With breathtaking natural features, an abundance of marine wildlife and a wealth of historic sites, it’s practically a given that the Bay of Islands will enchant its visitors.
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 20 attractions are guaranteed to prove it.
The town of Waitangi is an incredibly important site in New Zealand’s history. It is 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 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.
The town of Paihia offers one the best bases for exploring the Bay of Islands. Paihia Wharf in particular is the main departure point for the dolphin swim cruises and whale watching experiences the region is renowned for. The township is also within close driving distance of many of the region’s most popular beaches and natural attractions.
Russell is another historically significant township. New Zealand’s first sea port was established there, 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 is also another key departure point for eco-friendly cruises and wildlife tours.
Also known as ‘Old Russell’, Okiato is a historic holiday spot just seven kilometres (4.3 miles) from present-day Russell. It was New Zealand’s first capital city for a brief time before the government was moved to Auckland (and later Wellington).
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 lined with great walking tracks, sheltered streams and a self-contained campervan site for those wanting to truly immerse themselves in nature.
The Pou Herenga Tai – Twin Coast Cycle Trail meanders from the Bay of Islands into the ever-scenic Hokianga Harbour. The route covers 87 kilometres (54.1 miles) and can be broken into four manageable sections. Those keen to take on the full two-day journey will get a close glimpse of the stunning sub-tropical terrains the region is loved for, as well as travelling through some of the country’s oldest Maori and European settlement sites.
Matauri Bay is located just north of the Bay of Islands, 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.
Just around the corner from Paihia you’ll find the stunning Haruru Falls. This small horseshoe-shaped cascade’s name is translated from Maori as ‘big noise’. Besides 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 tumble into a popular swimming hole and are also a bit of a hot-spot 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.
Pompallier Mission is a well-preserved heritage site in Russell which is 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 in the 19th century; a printery was established next to the main house in order to translate church texts into Maori. Along with the remnants of its religious past, the mission’s Victorian gardens are also worth seeing.
Established in 1819, the Kerikeri Mission Station was one of the first places in the country to have the Maori community invite visitors to live among them. This is also where you’ll find New Zealand’s oldest stone building (the Stone Store) and oldest standing European structure (Mission 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.
A visit to Russell Museum is a must for those keen on delving into the town’s rich heritage. Its unique collection of traditional Maori artifacts 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. 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 which gradually hollowed into the underwater caves – tunnels which 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 compelling passageway that naturally takes visitors under Motukokako (aka 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 visitors with fantastic panoramas of the outer Bay of Islands – stretching from the Cavalli Islands to the north, to Whangaruru in the south and further towards Poor Knights Islands.
Maiki Hill is situated 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 there; the first four were cut down by Maori chief Hone Heke as an act of defiance against colonial rule – this ultimately led to the start of the Northland wars. The final two flags to be raised on the hill came afterwards, as a symbol of unity between Maori and New Zealand Europeans (Pakeha).
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 on a low tide in order to reach it. The 3.7-kilometre (2.3-mile) trek crosses a mixture of exposed pasture landscapes and wooden terrains before reaching its picturesque white-sand destination.
Rangihoua Heritage Park opened in 2014 at the site of New Zealand’s first planned Christian mission. It takes 25 minutes to drive to the park from Paihia; from there, visitors are welcome to explore the various walking routes and historical sites on show. Highlights include the archaeological remains of an ancient Maori 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.
Whale Bay is a bush-lined white-sand beach hidden on the Bay of Island’s Tutukaka Coast. Don’t confuse it with the popular surf spot of the same name in Raglan: the Bay of Islands counterpart is known for its tranquility and largely secluded setting. A steep, but well-maintained walking track off Matapouri Road is the only way to access this Whale Bay. The journey will take around 30 minutes to complete; after that, you can cool down with a swim or just settle by the sands for a peaceful picnic.
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 ask for. With breathtaking views and plenty of natural wonders on show, this island and recreational reserve is the perfect day trip destination.