You’d think there’d be more of a song and dance about one of the initial landing spots for Captain Cook in New Zealand. After the first-placed Cook Landing Site Historic Reserve on Kaiti Beach Road in Gisborne, the evidently humble, picturesque spot of Simpsons Beach in the Coromandel is right up there historically for the adventures of Cook in 1769. Right up there, but not nearly so well known.
Also called Wharekaho, there’s no big sign commemorating that Cook set foot here in early November, 1769. There’s also nothing obvious to let you know Simpsons Beach / Wharekaho is also said to be the location of Cook’s first official powhiri (Maori welcome). So, an important place and not to shabby on the eye either.
Just a couple of weeks after that touch of New Zealand soil in Gisborne in the area he’d christened ‘Poverty Bay’, Cook ventured several hundred kilometres north along New Zealand’s east coast. Seeking a good harbour to anchor in, he chose (and named) ‘Mercury Bay’ as it was here he observed the transit of Mercury and was given an accurate longitudinal reading. Using the bay as his starting point, Cook was able to make maps of New Zealand so exact they were still being used in the 20th Century. And it is the waves of Mercury Bay that lap the bright sands of Simpsons Beach.
Fast forwarding to the present day, I was staying at one of the more rapturously reviewed online properties I’ve come across, a boutique lodge named Bayview At 91. Run by David and Dmitri, these two have overseen an establishment where no less than 99.57% of all Tripadvisor reviews have been 5-star or “excellent”. At the time of writing that is 231 5-star reviews with one solitary 4-star or “very good”.
Astounding. Who was it who did the 4-star review! Though of course no shame in 4-stars. That is, after all, still “very good”. Though I wonder if that person knows they’re the only one. It wasn’t until after I’d left Bayview At 91 and the seaside town of Whitianga that I learned just how acclaimed this small hotel is, but I got a sense it was a special operation as soon as I arrived.
It was late afternoon on a what had been a pretty grand summer’s day. Only the weather had been rough the past week and I wanted to get to the beach as soon as possible. Dropping off my bags, David immediately asked if there was anything I’d like to see or do in the couple of hours before dinner. I mentioned “beach” and “beautiful” and he asked if I was interested in a bit of history too.
|The Kupe Suite, Bayview At 91.|
David has worked in the tourism industry for many years and alongside running Bayview At 91, he also organises travel itineraries and accommodation for foreign tourists. Originally from the UK, he knows New Zealand better than most New Zealanders. Armed with his knowledge and a less than 10 minute drive later, I was overlooking Mercury Bay and standing at a site Captain Cook had landed that late Spring day, November of 1769.
White sand, green hills with patches of forest (no doubt a lot more forest for Cook’s eyes in 1769), rock pools at the edges and breathtaking views over the waters, islands and jagged rocks of Mercury Bay; Simpsons Beach is very, very beautiful. Named after a family who have owned much of the surrounding land for many decades, this non-Cook related name is perhaps one reason it’s still a spot that flies under the radar. That and the fact there aren’t massive signs or plaques drawing your attention to the beach’s star-studded past. But even if the historical side of things is not a factor for you when choosing a beach, David was right in his recommendation for the sheer prettiness of the place alone.
He was also bang-on with another recommendation, this time a full-day of Captain Cook-recalling sailing around Mercury Bay and the famous stretch of cliffs and beach in the Coromandel that comprise Hahei and Cathedral Cove. Aboard a 62-foot schooner built in 1928 named Windborne, we were skippered by Avon: a storytelling, salty-skinned chap who’s sailed for more than 35 years.
|The Windborne at Whitianga.|
Avon splits his time between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands and follows the sun throughout the year. Almost as rewarding as exploring the coastline of some of New Zealand’s most-photographed beaches and holiday towns was going beneath the deck and getting some old sailing yarns out of Avon. I couldn’t help but think of that immortal scene from Jaws where Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider tell tales and have a few drinks as the boat sways. The near 90-year-old Windborne has that kind of cinematic feel to it.
Back on deck you can lounge in the sun, do a bit of dolphin spotting or do dive-bombs off the boat at various calm mooring spots. Avon also lets you try your hand behind the wheel and trimming the sails. Great fun – click here to link to Avon’s website windborne.co.nz to see the full range of expeditions he offers.
Returning to Bayview At 91 and David and Dmitri had a glass of wine waiting as me as my fellow sailors – also guests of Bayview – recounted the day’s highlights. We also enjoyed one of the main selling points about this boutique lodge, the wraparound balcony with views high above Mercury Bay and the Whitianga township below.
As for those other selling points – the reasons why Bayview At 91 has the reviews it does – it’s more than just the local knowledge and that view. That said, having your own private balcony as well as the communal one is a big plus. Then there’s the luxury and feel of the suites where I had a small lobby as well as bedroom, bathroom and separate living room. And then there’s the dining.
|Mercury Bay Suite, Bayview At 91.|
David and Dmitri prepare the meals themselves and also eat with their guests in the shared dining and living area. Doing everything from fine dining to homemade pizza nights, it was the latter that coincided with my stay. Delicious, healthy pizzas, some outstanding wines and the chatter of hosts and fellow travellers made this a great night.
All told, that’s really what sums up Bayview At 91: three beautiful suites, a warm, collegial atmosphere, amazing views, tasty home-cooked food and expert knowledge about the area as well as other New Zealand must-visit locations. Captain Cook didn’t choose too bad a spot.
Thanks for a delightful time David and Dmitri and do check out their website bayview91.com for more. Here are my top 40 photos from my stay which also include Tairua and the Waihi gold mine: