A Guide to New Zealand's Bay of Islands

Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand | © Florian Bugiel / Flickr
Sheltered beaches, rich marine habitats, historical treasures and a unique sub-tropical climate; with so many wonderful features, it’s no wonder the Bay of Islands has become one of New Zealand’s most desirable destinations.

Holidaying Kiwis and visiting travellers love visiting this pocket of the upper North Island in the summer months, when the sun is at its brightest and the swimming conditions are at their very best. In saying that, because the Bay of Islands is part of the ‘winterless north’, visitors can relish its pristine beaches and marine attractions pretty much year-round.

Motumaire Island, Paihia, Bay of Islands © russellstreet / Flickr

If you’re one of the many travellers who touched down in New Zealand via Auckland, the micro-region is just a couple of hours’ drive away. A car will definitely give you more freedom to explore the surrounding townships and more than 140 islands that are scattered across the Bay of Islands’ stunning coastlines.

But if you don’t have access to a vehicle, don’t fret – you can always catch an inter-city bus to the region’s main service town, Paihia. This, alongside the neighbouring town of Russell, is one of the key departure points for the many dolphin and whale watching cruises the area is renowned for.

Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand © Sheila Thomson / Flickr

Every town in the Bay of Islands has something unique to share. Kerikeri, located approximately three hours from Auckland, is notable not only for its place in history (New Zealand’s two oldest buildings, the Stone Store and Kemp House, are found there) but also for its vineyards and horticulture. The town is one of the key locations for the weekly Bay of Islands Farmers Market – the go-to for locals and visitors keen to get their hands on the region’s freshest food and produce.

The Stone Store and Kemp House in Kerikeri, New Zealand © russellstreet / Flickr

Russell is also famed for its history, having been the first colonial capital of New Zealand. It was also the key sites for whaling in the North Island post European settlement, but has since shed the rough aesthetics of its maritime trading past to become a scenic seaside getaway popular for boating and fishing.

Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand © Florian Bugiel / Flickr

Although, if it is history you seek, a visit to Waitangi is a must. The town is quite close to Paihia and its Treaty Grounds were the key location for one of the most significant events in the country’s history: the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, which is widely considered to be New Zealand’s founding document and is a driving force in present-day political decision-making.

Traditional Maori waka (canoe) at Waitangi, New Zealand © Dirk Pons / Flickr

If natural beauty is what you seek, there are many places to delve into. Scuba divers and snorkellers from all corners of the globe head to the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve to get a closer glimpse of its remarkable archways, caves, tunnel systems and wide-ranging habitats and biodiversity. In fact, celebrated explorer Jacques Cousteau once claimed this is one of the best dives in the world – such is its appeal for those who revel in the underwater world.

Poor Knights Islands, New Zealand © brett Vachon / Flickr

Naturally, the Bay of Islands’ visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to beaches. If you’re based in Paihia, Te Tii Bay at the northern end of town and the main Paihia Beach are great places for a family outing: these are popular for swimming, fishing, kayaking and picnicking; Te Tii Bay also has a playground next to it.

Venture a little further out of Paihia to find the secluded Sullivan’s Beach, a picturesque wonder loved by locals for its remoteness. There’s no direct road access to this one: you need to walk around the rocks on the southern end of Paihia Beach in order to get to it – a journey best saved for when the tide is nice and low.

Those who are spending some time in Russell can either chill out at the main beach, Kororareka Bay, or explore the local favourite: Long Beach. Also known by the name Oneroa Bay, this sheltered beach is just a 20-minute walk from the main township and is revered for its elongated golden sands and hidden swimming spots.

Long Beach, Russell, New Zealand © Sids1 / Flickr

For a ‘tramping’ fix that will expose you to a contrasting mix of coastline and forestry, head to Cape Brett Track. This 16-kilometre (9.9-mile) trek would typically take an experienced hiker eight hours to complete – though there is a serviced camping hut you can book if you want to spend a little longer exploring – and contours a ridge lined by regenerating bush before reaching the conservation lands of Deep Water Cove. The track starts just outside Oke Bay beach which, along with being peaceful and sheltered, is the ideal spot to sight the Bay of Islands’ visiting dolphins making a playful splash in the ocean. Cape Brett lies 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) northeast of Russell and can be reached by car or water taxis that depart from both Russell and Paihia.

Cape Brett, Bay of Islands, New Zealand © Charles Meeks / Flickr