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Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands

New Zealand is blessed with extraordinary natural beauty and rich cultural diversity, and the Bay of Islands is no exception to the rule. Like a shimmering jewel, this waterworld charms all who visit. Stephen Hodges checks in with suggestions for ten top things to do...
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island ranks as one of the country’s top tourist draw cards.

The region’s stunning turquoise waters are punctuated by more than 140 islands of varying sizes, and the area is rich not only in natural beauty, but also historical and cultural heritage. At just three hours’ drive north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands is also easily accessible, and offers a great range of accommodation options to suit every budget.

Here are ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands.

1. Enjoy a day of sailing on the bay

The name of the region should be a giveaway that sailing is one of the top things to do in the Bay of Islands. The best way to see the area is by boat and there are many different options depending on your interests. Most chartered day cruises involve sailing time on the bay, morning tea, an island stop, snorkelling and a fresh buffet lunch.

There are dolphin spotting cruises to suit any budget, with Dolphin Cruises one of the more popular. You can even go swimming with dolphins or try sea kayaking.

Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands. Image: Adam Ford

2. Take a scenic walk to a waterfall

For stunning things to do in the Bay of Islands, take on the scenic walks to Rainbow Falls or Haruru Falls. Both are achievable for most levels of fitness. The birdsong combined with the sound of running water along the way makes for a truly tranquil atmosphere.

Rainbow Falls is ideal for a refreshing dip after your walk.

Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands: Haruru Falls. Image: Bigstock

3. Explore local towns and villages

There are several towns around the region and each of them is worth exploring for their own diverse characteristics:

Paihia — a great base from which to explore the rest of the region. Here you can book all your tours and transportation and there’s accommodation to suit every taste and budget.

Kerikeri — set back from the ‘action’ of Paihia, Kerikeri is widely known for its gourmet produce, fabulous chocolates, boutique vineyards, art galleries, cafes and crafts. For the best local eats, try The Pear Tree or Food at Wharepuke.

Russell — a quick ferry ride from Paihia, ‘Romantic Russell’ is a firm favourite with honeymooners. It offers a relaxed atmosphere with cosy dining along the waterfront. The area is steeped in history. Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand and the original capital.

Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands: Russell. Image: Bigstock

4. Do a wreck dive

The Bay of Islands is a celebrated diving destination because of the many reefs and shipwrecks which can be found in its waters. The waters are temperate and attract all kinds of tropical fish.

The Paihia area is the main focus of diving and home to the wrecks of both the Rainbow Warrior (former flagship of Greenpeace) and HMNZS Canterbury. Each offers its own unique diving experience. Try Paihia Dive, which covers both sites.

Listen to a podcast of our tips for five must-sees in the Bay of Islands:

5. Get a bird’s eye view on a scenic flight

If you’re looking for the ultimate way to see the Bay of Islands and are willing to splurge a little, then there are few ways to get a more impressive viewpoint than from the air. As well as a spectacular panorama of the stunning coastline, you’ll view the jumble of islands and small settlements that dot the region.

Both helicopter and seaplane flights are available, each offering their own benefits. It’s entirely up to you (and your wallet) to decide.

6. Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

On the Waitangi Treaty Grounds the treaty between the British Crown and indigenous Māori was signed, signifying the beginning of New Zealand as a modern nation. The treaty remains the linchpin of race relations in New Zealand, and a visit to the treaty ground is one of the top historical things to do in the Bay of Islands.

Visit the site for detailed education about the history of the document. You’ll see the European Treaty House and the carved Māori meeting-house that stand facing each other, representing the union of the two ‘tribes’. You’ll also find various displays and multimedia presentations which offer insights into Māori culture and its customs. The daily cultural performances are a must-see.

Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands. Image: Bigstock

7. Go grape grazing

While most people will be familiar with the blue chip Marlborough wines region of New Zealand, the Northland Region’s subtropical climate provides something entirely different. Tropical Chardonnays and Pinot Gris, spicy Syrahs and peppery Pinotages are some of the offerings.

Okahu Estate and The Landing are two of the most popular wineries to visit.

8. Paddle a war canoe

If you’re looking for an experience found nowhere else in the world, Taiamai Tours Heritage Journeys provides a rare and practical insight into traditional Maori life by giving visitors the opportunity to paddle the region in a 40 ft Waka Taua (War Canoe)!

Discover ancient customs, rituals and traditions along the way, while gaining a unique perspective of the bay.

Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Image courtesy of Taiamai Tours Heritage Journeys

9. Tell tales of the one that got away on a fishing charter

Fishing is almost a national sport in New Zealand and the tropical waters of the Bay of Islands provide opportunities for anglers of all skill levels. There’s probably no game fishing area in the world that has yielded more record catches than the stretch of water along the Northland’s coast.

Book a charter and attempt top topple the local world records for Striped Marlin, Yellowtail Kingfish and Snapper.

Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands: Visit Kawakawa’s artistic loo block. Image: Alamy

10. Spend a penny on a work of art

The public toilet block in the main street of the town of Kawakawa (a 20-minute drive from Paihia) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Golden orbs adorn the grass-tufted roof of this truly unique washroom, designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Inside, the tile work is extraordinary.

The toilet block is renowned internationally as a work of art, and the busloads of tourists who visit to take photographs far outnumber those who simply want to use the loo.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in the Bay of Islands? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Stephen Hodges

About the writer

Stephen Hodges was a teacher and a social worker before he left Australia for a three-year overseas adventure. While travelling, he worked as a grouse beater in Scotland, a chicken farmer on a Kibbutz in Israel and a camp counsellor in France. On his return to Melbourne, Stephen began working in the travel industry and set up a business, which he ran for six years. He still has a passion for travel and believes life is all about experiences — and that you can find them in the most unlikely places, if you look hard enough.


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