Exploring NZ bay of islands hero

Utah has its famous Mormon Road, but at the top of New Zealand's North Island is something that's arguably even cooler - an easily accessible island tunnel so big it can fit medium-sized cruise boats through it.

Where/What is it?

Sprouting proudly out of the Pacific Ocean off the wild end of the Bay of Islands' Cape Brett is Motukokako (Piercy Island as it was named by James Cook).

 an island dominated by its sheer cliffs that rise 148 metres out of the sea. It's likely Motukokako would've been considered just another big rock in the ocean had that same ocean not carved out a spectacular 16m-high hole at its south-western end.

As a result it's become a must-do in one of New Zealand's most loved regions, an island that adorns 1000 brochures.

Harbour cruises and jet boats will take you through the hole on a calm day and you can even land a helicopter on the top of the island and have a picnic.

Why go?

Getting to the island is a commitment, but it's hardly a chore. The route from Pahia takes you through the blue-green waters of a harbour of islands with more history and intrigue than any other in the country.

Look for dolphins and spot the plaque laid where Cook anchored the Endeavour off the murderously beautiful Motuarohia.

Take in the wealth of the part-privately owned Moturua, and see Sky TV NZ founder Craig Heatley's luxurious summer holiday home, with a rumoured tunnel through the island to get easy access to the jetty.

Stop in the fishing-famous Otehei Bay and climb from there to the top of the biggest island of the lot, Urupukapuka, for panoramic views of the harbour.

Once you're at the hole in the rock, you're in for some cheap thrills.

There's some solid currents and if you're on the biggest boat possible - in this case, the Fullers GreatSights dolphin cruise - it seems for so, so long that it's going to be impossible to fit the boat through the gap.

As the world goes dark, holler your best echo phrases, toot the horn and hold your breath for a minute until you emerge again in a burst of sunshine.

Insider tip

One thing the boat tours probably won't tell you is that passage through the hole is the subject of one of the most fascinating Maori claims of recent years.

Motu Kokako Ahu Whenua Trust - the island's owners - want payment for the thousands of tourists who go through it each year, while boat operators argue they have the right to navigate through it.

It's a dispute that remains unresolved.

On the way/near by

Stop in Russell for quaint buildings, great beaches and some outstanding restaurants that make the former hellhole of the Pacific seem pretty special.

How much?

There's a number of options for getting to the hole in the rock by boat.

The most popular is Fullers GreatSights half-day dolphin cruise from Pahia which costs $105 per adult or half that for kids with advanced booking. A helicopter to the top will set you back at least $400.

Best time to go

The Bay of Islands is a summertime playground in the winterless north.

There's no bad time to go but winter's a good way to avoid the crowds.

The writer travelled with assistance from the Bay of Islands Marketing Group. See visitboi.co.nz.

Written by Chris Hyde. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.

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