Ipipiri, Bay of Islands.
Ipipiri, Bay of Islands. Supplied

Bay of Islands: All at sea

IT was at a lunch gathering that someone mentioned the delights of an overnight cruise ship - the only one of its kind in New Zealand - in the Bay of Islands. My ears pricked up. This sounded like the perfect incentive to head north for a weekend. Explore the beautiful beaches along the beautiful old Russell Rd and spend a couple of days in one of the most scenic parts of the country.

And so it was we found ourselves enjoying a generous platter and a bottle of rosé at the Duke of Marlborough pub, toasting the freedom of being tourists without the need of a passport and long-haul flights, and speculating what our night out at sea would be like.

Personally, I confess, I was envisaging the Love Boat with Captain Stubing at the helm or, perhaps, something like the over-sized private yachts you find moored along the French Riviera.

So it was with a few giggles, the next morning, that we arrived at Opua to see the Fullers Great Sights Bay of Islands' Ipipiri alongside the wharf. It looked a little like the Waiheke ferry. But looks, as we all know, can be deceiving and once onboard, the 46m craft was full of wonderful surprises.

Two levels were given over to 30 cabins - each with their own bathroom and big windows (which meant I spent most of my time in bed looking for dolphins).

Another level of the ship was the large dining room where the dinner and breakfast we ate onboard would be served, buffet style, with hearty, delicious food perfect for hungry appetites worked up on the high seas.

On the top deck of the ship there were loungers and deck chairs and this is where we settled back as the ship headed out from Opua in the mid-afternoon.

This is definitely a relaxed and stylish way to explore the beautiful Bay of Islands. As we glided past beautiful bays and peered at the baches and architecturally designed houses tucked away in private bays, we were given a running commentary of the area's fascinating history. And, before too long, our captain was dropping anchor in our own sheltered bay and we were jumping into kayaks and heading off to explore.

The afternoon was spent lazing on the beach, exploring walkways and marvelling at the incredible views as we lay in the long grass on the hilltop (with me searching the horizon for whales).

Back on board, and it was time for wine and crackers, and the chance to mingle with some of the other guests before dinner.

It was a relaxed bunch of all ages who spent the evening star spotting or playing boardgames, before falling asleep in bed to the gentle rocking of the ship.

Sunrise, and still no dolphins, but I dived off the back of the ship for a swim in the cool clear water before breakfast.

As we sat and drank coffee on the back deck in the morning sun, the captain pointed the ship back to Opua and we waved to the smaller boats and fisherman on the way.

Don't expect silver service or Egyptian cotton sheets on the Ipipiri, but do expect a laid-back and unique experience perfect for all the family. And, yes, do expect dolphins - we finally spotted a group just minutes before we got back to port.

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