The Bay of Islands is a sub-tropical paradise, sitting far above the rest of the country just before the great expanse of the Pacific sea. The region is well known for its fantastic lush scenery, large variety of wildlife and never-ending list of activities. It is also home to New Zealand’ s historical roots and was the place where I first felt a real connection with New Zealand’s people, culture and legends.
I have been to the Bay of Islands twice. The first was Christmas 2018, when I joined a three-day Stray trip which coincided with Christmas Day. The second was for a long weekend road trip, this time with my friend Steph.
The most popular area of the Bay of Islands is Paihia. This small tourist town is around a three-hour drive from Auckland and sits smugly in between many of the popular tourist sites this region has to offer. The town itself is small and cute, with a lot of Kiwi charm. There is a lot of accommodation to chose from, from hostels to luxury condos.
I stayed at the Peppertree Lodge and the Haka Lodge. Whilst the Peppertree Lodge was quite basic, we loved the Haka Lodge for its good location, REALLY comfy beds and dorms and sociable atmosphere.
The town boasts a small high street which offers everything a tourist may need. I particularly enjoyed my visit to Ella’s Fudge Bar where I treated myself and my housemates to a variety of delicious homemade fudge!
The Highstreet also had several great eateries and bars for any budget. For Pizza, the Pizza shack is a great option, with views of the sea from the restaurant and huge pizzas to share. On the wharf are even more places to eat and drink. Me and Steph particularly liked Charlotte’s Kitchen which had great cocktails. The menu was limited but the view and ambiance made up for it.
The things to do in Paihia was numerous and suit every traveller. The most famous is the Cruise to the Hole in the Rock. This two-hour ferry ride takes you out in the Bay of Islands harbour, on the search of dolphins along the way. As you near the mouth of the bay and the open sea, you will come across the famous Hole in the Rock which on a good day the ferry can sail through.
On my first trip, the weather was closed in. We enjoyed a presentation from the staff about the different animals that lived in the area. Of course, since the weather was so closed in, we didn’t see any this time around! On arrival to the Hole in Rock, although impressive, it was a scrabble to get a photo without getting too wet from the rain! If you don’t see dolphins on your trip to the Hole in the Rock the company offers another trip free of charge. Of course, since most of the clients are tourists, they most likely would have to go out of their way to take up this offer. Luckily, I was able to keep the voucher safe and redeem it a few months later.
The second time around the skies were clear and we had a much more enjoyable experience. We saw dolphins and they showed off a few tricks to our ferry as we sailed past. The Hole in the Rock was surrounded by calm waters this time and we were able to successfully sail through the rock, the boat blasting the horn as we went through which made for an amazing echo.
I was also amazed by the lone house sitting on the cliff face opposite the Hole in the Rock. Covered in cloud the last time I had taken the cruise, my second time around it was an intriguing sight and I wondered if/ who was brave enough to live there.
Linking to the Hole in the Rock cruise, the company also offers you the opportunity to take a one-way trip to Russell, the town on the opposite side of the bay. Known for its raunchy history, the town was popular with pirates and whalers at the beginning of New Zealand’s European history. The town gained a reputation for debauchery and gambling. These days it is a lot sleepier and is best accessed by boat. Although it does have road access, it can take many hours to make your way around to the small town. On our first trip to the area, we decided to take up the offer for a cheap trip to the town and went over to explore.
Unfortunately, on this day the weather was still closed in and as we landed on the opposite shore, the heavens opened. We took refuge in The Duke of Marlborough Hotel which in New Zealand is well known. A few of our other travel friends did decide to hike Flagstaff Hill that day but were disappointed with a lack of views and a whole lot of cloud.
On a better day, this town is great for a walk and a visit to the historic museums which detail the towns interesting history.
Other popular tourist attractions in the area include the Waitangi Treaty Ground, which is the site of the first accord between the British Crown and the Maori people. Here, history has been preserved and you can learn about why there were issues with this treaty and why Maori representation and preservation of the culture is so important. Many visit this site for a Maori demonstration, but if you are travelling to Rotorua at any point in your trip it is better to save your money for this experience down there. I didn’t visit this attraction due to money constraints, but it is great spot for travellers of New Zealand who wish to learn a little more about Maori and European history.
Another popular attraction in Paihia is the range of water sport activities. My trip kayaking and paddle boarding to a waterfall was one of the highlights of my trip to this region. We first met on the wharf and hopped in a boat to travel in-land towards Haruru Falls. On the way, our guide told us stories of the river and we enjoyed watching the birdlife on the riverside. As we got closer to the falls we transferred into Kayaks. As we reached the falls, we were encouraged to go underneath them. This was huge fun and we tried many times to do this and see how long we could stay under the water.
The last time I had visited this waterfall it was a wet cold day and I had watched the kayaks with remorse for them. This time, on a warm summer evening it was a great experience and we stayed in the water longer than we needed to. A few of us opted to kayak/ paddleboard back whilst others warmed up in the boat. We paddle boarded all the way back to the river mouth as dusk fell. This led to an incredible moment. As it got darker, we started to notice the water around our paddle boards glowing. Intrigued, I put my hand in the water and was amazed when the water around my hand started to glow. This was the elusive glowing plankton I had heard so much about from other travellers all over the world.
Every time we paddled the whole area around our boards glowed and it was a truly magical moment. None of us wanted to get out of the water after this and were so sad to get back to dry land. I would recommend this trip even without the plankton as it was a great way to spend the evening.
Aside from Paihia, the bay of Island region has a lot more to offer. On the long drive to Paihia from Auckland there are a couple of places which stand as great stops along the way. The first is Whangarei Heads, around halfway to the Bay of Islands. This peninsula has an amazing beach, breath-taking views from the cliffs and a great sub-tropical climate and landscape.
We stopped here for an afternoon and really enjoyed our walk up the cliff to amazing views over the whole area. Looking to the left, we watched as the cliffs fell into the Pacific Ocean. On our right we had a view of the rolling fields leading back to Auckland. The area also has fantastic surfing beaches and is worth a longer stop for the keen surfer.
On my first trip to the Bay of Islands, we stopped off at a slightly different beauty spot, the famous Hundertwasser toilets of Kawakawa. These public toilets were created by the Austrian-Kiwi artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser who commissioned and designed the unusual tourist attraction. It is on the only public toilet in the world which is seen as a work of art. We spent a short toilet break enjoying the uniqueness of this ‘work of art’.
One place that stands out to me is Hokianga, a small town on the left of the peninsula. The area is surrounded by tropical rainforests and across the bay from the community are amazing sand dunes. We stayed at a local hotel here which was a nice treat from a hostel. On our first evening here, the power went out and we had to go to sleep early by candlelight. It made for a memorable Christmas Eve and when we woke up on Christmas morning, we were greeted by a buffet breakfast and sunshine. The dunes across from the town are popular for sand dunning and we got in a small boat to go experience the fun.
The unique thing about these sand dunes is that they go into the water. We spent a few hours here getting braver and braver, eventually trying out the steepest and longest dune for a more exciting ride.
The area is also known from its Kauri trees and we joined a local Maori representative for an informative evening about the trees and their significance to Maori culture. The Kauri are known as protectors of the forest and in the past have been heavily logged form their good bark. Even Buckingham Palace features a lot of Kauri. Unfortunately, this heavy logging means that there are not many left and the species also has to contend with kauri dieback, a disease that that is attacking the remaining few.
It is therefore important to disinfect your shoes before you enter a Kauri forest. Our guide shared this information and more as we took a twilight walk amongst the huge trees. We finally got to visit Tane Mahuta, known as the God of the Forest. He is featured in the Maori creation story as the child of Ranginui (the sky) and Papatūānuku (the earth). It is said that his parents were wrapped in an enteral embrace, leaving their children in darkness. Tired of this, Tane pushed his parents apart bringing life to the world. What is amazing is that Tane is the only living God in the world at over 2000 years old.
When we went to visit this huge tree, our guide led us to him and directed our attention in the opposite direction. When we then turned around it was a pretty amazing and impressive sight. The tree is so huge that it has a whole ecosystem on it, with other trees growing on the top. This experience was a great way to connect with Maori culture and heritage and is well worth doing when visiting Northlands and the Bay of Islands.
The Bay of Islands has more than many may first think and therefore is a great destination for a longer holiday or a trip which encompasses more than just the beach. I really enjoyed both of my trips up to this region and think it shouldn’t be overlooked when planning your own trip.