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The best way to explore New Zealand's Bay of Islands is to make like a local and get out on the water, from tall-ship sailing to a journey in a traditional Maori war canoe.

See the Bay through the eyes of New Zealand's first European settlers.
Sitting on the yardarm, 10 metres above deck, all but two sounds disappear. The dull roar of the wind, rushing past at a speed of eight knots, punctuated by the occasional pop of the canvas sail that billows and gusts below my dangling feet. On the deck the crew of the R Tucker Thompson are helping other passengers into safety harnesses, so they too can fulfil the childhood fantasy of climbing the rigging. For those without a head for heights, there are Devonshire cream teas to be enjoyed.

This majestic tall ship, a faithful replica of a 19th-century schooner, first set sail in 1985. Now operated by a charitable trust, the R Tucker Thompson runs summer day sails like this one to fund its work with local children. 'Through the winter we take kids out on seven-day trips,' explains captain Chrissy Gayer, whose sun-bleached hair suggests a life lived permanently outdoors. 'Being on the ship teaches children to work as a team. We'll do sailing, chores, nightwatches - there's a lot to be done on a big boat like this.'

For day sailors, the pace is more leisurely. Most passengers languish on deck as the Tucker T cuts through the sheltered sea of the Bay, keeping their eyes peeled for the dolphins and penguins that occasionally surface alongside like bobbing corks. Others choose to help the crew set the sails, or clamber out to ride the bowsprit. From here, you can gaze down at the ocean shifting through a paint-chart's worth of blues as the ship draws closer to the islands.

At Paradise Bay, Chrissy drops anchor. Only a handful of vessels are docked in the secluded waters that surround Urapukapuka, one of 150 tiny atolls that give the Bay of Islands its name. A young deckhand ferries passengers to shore in a small put-putter of a motorboat, while others swim the distance. Stepping onto the white sands of the deserted beach, crunchy with fragments of seashell, I get an inkling of what New Zealand's first European settlers must have felt when they arrived in this tropical Eden.

Walk across Urapukapuka and the landscape is a curious mix of the familiar and the exotic - rolling green hills taken from a Cotswold postcard descend into bushland borrowed from Jurassic Park. Plants fight for space: ponga (silver tree fern), cabbage trees, manuka (tea tree), and pohutukawa (a coastal evergreen tree), which cling to the land at the sea's edge. Stray from the paths and you'll find hidden coves, mostly deserted but occasionally filled with local schoolchildren on a day trip. Some are snorkelling; others are in canoes. Boys and girls dive for sea urchins, cracking them open on the rocks before sucking out the innards - 'kina' or sea eggs are a muchloved delicacy among Maori people.

Before our own lunch is served back on deck, there's a chance to try out the rope swing. Everyone has a go, even the oldest and most rotund passenger tossing himself into the water with a joyous yelp of abandon. Ship's captain Chrissy is manning the barbecue. 'This is my fifth year as a skipper,' she tells me as she carefully turns pieces of chicken sticky with marinade. 'I came here from Edinburgh eight years ago, got a job as a deckhand and never left. Easy to do; I mean, look at it,' she says, gesticulating with her tongs. All traces of her Scots heritage are gone; she has a Kiwi accent, an Antipodean's tan.

Chrissy is one of a long line of Europeans who came to New Zealand and failed to leave. The first white settlement was at Russell, where the Tucker Thompson docks for the day. Though it now seems hard to believe, this pretty town was once known as 'the hellhole of the Pacific' - a magnet for convicts fleeing Australia, and whalers and sailors too drunk to return to sea. When Charles Darwin visited during his Beagle voyage in 1835, he described it as being full of 'the refuse of society'.

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