Smooth sailing in New Zealand's once-rowdy Bay of Islands

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The ghosts, or kehua, of Maori warriors rule the night in New Zealand's Bay of Islands. This was a Maori stronghold called Pewhairangi when Europeans arrived in the 18th century, and the region swirled in a vortex of competing cultures and interests. The English saw it as a new center for South Pacific expansion, founding the first permanent European settlement at Russell.

New England and Australian whalers saw it as a remote and wild haven to get drunk and break laws. When Charles Darwin visited this region, he called it a "stronghold of vice" and center of "the land of cannibalism, murder and all atrocious crimes."

Now the Bay of Islands is the celebrated birthplace of the New Zealand nation. Just across the bay from Russell, the English and Maori signed a treaty 170 years ago that formed the basis for understanding, and misunderstanding, ever since.

The bay's Maoris and pakeha, New Zealanders of European descent, have learned to profit from the past, offering historical shows and other presentations for tourists who call at this postcard spot.

During the Culture North Night Show at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where Maori and English leaders consummated a nation, a troupe of Maori men relive the traditional wero, or challenge, with the haka dance of threats and invitation, and Maori women sway and dazzle with their white, flaxen balls of poi at the Te Whare Runanga meeting house.

Archipelago adventure

During the day, though, there's little hint in this subtropical paradise of the battles between cutthroats and cannibals. The focal point becomes the town of Paihia, crammed with the usual assortment of moderately priced shops and eateries.

The bay lives up to its name; few come here without some plan to sail, cruise or zoom through the region's medley of motu, as islands are known in Maori.

In the same waters bloodied by whalers hundreds of years ago, tourist boat captains now search for dolphins. It costs $80 for a four-hour tour of the bay. If the dolphins want company and they have no calves with them, visitors can get into the water for an additional $30.

"We'll try our best," said Capt. Phil Ball of Explore NZ. Ball's boat tracked two groups of dolphins: one snubbed the tourists, and the other had calves among them.

"Sorry," the captain said, apologizing for the lack of dolphin-swim opportunities.

But the afternoon island cruise was well worth the trip, as the boat meandered through the bushy, green hills that rose from the water like overgrown Chia pets before heading back to Paihia as the wind kicked up and the sun started down.

Visit www.tourismnewzealand.com.

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