The Bay of Islands is one of the most popular destinations in northern New Zealand, with both domestic and international visitors flocking to the area on the east coast of Northland, especially in summer. With good weather, idyllic beaches, forests, islands, and wildlife, the Bay of Islands is naturally stunning. It’s also home to two of the most significant places in New Zealand history: Waitangi and Russell.
01. Take the Paihia to Russell Ferry
If you do nothing else in the Bay of Islands, you should at least take the ferry from Paihia to Russell. The journey is a quick 15 minutes and provides great views of the Bay of Islands from the water. Russell is also the loveliest little town in the area. It is full of history and charming old architecture and is quite a contrast to busier Paihia, with its glut of hotels and tour offices.
02. Learn About New Zealand History at Waitangi
Waitangi is one of the most important places in New Zealand history. It’s where, in 1840, Maori chiefs signed an agreement with representatives of the British crown, ceding sovereignty of their land. The Treaty of Waitangi (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) is the founding document of modern New Zealand. At the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi, visitors can learn about Northland and New Zealand history, get a better understanding of the Treaty and issues that continue to surround it today, see where the Treaty was signed, visit the marae (Maori meeting house), check out a ceremonial waka that’s taken out onto the sea during important occasions (such as the annual Waitangi Day, on Feb. 6), and more. This is a place that every tourist in New Zealand should visit.
03. Cruise to the Hole in the Rock
You can take a leisurely cruise or a high-speed jet boat out to this natural attraction, on Motukokako Island, off Cape Brett at the end of the Bay of Islands. The hole is more of an archway on the side of the rocky island, and it’s great fun navigating through it, weather and sea conditions permitting. If you’re on a larger vessel you may be nervous about hitting the walls, but the captains know what they’re doing! Cruises are a great way to see the Bay of Islands without chartering an expensive private boat. It’s also highly likely that you’ll see dolphins on the way, and many cruises to the Hole in the Rock double as dolphin-watching trips.
04. Hike to Cape Brett
The Cape Brett Track is one of Northland’s greatest hikes. It follows rugged coastal paths across Maori-owned and Department of Conservation (DOC)-administered land to Cape Brett at the end of the peninsula, with views of Motukokako Island and the Hole in the Rock. Starting from Rawhiti, it’s 10 miles each way, and should be done over two days (staying overnight at the DOC-administered Cape Brett Hut). If you want a shorter trip, you can arrange a private boat transfer to take you back to Rawhiti. It’s a challenging hike, with some steep cliff drop-offs, so only experienced hikers should attempt it.
05. Have a Laugh at the Birdman Festival
If you happen to be in the Bay of Islands in the depths of winter (which, incidentally, isn’t such a bad idea, as Northland is nicknamed the “winterless north”), have a laugh at the Birdman Festival. This two-day event in mid-July encourages people to dress up in wacky costumes, as birdmen, and try to fly off the Russell Wharf. There are many other family-friendly activities, too.
06. Enjoy a Drink With a View at the Duke of Marlborough
The town of Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, and the Duke of Marlborough Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in Russell, operating since 1827. The restaurant is one of Northland’s finest and the menu is is heavy on fish, seafood, and meat. There’s also a great local wine list. In the summer you can enjoy live music out front, and you can sit on the patio admiring the view at any time of year.
07. Spot the Bullet Holes in Russell’s Christ Church
The peaceful, picturesque town of Russell wasn’t always so bucolic: it was once known as “the hellhole of the Pacific.” In the early 19th century, the town (then named Kororareka) was notoriously lawless and Christ Church is evidence of that. The small wooden church was established by missionaries in 1836, just a few years before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, but the signing of the treaty didn’t mean that all Maori inhabitants of the area were happy with European settlement. The Battle of Kororareka in 1845 was just one of many flashpoints between Europeans and Maori and the church was caught in the line of fire. Musket bullet holes in the side of Christ Church are evidence of Russell’s colorful past. It’s still open for worship and has an interesting cemetery that guests can explore.
08. Kayak to Haruru Falls
You can drive to horseshoe-shaped Haruru Falls, 3 miles west of Paihia, or you can take the scenic route and kayak up the Waitangi River to their base. This takes about an hour, and you can also paddle through the Waitangi Estuary. If you’re a keen paddler, there’s no shortage of other great destinations around the bay.
09. Sample Some Local Northland Wine
While sub-tropical Northland isn’t the best-known wine region in the country (that honor goes to Marlborough or Hawke’s Bay), it is one of the oldest grape-growing areas with vines dating back to 1819. The towns of Russell and Kerikeri produce pinotages, chambourcin, chardonnay, and pinot gris. With beautiful weather and stunning views, the conditions are perfect for leisurely vineyard lunches at Omata Estate in Russell, or Marsden Estate in Kerikeri.
10. Pay a Visit to Kawakawa’s Hundertwasser Toilets
When nature calls, answer it at what are probably New Zealand’s most famous public restrooms, in Kawakawa. The otherwise nondescript Bay of Islands town of Kawakawa was home to Austria-born Kiwi artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000) in the last years of his life. In 1998, Kawakawa was looking to improve the public toilet facilities in the middle of town, and Hundertwasser designed what exists there now: a kaleidoscopic medley of arches, curves, columns, ceramics, mosaic tiles, and repurposed glass bottles. It’s the most whimsical public restroom you’ll ever see.
Hundertwasser also drew up plans for an arts center in Whangarei, the largest city in Northland, and while these didn’t come to anything during his lifetime. In late 2020, the Hundertwasser Art Centre and Wairau Maori Art Gallery will open in Whangarei.