Must-Visit Attractions in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands

Urupukapuka Island has plenty of adventures, on land and in the water
Urupukapuka Island has plenty of adventures, on land and in the water | © David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Thalita Alves
26 April 2021

With awe-inspring natural features, an abundance of marine wildlife and a wealth of historical sites, it’s practically a given that 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 majestic beauty. If you’re making your way around the North Island of New Zealand, this area is a must-visit – and these 25 attractions are guaranteed to prove it.

Paihia Wharf

Natural Feature
Map View
Fullers Building and Wharf Paihia Bay of Islands Northland New Zealand
© David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Memorial, Museum
Map View
Pouwhenua, Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Bay of Islands, Northland Region, North Island, New Zealand
© Matthew Williams-Ellis / robertharding / Alamy

The town of Waitangi is an incredibly important site in national history. It’s where the New Zealand founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed and is also the key site for the 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.

Russell

Natural Feature
Map View
Russell, Bay of Islands, Northland, New Zealand. Image shot 05/2009. Exact date unknown.
© Louise Heusinkveld / Alamy Stock Photo

Russell is another historically significant township. The first seaport in the history of the country 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.

Wairere Boulders

Hiking Trail, Natural Feature
Map View
A walking track in the forests of the Kaimai Mountains, New Zealand. A wooden stairway leads up a pile of gigantic mossy rocks
© Michael Williams / Alamy

The Wairere Boulders are nestled among an ancient kauri forest near the Hokianga Harbour. A geological nature park was built around them in 1999. The 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

Natural Feature
Map View
Matauri Bay, North Island, New Zealand
© Robert Wyatt / Alamy Stock Photo

Matauri Bay, north of the Bay of Islands, is within a 50-minute drive of Paihia. The white-sand beaches are highly desirable in the summer if you’re an avid surfer, snorkeler, fisher or camper. The bay is also home to the Cavalli Islands, which are the final resting place for Greenpeace’s ill-fated Rainbow Warrior – the vessel was bombed in 1985, in what’s considered an important aspect of New Zealand history.

Pou Herenga Tai – Twin Coast Cycle Trail

Natural Feature
Map View
Hokianga Harbour
© Pete Marshall Photo / Alamy

The Pou Herenga Tai – Twin Coast Cycle Trail meanders from the Bay of Islands into the 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 an up-close glimpse of the area’s spectacular subtropical terrains; you’ll also cycle through some of the country’s oldest Māori and European settlement sites.

Haruru Falls

Natural Feature
Map View
Haruru Falls near Paihia Northland New Zealand
© David Wall / Alamy Stock Photo

Just around the corner from Paihia, you’ll find the magnificent Haruru Falls. This small, horseshoe-shaped cascade’s name is Māori for “big noise” – and it lives up to its moniker. The waterfall is also the optimal go-to for kayaking and picnicking.

Rainbow Falls

Hiking Trail, Natural Feature
Map View
Hiker faces waterfall, Rainbow Falls or Waianiwaniwa, Kerikeri River, Northland, North Island, New Zealand_HNCGEE
© imageBROKER / Alamy

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 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.

Atmosphere:

Family Friendly, Kid Friendly, Accessible (Wheelchair)

Kerikeri Mission Station

Building
Map View
The Kemp House at the Kerikeri Mission Station in Kerikeri, Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand
© Gary Clarke / Alamy Stock Photo

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 the settlement of New Zealand by Europeans. Tales range from ones of drunken sailors to lesser-known narratives, such as of the extraordinary women who made their mark in local history.

Pompallier Mission and Printery

Building
Map View
Pompallier Mission House and Printery, Russell, Bay of Islands, Northland Region, North Island, New Zealand
© Matthew Williams-Ellis Travel Photography / Alamy

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 well worth seeing.

Russell Museum

Museum
Map View
Russell Museum in Russell North Island New Zealand
© MJ Photography / Alamy

A visit to Russell Museum is a must for those keen on delving into the town’s fascinating heritage. The unique collection of traditional Māori artefacts showcases 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 comprehensive photo archives are also noteworthy, capturing the history of the wider region.

Poor Knights Islands

Natural Feature
Map View
Poor Knights Islands reserve, North Island, New Zealand, January 2013
© Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

The Poor Knights Islands lie just outside the northern coastlines of the North Island. 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 underwater caves. Those tunnels make this a highly sought-after diving spot, to the point where legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau rated this area as among the world’s finest for scuba.

The Hole in the Rock Cruises

Natural Feature
Map View
Tourist boat approaching the Hole in the Rock on Piercy (Motukokako) Island just off Cape Brett in the Bay of Islands area, North Island, New Zealand
© Jon Sparks / Alamy

The Hole in the Rock does what it says on the tin. It’s a unique passageway that naturally takes you under Motukokako/Piercy Island on Cape Brett – big enough that a touring vessel can go through it. The local cruises enable you wildlife lovers to get up close and personal with the Bay of Islands’ resident dolphins.

Cape Brett Lighthouse

Building, Hiking Trail
Map View
Cape Brett Lighthouse, Northland, New Zealand
© Joshua Windsor / Alamy Stock Photo

The historic Cape Brett Lighthouse first shone in 1910, and continues to protect the area’s visiting seafarers. A network of trails running through the cape’s regenerating forests gives you access to the lighthouse. It’s a challenging hike, but it rewards you with fantastic panoramas of the outer Bay of Islands. They stretch from the Cavalli Islands to the north, to Whangaruru in the south, and further towards Poor Knights Islands.

Taronui Bay

Hiking Trail, Natural Feature
Map View
Looking northwest from Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand towards Waewaetorea Island and distant Purerua Peninsula_M7A607
© Jon Sparks / Alamy

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

Natural Feature
Map View
Russell,Tapeka Point,Maiki Hill, Lookout to Russell Harbour,Kororareka Bay, Oneroa Beach,Bay of Islands,North Island,New Zealand
© Paul Street / Alamy Stock Photo

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 Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans).

Rangihoua Heritage Park

Archaeological site, Memorial, Natural Feature
Map View

Rangihoua Heritage Park opened in 2014 at the site of the first planned Christian mission in New Zealand, and it takes 50 minutes to drive there from Paihia. Highlights include the archaeological remains of an ancient Māori (a fortification site), a memorial building erected to mark the mission’s bicentenary, and a cross perched on the exact spot where the first Christmas Day celebrations in the country took place.

Waewaetorea Island

Natural Feature
Map View
View back to Waewaetorea Island recreational reserve with sandy beach, Bay of Islands, Northland, North Island, New Zealand
© robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

White sands, sheltered beaches, clear 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 incredible views and plenty of natural wonders on show, this island-recreational reserve is the perfect day-trip destination.

Whale Bay, Tutukaka Coast

Natural Feature
Map View
Whale Bay, Tutukaka Coast, Northland Region, North Island, New Zealand
© Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

Whale Bay is a bush-lined, white-sand beach hidden on the Tutukaka Coast. Don’t confuse it with the popular surf spot of the same name in Raglan; this 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 takes around 30 minutes to complete; after that, you can cool down with a swim, or settle by the sands for a peaceful picnic.

Opua

Natural Feature
Map View
Opua marina at sunset in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand
© Rafael Ben-Ari / Alamy Stock Photo

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 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.

Whangaumu Bay and Ngunguru Estuary

Natural Feature
Map View
White faced heron Ardea novaehollandiae novaehollandiae Ngunguru estuary New Zealand
© Ross Armstrong / Alamy

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.

Kerikeri

Natural Feature, Architectural Landmark
Map View
Kerikeri historic stone store in Kerikeri, Northland, New Zealand
© paul kennedy / Alamy Stock Photo

The biggest town in the Bay of Islands, Kerikeri (like many settlements in the region) has an extensive 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 the Marsden Estate or Cottle Hill Winery.

Urupukapuka Island

Natural Feature
Map View
Yacht in Entico Bay on Urupukapuka Island in the Bay of Islands, North Island, New Zealand_M7A5TG
© Jon Sparks / Alamy

As the largest of the Bay of Islands, Urupukapuka is a brilliant choice for a day trip in this picturesque area of the North Island. Explore the beaches, or climb to the top of the island for a 360-degree view of the region. Alternatively, take to the water for some snorkelling or kayaking. The island is reachable by ferry from Russell or Paihia.

Additional reporting by Bianca Ackroyd.

These recommendations were updated on April 26, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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