Things to do in the Bay of Islands, plus how to get around and where to stay
One of the North’s favourite holiday spots, the Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s “winterless north” is a good weekend or week-long trip from Auckland. We’re happy to bring you this Bay of Islands travel podcast in time to plan your next summer trip to New Zealand.
To listen, hit play below or find episode 195 in iTunes or Soundcloud:
Places to visit around the Bay of Islands
Paihia is probably the place to stay in the Bay of Islands, with the main bus station, harbour, and plenty of beachfront to play on. There are good restaurants, booking agencies for almost every activity — local and further north — and you can hire gear for kayaking, snorkling and other water sports.
The little shopping arcades have some interesting finds: our favourite is probably the boutique fudge and sweet shop near the corner of the waterfront and main street.
From Paihia, you can visit historic Waitangi: less than five minutes in a car or a pleasant waterfront walk that takes less than 30 minutes.
Kerikeri is the biggest town in the Bay of Islands, with larger shops and chain stores. There are some good restaurants and cafes as well as familiar names and larger supermarkets. Kerikeri is home to several historic sites which are well worth visiting: more on that below.
The ex-capital of New Zealand, and the “hell hole of the Pacific” at the start of of the 1800s, Russell is better known these days as the sports fishing capital of New Zealand. As well as hooking marlin, you can explore the little restaurants and pubs and take advantage of beaches on both sides of the peninsula.
A car and passenger ferry links Paihia to Russell regularly, and — with current petrol prices — is probably pretty cost effective when considered against the cost of driving all the way around the bay … even for those with the time to do so.
Things to do in the Bay of Islands
Spring, summer and autumn all offer plenty to the visitor, although the high season is definitely over the Christmas period: from December until early February. If you are visiting during winter, take a look at the things to do on a rainy day and the historic places … Because most of the sports are right out.
Summer really is the time to visit the Bay of Islands, with plenty of snorkeling and diving spots to choose from. Just a few hours away, on the Tutukaka Coast, is the world’s best sub-tropical dive (according to National Geographic) at the Poor Knights Marine Reserve. Just minutes away from Paihia is the Rainbow Warrior wreck dive (bombed in Auckland by French terrorists when readying to depart to protest nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean) and the HMS Canterbury — two great wreck dives with plenty of other reefs to explore.
Every day you’ll see paddle-boarders and kayakers out in the placid harbour waters, some making their way from Paihia, up the Waitangi River to Haruru Falls. There’s windsurf, kiteboard and jetski hire available too — so almost everything in the water is up for grabs.
Apart from being New Zealand’s first capital and the region that was home to many of New Zealand’s first Polynesian and European settlers, the Bay of Islands is known for its fishing. Big game or sport fishing is the real draw, with huge marlin and kingfish ready to hit bait and run — which is very good fun. A day out fishing will almost definitely net you something for dinner, even if you don’t pull in a two meter monster.
We recently did an overnight cruise on the Ipipiri out of Paihia, which was a real treat: it combined dolphin watching with a chance to kayak, snorkel and hike on an island with a great room and dinner. It was a great way to celebrate our anniversary, and — although pricey — an excellent splurge.
The Bay of Islands is home to New Zealand’s highest skydive and highest paragliding experience. The skydiving airport is a little out of town, but transfers are available if you don’t have your own transport (or don’t want to drive afterwords!).
Some tours will take you out to sanddunes a little while away where you can surf or toboggan down the sanddunes.
Things to do on a rainy day
The Bay of Islands really is a summer destination: the water is meant to be in the sea, not falling from the sky. If you do find yourself there during bad weather, our number one stop is the nearby Kawiti Gloworm Caves, 20 or so minutes south of Paihia on SH1. This locally run attraction is almost perfect for a rainy day — wet weather causes the gloworms to luminesce more brightly than normal. The 15-20 minute bushwalk back to the carpark might leave you a little bedraggled though.
There are several wineries in the area, Marsden Estate is probably our pick, and exploring these can be a good way to spend the day … just make sure you have a sober driver.
When you’re bored of the boutiques in Paihia and Kerikeri, the next thing is to explore the historic sites.
Waitangi: The “Birthplace of New Zealand” is actually best visited on a fine day, easily accessible by foot, bike or car from Paihia. The theatre shows short films depicting New Zealand’s early colonial history and helps to put Waitangi and the founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, into perspective. From there you can wander down to see carved canoes, the carved meeting house, Whare Runanga, representing the North Island’s main tribes, and the “treaty house” where the British Representative of the time, James Busby and his family lived.
Stone Store and Kemp House: Amongst the oldest buildings in New Zealand and Australia, the Stone Store and Kemp House are right next to each other, and both turned into museums by the NZ Historic Places Trust. A chance to explore some of the reasons Europeans choose to emigrate to New Zealand and get a feeling for the Protestant missionary mindset and the economic drives.
Rewa’s Village: A reconstructed Maori village set opposite the Stone Store and Kemp house. You can head over the river by foot bridge. Lots of outdoor walking, so not much good for a rainy day, but an interesting taste of pre-European Maori life.
Pompellier House: The odd one out in the NZ Historic Places Trust properties in Northland, Pompellier House was a Catholic Marist Brothers mission house. It’s fascinating with its tannery, working book press and bindery in addition to many stories of life in Rusell.
The New Zealand Historic Places trust sells a “Trade Route Passport” which gives you entry to Pompellier House, the Stone Store, Kemp House and then across the island to Te Waimate Mission Station, Mungungu Mission Station and finally to Clendon House in Rawene. Visiting all of them in one day is a long drive, but it’s possible to visit all of them in a day if you rush a little.
Where to stay in the Bay of Islands
Paihia is probably the number one spot to stay in the Bay of Islands, with several good hostels, nice hotels, campgrounds and motor camps all within a few minutes walk of the water. Paihia is the best for those wanting to be right in the heart of things, and for those travelling by bus or ferry, as everything is close to the transport centre.
To escape some of the crowds, Russell is a short ferry journey away — a bit quieter, it still has its share of good restaurants and pubs to choose from. Like Paihia, there are motor camps and campsites in addition to hotels and hostels.
If you’re looking for a slightly cheaper place to stay, and can handle being a five minute drive away from the water, the road to Haruru Falls is dotted with campsites and motels as well as having apartments for rent. Haruru Falls itself has several sets of apartments and baches for rent, in addition to a few hotels.
How to get to the Bay of Islands
Without a car, Paihia is a four hour bus ride from Auckland with the InterCity Northliner bus. You can buy point-to-point tickets or get a flexipass, which allows further travel on a per-journey basis. To check current pricing, use the search box to the right.
Flights from Auckland are possible (private or through Air New Zealand), but the local airports are all very small, so it pays to talk to your accommodation in advance about transfers.
Hop-on, Hop-off bus passes are also available, mainly serving a 18-35 year old crowd. The drivers or local guides with these New Zealand backpacker buses can often arrange accommodation for you as you. Check out Stray for current pricing.
If you are driving yourself, head straight up State Highway One until you see signs pointing you away from Kawakawa. With reasonable driving conditions, you can expect to be there in a little over three hours. We really recommend Spaceships as an excellent way to get around New Zealand: priced like a rental car, these converted people-movers come with a fridge, DVD player and a bed: a great combination of luxury and the ability to rough it. They book out early though, so if you see one available during summer, get it.
Waitangi Day is a national holiday held on February 6 each year. If you are visiting around this time, expect very large crowds, high demand on all services and localised political protests. It can be a wonderful time to visit, but can also cause problems if you are on a tight schedule.
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