Bay of Islands, New Zealand – Things to Do

The subtropical north of New Zealand is home to The Bay of Islands which is made up of over 140 islands dotted around the pristine blue waters. A favourite holiday spot for many Kiwis as well as people from all over the world. Even if you only have a couple of weeks in New Zealand it is highly recommended that you head north from Auckland to the Bay of Islands.

The “winterless north” is the ideal place for any kinds of outdoor adventures in land, air and sea, from walking to scuba diving to skydiving. There is something for everyone. This article will take you through the best of the Bay of Islands and around Northland.

A great place to base yourself for your stay in the lively little town of Paihia, bustling with backpackers and tourists of all kinds. However, if you have a little more to spend on accommodation then maybe look over in Russell as it is very picturesque. There are loads of places to stay in this area. Check out some of our favourites: Places to Stay in Bay of Islands

1. A Boat Trip through ‘The Hole in the Rock’:

Take one of the many boat trips that leave daily from Paihia Wharf. You will get a chance to see many of the Islands in the bay and hopefully some dolphins along the way. Weather permitting (i.e. no wind) they will take the boat through the ‘Hole in the Rock’ in a very skilled manoeuvre in which there is little room for error. Eeeek! You can book in advance and check out prices and different options on
Fullers Great Sights

2.Go snorkelling or diving at Poor Knights Islands

Get below the surface of the water at the Poor Knights Islands Reserve, a haven for marine life and a great place to go for a snorkel or, if your feeling more adventurous you could try your hand at scuba diving (with a guide of course). The abundant life along this reef is not to be missed.

Russell, Bay of Islands, New Zealand

3. Take the ferry over to Russell

It is hard to imagine that this quaint, romantic little village was once named ‘the hell hole of the Pacific’. Russell was New Zealand’s first capital and main port where it became a playground for sailors and gained its unsavoury reputation. There is a lot of history in the area, see if you can find the bullet hole in the church and take the short walk up Flagstaff Hill to the place where the Union Jack was first flown here in NZ. Check out our guide on Russell and Places to stay in Russell.

4. Kiwi Spotting at Aroha Island

Located in the Kerikeri inlet there is a causeway linking this little island to the mainland. It is a popular place for kayaking and walking (there is a pretty neat little loop walk that takes around 30 mins) but its main draw is the eco-centre. This little island is a safe haven for Kiwis (the birds not the people). Every evening at around sunset guided Kiwi walks leave from the eco-centre – they cost around $40NZ per person and last around 2 hours. There is a maximum of 4 people per group. If you decide to stay on the island you have the privilege of being able to do a self-guided walk. Camping (both powered and non-powered sites are available) costs between $15-$17.

5. Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Located just down the road in Waitangi, the treaty grounds mark the start of modern day New Zealand. This is a great place to learn more about Maori culture and history. A day pass costs $50 for an adult ($25 if you are from NZ) and is free to anyone under the age of 18. Included in the day pass is a full guided tour which lasts around 50 minutes, access to the museum, the grounds and a Maori cultural performance (around 30 mins) as well as a short introductory film.

6. Take a day trip to Cape Reinga along 90 Mile Beach

This one deserves an article all to its self – which we will get round to at some point. The far northern tip of New Zealand is an awe-inspiring Maori sacred place. Watch the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide at the furthest point north you are allowed in NZ. (Not technically the most northern point, a scientific compound reserves the rights to that title) The end of the peninsula is marked by a very weathered Pōhutukawa tree, believed by Maori to be the place at which spirits jump into the ocean to return to there homeland. It is around 1 and a 1/2 hours from Kaitaia to the cape. Many guided tours leave from here daily as well as from the Bay of Islands (a bit of a journey!). All tours travel along the famous 90 mile beach, try and find one that stops at Te Pake Sand Dunes for a spot of sand boarding. Please be wary of driving 90 mile beach yourself – despite it being a recognised highway it is still sand and can be dangerous in the wrong vehicle or conditions. Many hire car companies specify that you are not to drive the vehicle down this road. If you’re short on time but not short on money you could take a scenic flight from the Bay of Islands up the coast to Cape Reinga and back.

The best places to stay nearby are the northern coastal towns of Mangonui and Ahipara.

NB: Eating is not permitted at Cape Reinga as it is a sacred place.

7. Explore Urupukapuka Island

The largest island in the Bay of Islands is Urupukapuka Island, a great place to spend a day or two exploring this beautiful coastline. Whether its walking, relaxing, snorkelling or taking part in some water-sports. The 5-hour loop walk is amazing and allows you to take in many of the islands stunning beaches as well as the many historical sites dotted around.  You can get here by water taxi or passenger ferry from Paihia and Russell. At the time of writing, Explore NZ operates a ferry that runs throughout the day – $45 for adults and $25 for children. Several campsites on the island mean that it is possible to stay here a night or two- just be sure to book in advance as it does fill up especially in the summer months. Urupukpuka Bay Campsite is the biggest of the 3 and has spectacular views on the beachfront

8. Visit one of Northland’s Waterfalls

There are some stunning waterfalls in the Bay of Islands, two of note are Rainbow Falls and Haruru Falls. Rainbow Falls near Kerikeri can be accessed down the Kerikeri River Track or by a shorter walk from Rainbow Falls car park. It takes about 10 minutes from the car park and is accessible to pushchairs and wheelchairs. Head up to the viewing platforms and then stroll along the river bank to the popular swimming hole.

Haruru Falls is located around 5km from Paihia, there is (like at Rainbow Falls) a car park just a couple of minutes from the falls or you can walk from Waitangi through the rather impressive Mangrove Forest boardwalk. Better yet you can kayak there. There is a bit of history to these falls as the lagoon that surrounds them was the first official river port in New Zealand. If you need something to eat while you’re over that way check out Haruru Falls Takeaways who do really tasty burgers and decent Hoki and chips.

9. Relax on the Tutukaka Coast

The gateway to the aforementioned Poor Knights Islands. This aquatic wonderland is a wonderful place to spend a few sunny days, diving, fishing and exploring the white-sand beaches. Tutukaka itself is where many of the diving and fishing boats leave from. Further down the coast is the stunning Matapouri Bay this horseshoe beach is a great swimming spot – even in the chillier winter months. From here you cannnot miss the walk over to Whale Bay, it takes about 45 minutes (both ways) but is quite steep in parts so you will need a reasonable level of fitness and a decent pair of shoes. There are beach houses dotted all over here. Check out our post on places to stay on the Tutukaka Coast.

10. Take a short walk to Paihia Lookout

This is a short-ish walk from the end of School Rd in Paihia, it takes about an hour return (1.5km). The climb is totally worth it for the stunning views of the over the Bay of Islands. If you fancy a bit of a longer walk you can continue along the Oromahoe Traverse which is another 1 and half hours one way. Please note there are no dogs allowed on this trail due to Opua Forest being a Kiwi habitat.

11. Dive a Ship Wreck

Following on with the aquatic theme, if you are accustomed to scuba diving you should definitely dive one of the shipwrecks off the coast. Our favourite is Rainbow Warrior, the Green Peace ship that was bombed by the French and after sinking was moved to the seabed outside Matauri Bay as a sort of artificial reef for marine life.

12. Go swimming with Dolphins

Firstly to apologise if this is a terrible cliché addition to a bucket list -yes I know you can do this in many places, but although this may be slightly biased, the backdrop of The Bay of Islands is pretty unbeatable. Again many tour operators depart from Paihia Wharf, most of them twice a day, offering an up-close encounter with the bay’s local dolphins. This can only go ahead if conditions are suitable.

13. Go Skydiving

Although there are more famous places to skydive in New Zealand (such as Lake Taupo), if you can catch a good day to do it up here the views are just unreal. There are a couple of companies around Paihia that offer this.

14. Buy fresh food from the Bay of Islands Farmers Market

The Bay of Islands farmers markets is held in Paihia and Kerikeri every week. Kerikeri is every Sunday from 8.30am until 12 pm and Paihia’s is every Thursday 1 pm until 4 pm. All the produce sold at these markets is grown in Northland, NZ. It is actually much cheaper than buying vegetables from the supermarket. Paihia’s market is slightly bigger and has a few more craft type stalls. An alternative to these is the Old Packhouse Market in Kerikeri open every Saturday and Sunday and is the largest market in the Bay of Islands.

15. Take a hike to Cape Brett Lighthouse

Walk out to the lighthouse on Cape Brett for some incredible coastal scenery, forests and native bush. This is one for the avid walkers or those who are pretty fit, it does get steep towards the end. At 16.3km one way this is certainly a long one and will take you around 8 hours. Cape Brett Hut offers around 23 bunk beds and cooking facilities but you do need to book in advance to make sure you get a bed. You can book on the DOC website. The track starts at Oke Bay in Rawhiti but can also be joined from the Whangamumu track. If you really want to go out to the lighthouse but don’t want to do the walk, water taxis are available from both Russell and Paihia.