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In New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, the 108-foot motoryacht Askari helps charter guests eat up every ounce of local adventure
By Kim Kavin
In the heart of the Waitangi treaty grounds, where British explorers and native Maori made peace in 1840, it sounded like fighters were preparing for war. Through the trees, in the direction of the bay where the 108-foot Askari was anchored, I could hear deep male voices blotting out the gentle lapping of the surf.
The dozen women in our charter party followed Fraser Yachts Worldwide broker Allan Jouning—our lone male companion and thus acting chief—over the grassy knoll. We snaked behind him in a line as he inched respectfully toward the 30 or so bare-chested Maori. The men and boys were in four lines, shortest to tallest, each holding what appeared to be a kayak paddle with sharpened tips.
Amid the fierce faces, one of the smaller dark-skinned boys focused curiously on those of us with blond hair. I glanced from him toward Askari, rolling on the hook an easy swim away, and thought about diving toward her, clothes and all. I heard a snort, a shout, some hissing. The biggest of the Maori could have been sumo wrestlers, and when they leaped forward and stretched their eyes open, I believed they might actually eat me alive. They jabbed out their tongues and hollered in challenging bursts. I assume the phrases would loosely translate into: “Kiss your boat goodbye, little lady—you’re toast.”
Such was my welcome to the Bay of Islands, on the tip of New Zealand’s North Island. Jouning and Askari’s captain, Lon Munsey, had arranged the traditional greeting with the Maori well in advance, and it served as a thrilling introduction to the Land of the Long White Cloud—a place seeping with culture, adventure, and even luxury, but that most of us know only as the backdrop for Oscar darlings The Whale Rider and The Lord of the Rings.
While the Bay of Islands is a well-established tourist destination, it and the rest of New Zealand are only beginning to develop in terms of yacht charter. The nation is working to become the regional powerhouse for yacht refit and services while allowing nearby islands to assume the role of charter destinations. Lane Finley, executive director of New Zealand Marine Export Group, says his country wants to be the “Fort Lauderdale” that supports a “Caribbean” composed of Fiji, Tonga, and more. ”It’s a wonderful potential economy about to flower in the islands,” Finley says, lamenting that so few luxury charter yachts call New Zealand home. “We don’t have locally owned vessels that attract that clientele.”
After the week I spent aboard Askari in the Bay of Islands, I thought the lack of charter activity a real shame. The Auckland area of America’s Cup fame and the South Island’s wine country of Marlborough may be better known, but I found the Bay of Islands (even though flooded with rain during my visit) great fun for hiking, cold-water diving, golfing, dining ashore, and cultural education. New Zealand’s landscape is as stunning as it appears in the movies, there are first-class resorts for charter guests wanting to extend their journey, and Askari has a style and crew that fit perfectly into the scene.
The boat’s owner gutted his 1971 build in a two-and-a-half-year refit that ended in mid-2001. A few months later, with a tastefully playful safari décor, Askari made her boat show debut and landed a round-the-world booking that lasted until August 2003. Munsey and his crew navigated with a couple and their 13-year-old daughter on a charter that literally wound its way from Trinidad to the Galapagos Islands to Bora Bora.
Since then, the owner has decided to see whether New Zealand might make a good home base during the summertime months of November through February, and the crew have set about learning the area in anticipation. “A big reason this boat charters is that the crew likes to charter,” Munsey says. “We like going to new places.”
That’s true even if the places are cold, dark, and wet. About midway through my week, on a day when rain was slicing into the chop around us, I asked whether I could get a firsthand look at Askari’s much-touted diving operation. I fully expected to hear groans that the conditions were too dismal, but within seconds, first mate Claud Akers, chef Darryl Leathart, and deckhand Dean Parsonage were brimming with glee. It turns out we were close to the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace boat the French sank before it could protest their nuclear testing. Askari’s crew, all of whom are divers, had been wanting to see the site for weeks.
In the driving wind and rain, they prepared enough gear for themselves, Jouning, and me to survive the 62-degree temperatures that awaited us 75 feet below. I felt in particularly good hands as Parsonage gave us the pre-dive briefing; he’s an instructor who can even certify new divers—a rarity on a charter yacht no matter where in the world it is. “It was a bit of a gamble,” Parsonage says of the full-service diving Askari offers. “We don’t want to be a ‘dive boat,’ so we set it up so that it’s part of the (charter) package.”
On this day, that package included about 45 minutes of exploring the glorious wreck, then resurfacing to find our ears and toes darn near numb. I was halfway out of my wet suit when head stewardess Tess Davies handed me a warm towel. By the time I’d wiped the salt water from my eyes, stewardess Leah Jeffery was giving me a mug of hot chocolate with a huge marshmallow floating on top.
The teamwork was impressive, and it extended to everything I saw aboard. The crew help one another in a way that tells you they genuinely enjoy what they’re doing. It’s not unusual for Parsonage, the deckhand, to serve dinner, or for Munsey, the captain, to be in the galley doing dishes.
Then again, it could be that Munsey’s just after a taste of whatever Leathart happens to be cooking. The New Zealand native has 22 years’ experience under his apron and works hard not to declare any specialty. “I don’t limit myself to a category,” he says. “I like to be able to say, ‘Sure can.’”
When pressed to describe a favorite dish, Munsey thought only a second before replying, “These Kiwis know a good lamb when they see one. He’s damn good with meat.”
That was certainly my experience, from Leathart’s barbecue of chicken, hamburgers, and shrimp to his chicken wing appetizers. During our first night, he even managed to do something I’ve never seen before on a charter yacht this size: offer a main-course selection to all 20 or so people aboard for a party, a choice of chicken breast stuffed with apricots and cashews, or local fish in a lime leaf beurre blanc.
The food is just one of the many things aboard Askari that belie her workmanlike exterior. She is a first-class charter yacht built and crewed to explore, which also happens to make her perfect for an emerging charter destination like New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.
Don’t let any of the natives scare you off or tell you differently.