A Bay of Islands Guide – Maximize Your Holidays In New Zealand!

Located on the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, the Bay of Islands is a permanent fixture on any tourist itinerary. With its rich history, golden sand beaches, and fantastic marine life all lying under the bluest skies in the world, it’s no wonder that these islands at the ‘edge of the world’ is one of New Zealand’s most popular holiday destinations.

To be more specific, yhe Bay of Islands is a small inlet, just a three or four hour drive from Auckland Airport, to the north of Whangarei. The area is home to several small towns like Kerikeri and Russel that rests on one of the arms of land that extends into the bay. For a Kiwi experience, the Bay of Islands has pretty much everything you need – gorgeous landscapes, wildlife, native bush, beaches and plenty of ocean.


Things To Do Or See In The Bay Of Islands

Arguably the archipelago’s main attractions, the dolphins steal the show. Even friendlier than the locals, pods of dolphins can be seen swimming alongside the many water taxis and ferries that operate out of the main islands of Paihia and Russell. As you sail past the tropical islands, you’ll surely be treated to a glimpse of the dolphins at play, leaping through the crystal waters and playing with swimmers.

Russell was actually the very first capital of New Zealand. Once a brawling whaling village, little evidence remains of the wild energy of those times. Colonial buildings are scattered throughout the Strand – Russell’s waterfront promenade – most notably the white Christ Church, the oldest surviving church in New Zealand. Visit Russell Museum along York Street and the Pompallier House, the last surviving building of Russell’s Catholic Mission.

While on the other end, Paihia is home to many fine gourmet restaurants and some of the best bars in New Zealand. Paihai is also a popular town in the Bay of Islands. This small town has a great number of visitors, especially during summer. Previously a mission post, this place has become a bustling modern town with plenty of activities to offer. There are many shopping areas, restaurants and cafeterias. All types of accommodations are also available here. Paihai is a base for deep-sea game fishing. Its popular wharf offers cruises and fishing trips around the bay. There are many historical places here and they are indicated by plaques placed along the seafront.

From Paihia, take a short ferry ride to Russell and enjoy fresh seafood right on the waterfront and visit The Duke of Marlborough, an authentic whaling pub frequently showcasing the country’s biggest music acts. From the 10th to 12th of August every year, jazz enthusiasts can take part of the August Jazz Festival throughout the Bay of Islands.

Other attractions near Paihia includes the Waitangi National Reserve located within walking distance from Paihai. The Lily Pond Park, located at the north of Paihai, is a great destination for family outing. This park gives its visitors the opportunity to interact with many kinds of farm animals. The animals in the park include goats, sheep, eels, alpaca and emus. Another attraction, the Haruru Falls, is located about 3km from Paihai.

Haruru means “big noise.” The water falls in a horseshoe shape – very rare and quite spectacular – and Maori legend states that a taniwha (water monster) lives in the lagoon below. You can walk to Haruru Falls along the Waitangi walking track, or drive to Haruru Falls township – which is only 3 kilometres from Paihia. In the 1800s, there were over 100 Maori villages along the Haruru Falls river.
Stone Store at Kerikeri, the oldest stone building in New Zealand, and adjacent Kemp House, are perennial subjects for tourists’ cameras.

Furthermore, you have Motuarohia/Roberton Island an important place to the Maori and to New Zealanders historically. There is several archaeological sites to visit from the Maori influences and in 1839 a sad tale of death resulting in the first prosecution of an individual under colonial law led to the island being re-named to Roberton Island. From Paihia or Russell, this is the first island you’ll see when heading out to sea and as a result, is one of the most photographed islands in the area. There are several walking tracks, two lagoons, and a few beaches that are well worth a visit.

Urupukapuka Island is the largest of a set of seven islands in the eastern portion of the Bay of Islands. Opportunities for water sports are plentiful here as the protected bays offer calm waters to enjoy with beautiful sandy beaches all around. There is an archaeological walk featuring many well preserved sites from the long history of Maori settlement here. Otehei Bay is a famous outpost of the famous American fisherman, Zane Grey, and has since become a world famous fishing resort. There is three campsites on the island, along with a majestic pohutukawa forest, and serves as a breeding ground for pateke or brown teal and the New Zealand dotterel.

Kerikeri is a historically significant place to the history of New Zealand as the meeting place of the two major cultures in the country. The island has a number of easy walks which offer nice views of the Kerikeri river, Kerikeri basin, and Kerikeri inlet. One of the more interesting walks is the Rainbow Falls walk, which takes you to the 27 meter high waterfall with several viewing points available for excellent photo opportunities. The Discoverers Garden on the north side of the Kerikeri basin offers insights into how the Maori traditionally used the native plants in their daily lives.

Cape Brett is filled with ancient Maori pa sites, which served as fortified settlements and has some beautiful regenerating forest. The 14 meter high lighthouse offers awesome views of the outer Bay of Islands, the Cavalli Islands, Whangaruru, and the Poor Knights Islands. The Cape Brett Track will get you to the lighthouse and it is a 2-3 hour hike along the rugged coastline. There is an optional sidetrack to Deep Water Cove which offers excellent diving and swimming.

If you are a history buff you’ll be in your element in this region, there are a large number of historically significant buildings and places including several with Historic Places Trust status, including one of New Zealand’s oldest buildings, the Stone Store in Kerikeri.

Of course, as the region is named Bay of Islands, you can rest assured there are large range of water based activities to participate in too including swimming, kayaking, jet skiing, cruises around the islands, whale and dolphin watching, and one of New Zealand’s most favoured pastimes, fishing where you have the chance to catch Snapper, Trevally, Marlin, Tuna, Shark and Kahawai.

The region also has a strong base of artists and crafts people, where you can purchase their unique pieces, many with strong Maori cultural ties made from locally sourced materials, including carved Kauri, bone and Greenstone, woven flax items, and paintings featuring unique Maori symbols.

One must do thing is to Visit Waitangi. This is where the New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the European settlers and the New Zealand Maori tribes.

Also, try taking a day trip to Cape Reinga. Right at the top of the North Island is Cape Reinga, where you’ll be able to stand at one of the northern most parts ofNew Zealandand see where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet, it’s quite an incredible site.

If you love waters, then diving at the Poor Knights will be a great adventure. You’ll escape to an underwater wonderland of sand gardens, kelp forests, and caverns including the worlds largest sea cave RikoRiko, as well as experiencing unique and incredible marine life in this marine reserve.

Checkout the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. These grounds were gifted to the nation by Lord and Lady Bledisloe in 1932. The Waitangi National Trust Treaty Grounds give a unique and fascinating insight into New Zealand’s historic past. New Zealand’s most significant document, The Treaty of Waitangi, was first signed here in 1840 between a few Maori chiefs and the British Crown, and became the basis for life in New Zealand as it is known today. The importance of the treaty is well understood by a NZ audience, but visitors might find it surprising that there’s not more information displayed here about the role it has played in the nation’s history: the long litany of breaches by the Crown, the wars and land confiscations that followed, and the protest movement that led to the current process of redress for historic injustices.

Go for some wilderness experience by visiting the Puketi Forest. This forest, along with Omahuta Forest, forms one of the largest contiguous tracts of native forest in New Zealand’s Northland. Home to Te Tangi o te Tui Puketi, the fourth largest living kauri with a height 50.9 m (167′), Puketi is easily accessible from the Bay of Islands, Whangaroa and Hokianga Harbour. Access to the recreation facilities can be reached from State Highway 1 or the network of secondary roads that skirt the forest.

If you are looking for something indoor,  go for a museum in the old Memorial Library (open Thursdays & Fridays) for a glimpse of Kawakawa’s coal mining history. The railway line running through the centre of town to Opua is a remnant of those times. Unfortunately major maintenance requirements mean that regular trips to Opua by Gabriel, the renowned steam train, will not be taking place at present, however the station is open and welcomes visitors. Visit also the Kawiti glow-worm caves at Waiomio which boast a galaxy of glow-worm lights, white limestone formations and 12 generations of history.

Have interest with religious landmarks? Stop by St Paul, the characterful church was constructed of Kawakawa stone in 1925, and stands on the site of NZ’s first church, a simple raupo (bulrush) hut erected in 1823. Look for the native birds in the stained glass above the altar – the kotare (kingfisher) represents Jesus (the king plus ‘fisher of men’), while the tui (parson bird) and kereru (wood pigeon) portray the personalities of the Williams brothers (one scholarly, one forceful), who set up the mission station here.

If you want to wind down a bit, then go to Aroha island. Reached via a permanent causeway through the mangroves, this 5-hectare island provides a haven for the North Island brown kiwi and other native birds, as well as a pleasant picnic spot for their nonfeathered admirers. It has a visitor centre, kayaks for rent, and after-dark walks to spy kiwi in the wild (per person $35) can also be arranged. You’ve got around a 50% chance of seeing a kiwi, and booking ahead is essential.

Long story short, the Bay of Islands is rich with history, beautifully pristine islands, and creatures of the sea that won’t leave you disappointed. The dolphins, blue penguins, gannets, and whales seem to like it here, and the friendly locals make it easy to help you to understand why. Whether you go fishing, diving, or just go out to marvel at the beautiful beaches in the area, a few days here will bring a sense of relaxation like few other places in the world can. The August Jazz Festival, giant Kauri trees, and a relaxing round of golf at the 18 hole course at Waitangi are just some of the other wonderful activities that can be enjoyed while in the area. So next time you come to New Zealand consider visiting this little portion of paradise that is just a few hours north of Auckland.

The Bay of Islands is a 3-5-hour journey by car from Auckland Airport, 5 hours by bus. For a shorter route, a plane flies daily from Auckland to Kerikeri. Regular ferries operate out of Opua bound for Russell.

Visit the New Zealand destinations category to learn more about other places to visit in New Zealand!