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.

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'.

Nowadays Russell is a very different sort of place. Home to some of New Zealand's oldest buildings - such as Christ Church, built in 1836 - the town has the look of a meticulously constructed film set. Elegant houses with white picket fences line the shore, and the many seafront restaurants are full of well-heeled patrons. Eating freshly shucked oysters and sipping a glass of local pinot gris while watching the sun descend over the harbour, the view is nearer heaven than hell.

  • A day sail aboard R Tucker Thompson costs £64, including morning tea, lunch and ferry transfer from Paihia (

Learn about local culture aboard a traditional Maori war canoe
'Tohiki!' the chief bellows, like a warrior calling from a different age. 'Hiiii!' the crew respond in unison, 40 paddles drawing against the water in time with the chant. As the double-hulled waka (canoe) surges forth, Hone Mihaka turns to me with a satisfied smile. 'We are the waka, and the waka is us.'

Hone is a proud member of the Ngapuhi, New Zealand's largest tribe and the one to which most Bay of Islands Maori belong. His company Taiamai Tours offers waka voyages on the Waitangi River, allowing visitors to explore the area while learning about his people's relationship with the land. 'It's about sharing who we are, involving people in our living culture - not turning it into a product,' says Hone. He is scornful of the Maori 'cultural shows' put on by local hotels. 'With us, what you are paying for is a three-hour trip in a canoe with a couple of storytellers. But our customs and traditions, they are not for sale; these are our gift to you.'

The journey begins in the Waitangi River's tidal estuaries, with a lesson in waka paddling skills and chants. As we make our way upstream and the bush land along the riverbanks grows greener and denser, our strokes pull deeper; our rhythmic calls become more emphatic. Hone stands at the waka's ornately carved prow, thumping his paddle in time, but occasionally breaks rank to point out a bird or plant, a good fishing spot, or the family marae (meeting house), a low wood-plank building with a grass-covered roof.

Today I am the only tourist aboard the waka - the rest of the crew are all members of Hone's whanau, or extended family. Cousins, aunts, brothers, grandsons - from a seven-year-old boy to a woman in her 70s - all have come to take their place in the canoe for Waitangi Day. A public holiday, 6 February commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand's founding document, in 1840. Each year, just after sunrise, it is marked by the ceremonial procession of a waka fleet, and tribes from all over New Zealand come to take part. 'For my ancestors, Waitangi Day was about bringing together different tribes, nations, peoples,' says Hone. 'And for me it is the same thing - a coming together.'

There are few 'pure' Maori left in New Zealand, most share heritage with the Pakeha (British, Irish and other white European settlers) who colonised their land. Hone wears a red tartan blanket wrapped around his waist, but when I enquire about its significance he shrugs and laughs. 'This is the first thing that came to hand when I got dressed this morning. You want to talk about my clothing? This is my clothing,' he says, placing a clenched fist on his bare chest, at the heart of an elaborate tattoo: his 'moko'.

Each inky spiral, each dark curled tendril, represents a different part of Hone's tribal homeland. He walks across the design with his fingers - around Taiamai (the Maori word for the inland area of the Bay of Islands), through rivers and forests to Northland's largest freshwater lake: Lake Omapere. 'My head looks North,' says Hone. 'To the ancestors' pathway to our spiritual homeland, Hawaiki.' Maori believe that the souls of the dead walk along 90 Mile Beach, a strip of sandy coast lined with steep dunes, before eventually reaching Cape Reinga. Here, at New Zealand's most northerly point, they take the leap into the afterlife. 'Then,' says Hone, 'the whole of the Pacific Ocean becomes our playground.'

Today, the playground is an earthly one - the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the main celebrations for New Zealand's national day are held. The festivities are representative of the strange alchemy that has occurred between the two cultures since the document was signed 170 years ago. Alongside stands selling Maori favourites, such as hangi (meat, steamed in a fire in the ground) and mussel fritters, are stalls offering confections reminiscent of a British village fête: flapjack and Victoria sponge. At four o'clock, local boys perform a spirited haka to welcome the safe return of the canoes after the morning's ceremonial procession. An hour later, the New Zealand navy band starts up, mixing nautical standards with tongue-in-cheek covers of pop hits and showtunes.

Crisp in their pristine white uniforms, the musicians' brass trombones and French horns gleam in the last of the day's sunlight. A Maori family sat under the shade of a tree listen to the band's final number while eating watermelon sundaes: green shells filled with ice cream, nuts and lurid strawberry sauce. As well as New Zealand's birthday, the group have another to celebrate. Presenting a cake to the youngest of the group, a boy, a woman begins to sing softly. Soon she is joined by a dozen voices singing in Maori, all falling effortlessly into three-part harmony. Happy Birthday has never sounded more beautiful.

Find your sea legs yacht racing
At 40 foot, Revs is the biggest yacht at Opua Cruising Club. The colour of a fire engine and capable of speeds of 20 knots, she is worth over £250,000. But in the Bay of Islands, sailing isn't just something rich people do - everyone's at it. 'There's no class division,' says Reece Hesketh, the Club's Vice Commodore. 'We're labourers, teachers, small businessowners - people from all walks of life.' Reece, who runs a plumbing company, doesn't even own a boat. 'I don't need one,' he says. 'If I want to go sailing, there's always a place for me in someone's crew.'

This inclusive approach extends to outsiders - the club is happy for anyone who wants to try their hand at sailing to take part in one of their race nights. Aspiring sailors are taken under the wing of an experienced seadog and shown the ropes, free of charge. 'We get a buzz out of seeing you guys get a buzz,' says Reece.

Down at the marina, I am welcomed aboard Revs. A horn sounds the start of the race, and as the boat begins to pick up speed I taste the metallic tang of adrenalin. Silently, Reece hands me a bottle from a cooler stacked with Tui beer. As a beginner, my role is chiefly to act as ballast - scampering from one side of the boat to the other when instructed by an emphatic shout of 'Tack!' from the captain. 'The flatter she is, the faster we go,' Reece says.

Chitchat is minimal, as all hands are on deck. Ropes are pulled taut then swiftly uncoiled, mysterious terms and numbers are bellowed from port to starboard. There is a perpetual sense of urgency, and all eyes look upwards and all hearts soar when the wind catches at Revs' mighty, blustering sail. In its shadow, smaller vessels weave their way around the buoys marking the course: tiny 'trailer sailers' crewed by husband-and-wife teams, a vintage-looking sail boat with blue rigging, a sporty, orange-sailed catamaran.

It's the latter, Orange Peeler, that takes victory at the finish line, but the result seems almost irrelevant to the Revs crew. They are quickly absorbed into the bonhomie of the clubhouse, generously batting away my offers to get a round in. From a neighbouring kitchen hatch, portions of roasted pork belly with kumara (sweet potato), steak with chips, and battered local fish appear. Famished racers spill out onto the sundeck, plate in hand.

Sat at a table sinking a beer, Reece is elated. 'Words can't really explain the way I feel about sailing, but it's like a sun burning inside of me,' he says, his face flushed with boyish pleasure. 'I don't consider myself a spiritual person but it is sort of spiritual - there's something about the water that I'm drawn to. Ask anyone on the boat and they'll tell you the same.'

Born in Kent, Reece is, like many of New Zealand's immigrants, evangelical about the great outdoors. 'The Bay of Islands is so accessible - it's easy to explore, and there are lots of places you can drop anchor and be perfectly safe.' Oke Bay, about 11 miles from Russell, is one of Reece's favourite spots. 'I like to get out there with my wife or some friends and kick back. You can have a glass of wine, some scallops if you've been diving. You've got to be here, doing it, to know just how special this place is.'

The article 'All at sea in New Zealand' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.