Embracing 144 islands, most too tiny to be inhabited, New Zealand’s Bay of Islands is considered to be the country’s birthplace. Why? Because this vast natural harbour at the tip of North Island was both the starting point for European settlement and – more than a thousand years earlier – a landing place for the Maori people, who migrated here from Polynesia in oceangoing canoes. It was also here that the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, established British sovereignty.
Today the Bay is a cultural hub and a haven for lovers of outdoor pursuits, its townships steeped in colonial history, its forests and sandy inlets supporting a wealth of wildlife. And, being in the winterless north of New Zealand, its skies are almost permanently blue. Most visitors base themselves in the bayside towns of Russell and Paihia, both great starting points to explore the region’s coastal and inland attractions, by boat, hiking trail or 4×4. Whatever you fancy doing, here’s our complete guide to New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.
It’s hard to believe today, but this genteel seaside village was nicknamed the ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’ in its Victorian whaling days. Brush up on your history of early New Zealand at the Russell Museum, home to a unique collection of traditional Maori artefacts, as well as a scale model of Captain Cook’s Endeavour, which dropped anchor here in 1769.
Next, call in at New Zealand’s oldest surviving church, dating back to 1835, which was partly paid for by a certain Charles Darwin. Then wrap up your history lesson at Pompallier Mission House, set in pretty gardens with a restored printing press and tannery.
Feeling energetic? Escape the crowds and go the extra mile (literally) to Long Beach, via a 20-minute scramble over the hill from Russell Township. Or take the mile-long walk north of town to Flagstaff Hill lookout, where British settlers raised five flagpoles between 1840 and 1858 (the first four were famously chopped down by the Maoris in protest at British rule). Reward your efforts with waterfront fish-and-chips at the popular Duke of Marlborough, New Zealand’s oldest licensed hotel.
Waewaetorea Island Get dropped off at sheltered Stockyard Bay to sunbathe on the beach, or head to the island’s seaward side for first-class diving. There are also several headland pas (fortified Maori settlements) to explore – one to the right of Otawake Beach and another close to the Orurua blowhole.
Motuarohia (Roberton) Island Unspoiled and with no public facilities, this island has twin lagoons that form a natural swimming pool at high tide – a hit with snorkelers, who can follow its underwater nature trail.
Urupukapuka Island Nearly one square mile in size, the Bay’s largest island is crisscrossed with footpaths, leading through wetlands and native forest rich in birdlife. Look out for the native dotterel and kiwi and get your camera out for stunning Otehei Bay.
If you’re partial to a glass or two, you’re in for a treat: Kerikeri is a hotspot for New Zealand’s world-famous wine, as well as citrus groves and kiwi fruit orchards. The local cuisine is pretty sensational, too: graze on whitebait fritters at the Old Packhouse Farmers’ Market, or beer-battered Orongo Bay oysters at Alongside in nearby Paihia. And for a drop of the finest sauvignon blanc, stop at Ake Ake – the only certified organic vineyard north of Auckland.
As well as a thriving food and gallery scene, Kerikeri is a nature-lovers paradise. Its crowning glory is the 27-metre Rainbow Falls, accessed via a 2.5-mile trail from town. You can try kayaking here, or take a dip, or just admire the spectrum of colours as the sunlight gets refracted through the mist.
For another hit of colour, check out the stained- glass windows at St James’s church, near to the convict-built Stone Store and Kemp House – New Zealand’s oldest building – otherwise known as the Kerikeri Mission Station.
Taronui Bay The only way to access Purerua Peninsula’s crescent-shaped white sandy bay is by hiking at low tide – but it’s well worth the trip. Follow the Taronui Recreation Reserve Track, which starts 10 miles north of town.
Kauri forests Known to the Maoris as the kings of the forest, Kauri trees are to New Zealand what redwoods are to California. You can walk among these giants at Puketi Forest (a half-hour drive away) or venture further to Omahuta.
Skydiving Feeling Brave? For a different perspective on the area’s wild beauty, try hurtling earthwards from 12,000ft with Skydive Bay of Islands (you can learn via their alarmingly named ‘accelerated freefall course’).
No visit to the Bay of Islands would be complete without a pilgrimage to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the place where New Zealand’s modern history officially began, with the signing of an agreement between Maori chiefs and the British Crown.
There’s a lot to see here: as well as a new museum, you can visit a traditional carved Maori meeting house, where rousing kapa haka (Maori dances) are held. Then stroll along Hobson Beach to the site’s open-sided waka house for the star exhibit – the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe, carved from three kauri trees. And if you happen to be visiting on 6 February, you’ll see it being launched from the beach to celebrate Waitangi Day.
Haruru Falls Make your way to this horseshoe-shaped cascade via the 4-mile forest walk, starting from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, or by kayaking up the Waitangi River.
Bay of Islands Kayaking or Kayak Cruises This night kayak safari is ideal for thrill-seekers. Highlights include paddling through shoals of jumping fish in the light of glow-worms, all beneath some of the starriest skies on the planet.
Surrounded by three pretty bays, just across the bridge from Waitangi, the resort town of Paihia is a magnet for fishing boats, yachts and kayaks. It’s also the starting point for dolphin and whale-watching tours (with an 80 per cent success rate, companies generally offer a free ticket if your voyage draws a blank). You can also dive, kayak and parasail over the water, or try your luck at big-game fishing.
To sample the catch of the day (and some of the best views), grab a window table at Charlotte’s Kitchen and enjoy a bottle of the local Kainui Road pinot
gris with your dinner. If you’re looking for pristine stretches of palomino sand, try locals’ favourite Sullivan’s Beach, accessed by walking round the rocks at low tide from Paihia Beach’s southern end.
Hole in the Rock Here’s one for the bucket list. A three-hour boat tour to the tip of Cape Brett brings you to this spectacular natural cave arch on Motukokako Island You’re also likely to see frolicking dolphins, as well as the historic Cape Brett Lighthouse (first lit in 1910), marking the entrance to the Bay of Islands.
Kawakawa It may be small but this likeable town, located 20 minutes inland from Paihia, has bags of charm. After hopping aboard Gabriel, a 1927 steam train, spend a few minutes at the town’s splendid public loo, a creation of the eccentric Austrian-born artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Kawiti Glow Worm Caves This network of limestone caverns was discovered in the 1950s by Maori chief Tane Tinorau, whose descendants continue to guide tours here.
British passport holders do not need a visa to visit New Zealand for tourist purposes.
When to Go
Temperatures in the Bay of Islands are pleasant year-round. December to February (summer) are the warmest months, averaging 24C. Spring (September to November) is also pleasant, with highs of 19C and fewer crowds.
The Bay of Islands has a packed annual events calendar, kicking off with tall ship races in January, followed by Waitangi Day (the nation’s birthday) on 6 February, a Country Rock Festival in May and a Jazz and Blues Festival in August.
There is no designated cruise dock in the Bay of Islands, so ships moor off Waitangi and passengers come ashore by tender. Regular passenger ferries run between the main towns of Paihia and Russell. Local taxi companies are the best option for short journeys, while for more extensive inland travel you should consider renting a car (try epicrentals.co.nz).