With breathtaking natural features, an abundance of marine wildlife and a wealth of historical sites, it’s practically a given that New Zealand’s Bay of Islands will enchant you.
A diverse, subtropical micro-region just a three-hour drive north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands invites travellers from all walks of life to relish its stunning beauty. If you’re making your way around New Zealand’s North Island, this area is a must-visit – and these 25 attractions are guaranteed to prove it.
The town of Paihia is one of the best bases for exploring the Bay of Islands. Paihia Wharf, in particular, is the main departure point for the dolphin-swimming cruises and whale-watching experiences the region is known for. The township is also within close driving distance of many of the area’s most popular beaches and natural attractions.
The town of Waitangi is an incredibly important site in New Zealand’s history. It’s where the country’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed and is also the key site for its national holiday commemorations. Buy a visitors’ day pass to get the most out of your surroundings, including full access to the Treaty Grounds, the neighbouring museum and a cultural performance that will end the day on a very high note.
Also known as Old Russell, Okiato is a historic holiday spot just 7km (4mi) from present-day Russell. It was New Zealand’s first capital city for a brief time before the government moved to Auckland (and later Wellington).
Russell is another historically significant township. New Zealand’s first seaport was established here, as was the first permanent European settlement. Russell has shed the rough shipping identity that shaped it in the past to become more of a romantic getaway. It’s also another key departure point for eco-friendly cruises and wildlife tours.
The Wairere Boulders are nestled among an ancient kauri forest near the Hokianga Harbour. A geological nature park was built around it in 1999. Along with its namesake attraction, this verdant reserve is home to great walking tracks, sheltered streams and a self-contained campervan site for those wanting to immerse themselves in nature.
Matauri Bay, north of the Bay of Islands, is within a 45-minute drive of Paihia. Its sheltered, white-sand beaches are highly desired in the summer months by avid surfers, snorkellers, fishers and campers. The bay is also home to the Cavalli Islands, which are the final resting place for Greenpeace’s ill-fated Rainbow Warrior – the vessel’s bombing is still considered an important aspect of New Zealand history.
The Pou Herenga Tai – Twin Coast Cycle Trail meanders from the Bay of Islands into the ever-scenic Hokianga Harbour. The route covers 87km (54mi) and can be broken into four manageable sections. If you’re keen to take on the full-two-day journey, you’ll get a close-up glimpse of the area’s stunning subtropical terrains, as well as travel through some of the country’s oldest Māori and European settlement sites.
Just around the corner from Paihia, you’ll find the stunning Haruru Falls. This small horseshoe-shaped cascade’s name is Māori for “big noise”. In addition to living up to its moniker, the waterfall is the optimal go-to for kayaking and picnicking.
This spectacular single-drop waterfall on the Kerikeri River is surrounded by native bush and leisurely walking routes. The Rainbow Falls tumbles into a popular swimming hole and is also a bit of a hotspot for local kayakers. A well-paved, wheelchair-accessible trail leads to three viewing platforms that offer the best glimpses of this natural beauty. As a bonus, the track also connects to other hikes in the vicinity.
Established in 1819, the Kerikeri Mission Station was among the first places in the country to have the Māori community invite visitors to live among them. It’s also where you’ll find New Zealand’s oldest stone building (the Stone Store) and oldest standing European structure (Mission or Kemp House). Guided tours of the Mission Station offer insight into all facets of social relations during European settlement – from the tales of the drunken sailors to the lesser-known narratives of the extraordinary women who made their mark in local history.
Pompallier Mission is a well-preserved heritage site in Russell named after the first apostolic bishop to arrive in New Zealand. These premises, built in 1842, were the original headquarters for the French Catholic Mission to New Zealand; a printery was established next to the main house to translate church texts into Māori. Along with the remnants of its religious past, the mission’s Victorian gardens are also worth seeing.
A visit to Russell Museum is a must for those keen on delving into the town’s rich heritage. Its unique collection of traditional Māori artefacts showcase how the indigenous culture shaped the township’s identity – from the weapons and fishing lures used by early settlers to ornaments owned by some of Russell’s first bicultural residents. The museum’s comprehensive photo archives are also noteworthy for capturing the history of the wider region.
The Poor Knights Islands lie just outside the northern coastlines of the North Island, and a marine reserve was established around its waters in 1981 to protect the area’s unique ecosystem. The islands are the remains of a group of ancient volcanoes that gradually hollowed into the underwater caves – tunnels that make this such a highly sought-after diving spot. Even the legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau rated this area among the world’s finest.
The Hole in the Rock is exactly what its name implies: a unique passageway that naturally takes you under Motukokako/Piercy Island on Cape Brett. The tunnel is big enough that a touring vessel can traverse it. Local cruises will also enable wildlife lovers to get up close and personal to the Bay of Islands’ resident dolphins.
The historic Cape Brett Lighthouse first came alight in 1910 and continues to protect the area’s visiting seafarers today. A network of trails running through the cape’s regenerating forests will provide access to the lighthouse. It’s a challenging hike, which will reward you with fantastic panoramas of the outer Bay of Islands – stretching from the Cavalli Islands to the north to Whangaruru in the south and farther towards Poor Knights Islands.
Taronui Bay is a sheltered beach along the Purerua Peninsula, on the northwest end of the Bay of Islands. There’s no road access to this coastal gem; you need to hike the Taronui Bay Recreation Reserve Track during low tide to reach it. The 4km (2mi) trek crosses a mixture of exposed pasture landscapes and wooden terrains before reaching its picturesque white-sand destination.
Maiki Hill lies just outside Russell and is an important landmark for the wider region. Its English name, Flagstaff Hill, foreshadows its place in history. Between 1840 and 1913, British settlers raised six flagstaffs here; Māori chief Hone Heke cut down the first four as an act of defiance against colonial rule, which ultimately led to the start of the Northern War. The final two flags were raised afterwards, as a symbol of unity between the Māori and New Zealand Europeans (Pākehā).
Rangihoua Heritage Park opened in 2014 at the site of New Zealand’s first planned Christian mission, and it takes 50 minutes to drive to the park from Paihia. From here, you can explore the various walking routes and historical sites on show. Highlights include the archaeological remains of an ancient Māori pā (a fortification site), a memorial building erected to mark the mission’s bicentenary and a cross perched on the exact spot where New Zealand’s first Christmas Day celebrations took place.
White sands, sheltered beaches, clear blue waters, wildlife and a fascinating archaeological past – it’s fair to say that Waewaetorea Island, just off the coast of Russell, has everything nature lovers could want. With breathtaking views and plenty of natural wonders on show, this island-recreational reserve is the perfect day-trip destination.
Whale Bay is a bush-lined white-sand beach hidden on the Bay of Islands’ Tutukaka Coast – don’t confuse it with the popular surf spot of the same name in Raglan. The Bay of Islands’ Whale Bay is known for its tranquillity and mostly secluded setting; a steep, but well-maintained walking track off Matapouri Road is the only way to access the area. The journey will take around 30 minutes to complete; after that, you can cool down with a swim or settle by the sands for a peaceful picnic.
One of the most popular sailing hubs in the Bay of Islands, Opua lies where the Kawakawa River and Waikare Inlet meet with the bay, stretching ahead north towards the ocean. It’s a great place to hop on a cruise to explore the Bay of Islands, or if you prefer to stay onshore, you can take the coastal walk to Paihia.
Explore this corner of the Tutukaka coastline and walk along the Ngunguru Estuary, a significant ecological site for wading and aquatic birds. Starting at Whangaumu Bay, walk 40 minutes along this coastal track towards the Ngunguru River. Take in views of the sandspit, Goat Island and the Whangarei Heads. The trail includes detours down to secluded sandy beaches.
The biggest town in the Bay of Islands, Kerikeri, like many settlements in the region, has a rich history of Māori and European settlement. It’s a great place for a bit of shopping and wine tasting at some of the local vineyards, such as Marsden Estate or Cottle Hill Winery.
As the largest of the Bay of Islands, Urupukapuka is a brilliant choice for a day trip in this scenic area of New Zealand’s North Island. Explore its beaches, or climb to the top of the island for 360-degree views of the region. Alternatively, take to the water for some snorkelling or kayaking. The island is reachable by ferry from Russell or Paihia.
Take in views of the Te Puna and Kerikeri inlets on a walk in the Akeake Historic Reserve. It’s home to a fortified ancient Māori settlement and features the Tareha Point Scenic Lookout, a great place for views of Motupapa Island, Moturoa Island and the Kent passage.