisbane, a couple from England and three couples from Auckland.
All accommodation includes private ensuite bathrooms, bigger and better fitted out than those in some South Island homes.
Our Ocean stateroom, with queen-sized bed and tinted glass door opening directly onto the promenade deck, was a substantial 214sq ft.
Peter Bissett’s dream
Formerly Japan-based Peter Bissett worked in international shipping management. He set up a small cargo business trading to China, Central and South America and West Africa before moving into the Japanese car-carrying trade.
Operating as Kiwi Car Carriers, he leased five ships carrying between 1860 and 2400 vehicles to New Zealand, Australia and Central America before selling to a Norwegian company in 2002.
His plan was to come home to play golf. But with his mates still working he had to find something to do, so looked for opportunities in the cruising business.
He located a hull in Suva and had it, complete with unused engines, shafts and running gear all still in boxes, towed to Challenge Marine in Nelson to have it completed and fitted out as a luxury cruising vessel.
It’s fair to say the blokes at Challenge Marine fell about laughing at Mr Bissett’s vision. But what they produced and launched in January 2007, is a stunning example of design, build, comfort and class – complete with helicopter deck.
Relax, releax and relax again
Incidentally, I figured out one circuit of the main deck was around 80m, so 10 of those a day before breakfast in the main saloon was enough to get the heart going.
More impressive than Island Passage herself was the friendly professionalism and confidence with which Captain Paul and his crew of eight (Poppa, Francis, Kirk, Anderson, Luci, Allie, Axel and Donald) went about their duties.
They were everywhere, from setting up fishing and shore trips on the ship’s high-powered 7m fishing tenders and front-loading landing craft, to pointing out and chatting to guests about places of interest.
Our cruise was a shorts and T-shirt affair – a fresh T-shirt worked for dinner – and at all times our crew were warm and welcoming hosts who made us right at home in the Kiwi spirit without any fawning or subservience.
Nothing was too much trouble, from keeping the drinks topped up to cleaning and preparing freshly caught snapper for Chef Axel's special touch.
Regarded as the cradle of New Zealand, the Bay of Islands is as much steeped in history and religious fervour as it is in murder, mayhem and mutiny.
Cruising around Roberton, Moturua and Urupukapuka Islands, and into Paradise Bay, Oke Bay, Deep Water Cove, Parekura Bay, Cape Wikiwiki, Purerua Peninsula, Black Rocks and Kerikeri Inlet there were plenty of opportunies for cruisers to swim or go ashore for a beach stroll.
Lorraine had some swims, took a 20-minute Salt Air helicopter flight and at Kerikeri we found a handy Guinness House across from the Stone Store.
Famous folk at every turn
In all we covered about 130 nautical miles, steaming only two or three hours a day before anchoring up in peaceful little bays, entertained by dolphins at Deep Water Cove, lying at anchor offshore from Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s waterside home and taking in the richness of one of multi-millionaire Craig Heatley’s coastal developments.
I was staggered to learn that somewhere just out of sight in the valleys behind where Marsden Cross marks the site of Samuel Marsden’s first New Zealand Christian service, Rolling Stone guitarist Ronnie Woods has a bach.
A procession of well-off folk have mansions dotted around the Purerua Peninsula, including one chap with a runway capable of taking Gulfstream jet aircraft.
But for us cruisers nothing could beat the languid lap of water on the hulls, sun on the water, cold beers and fine food.
We all chatted among ourselves, regular cruisers ticking off exotic destinations as cruising beginners soaked up their stories. And as they say, what goes on cruise stays on cruise.
Lorraine and I came to relax, put our feet up, do nothing and be waited on.
Island Passage, Captain Paul and his crew gave us all of that with style and good humour.
Cruise cost for Ocean State Room: $4990 (including complimentary Salt Air helicopter flight for early payment). Bar bill: $264. Parking at Burnsco marine suppliers in Opua: Two dozen beers for the boys.
Jock Anderson and Lorraine Craighead paid their own way and will be back.