One year ago, I arrived in the little town of Paihia, in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands. Yes, over there, travel was still possible in early March of 2020. I had no idea yet this would be one of my last destinations in the country before going into lockdown and heading home. Sometimes, it’s really a good thing not to have foresight. Otherwise, I’m not sure I could have enjoyed it the same.
As it was, I had an absolute ball in the Bay of Islands. There are heaps of things to do and see. Let me give you an overview of everything I got up to during my week there. Maybe you can keep these tips for when travel returns and New Zealand opens its borders again!
The ultimate Bay of Islands activity: Cruising
There is a reason the Bay of Islands has its name. It’s home to over 140 islands and the best way to see them is on a cruise. There are many different options to do this, but I went with the full day „Cream Trip” cruise. The name goes back to the route that was used starting in 1927 to deliver cream from the different little islands in the Bay. Today, the catamaran is much bigger and more modern, and instead of transporting cream, it transports tourists around the breath-taking Bay.
For me, the main reason to chose this tour was that it included dolphin watching as well as a stop on one of the small islands. After leaving Paihia we stopped in Russell to pick up more guests, then made our way out into the Bay. We passed along the coast line and alreadyspotted a few dolphins in the distance!
We drove all the way out to Cape Brett and its lighthouse. Right behind this is one of the more popular stops of the cruise: the Hole in the Rock. It’s literally what it says, a hole in a big rock that is huge enough to let a boat such as our catamaran pass through. Unfortunately, it was quite windy this day and passing through the hole is only safe to do in calm conditions. Therefore, we only went up to it without actually passing through for the up-close experience.
Exploring Urupukapuka Island
One of the small islands sitting right inside the Bay was our lunch stop. Otehei Bay has a beautiful beach, surrounded by green hills you can climb for a panorama view over the turquoise sea. I know it sounds kitschy, but it’s true!
We stopped long enough to have time for a climb up said hills, a picnic lunch (you either bring your own or buy something at the cafe) and a swim at the beach, before returning to the boat.
Shortly after leaving Otehei Bay, we came across a whole pod of dolphins. This time, we followed them around and stuck close for a while, watching them play and jump out of the water. So amazing!
I was sitting in the very front of the boat and many came super close to me. I felt like I just had to reach out to touch them! Eventually, we had to leave because there are strict rules where and for how long you are allowed to follow the dolphins. But I could have watched them forever!
The last adventure: “Boom-Netting”
Next to visiting some other interesting landmarks around the Bay, there was one more adventure to have before returning to Paihia: Boom-netting.
It works like this: they attach a net to the side of the boat that’s half in the water. You get inside that net and then the ship speeds up and slows again, throwing you backwards and forward with the wave inside the net. It sounds rather creepy but it’s actually fun! Only, be smarter than me and wear tight-fitting swimming clothes that don’t slip at the slightest pressure. You’re welcome.
By the way, this is an entirely voluntary activity. If you rather stay dry, no problem at all.
Some Bay of Islands history: Visiting Russell
Russell is a historic little town just a short ferry ride from Paihia. Once upon a time, it was known as the “Hell Hole of the Pacific”, courtesy to the many runaways, convicts and deserted sailors you could find here. Today, people are much less frightening, but many of the historical buildings still remain. Making it a cute little town with not too much going on but still enough of interest to make it worth a visit.
I only spent a short time in Russell. There was an option to get off here after the cruise and take the ferry back to Paihia later, but it meant I only had the evening and a lot of shops were already closed. I couldn’t do much more than have a walk around town to see the old buildings and then relax with an ice-cream at the beach before the next ferry. But if you want to spend more time, Russell also has a museum on the place’s history, small shops and galleries as well as beautiful walks along the coast.
New Zealand’s founding site: Waitangi Treaty Grounds
One place in the Bay of Islands that I didn’t even know about until I got to Paihia was the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Waitangi, which is only about a twenty-minute walk along the beach from Paihia, is the place the British Crown and the Maori signed New Zealand’s founding document in 1840. It gave the British sovereignty of the land and essentially made NZ British. From what I understood, though, it was quite unique for declaring the indigenous people as subjects of the Crown and recognizing their ownership of land. This isn’t to say it was without problems, partly because many settlers just ignored the rights it gave the Maori. Still, the history around it is quite interesting!
Today, Waitangi is an open-air museum dedicated to telling precisely this history. There are exhibitions on this as well as on the Maori in NZ in general in the modern museum part. The rest of the grounds still have many of the historical buildings, which you can visit to learn even more. They offer guided tours through the grounds which are included in the entry fee. I highly recommend them! They also included a cultural Maori performance.
Overall, I found it super interesting to learn about NZ and Maori history. The museum is within walking distance from Paihia and a great way to spend a day doing something slightly different!
Day trips from the Bay of Islands: Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach
The Bay of Islands itself is also a great starting point to visit some other highlights of Northland. One of them is Cape Reinga, the northernmost part of New Zealand hat you’re able to visit. I actually thought it was the northernmost, but there’s a scientific reserve, North Cape, which is yet a little further. But this one isn’t open to the public, so Cape Reinga has to do.
This is also the place where the Tasman Sea, which divides NZ and Australia, meets the Pacific. Plus, it’s a sacred site to the Maori, who believe the spirits of the deceased use this point to jump into the ocean and return to their ancient homeland. Of course, I had to see it, so I joined a day trip to Cape Reinga and the Ninety Mile Beach.
Unfortunately, just as we were driving up to Cape Reinga, a heavy fog set in. When we arrived, you couldn’t see more than a few metres in front of you. Of course, that didn’t stop me from walking all the way down the coastal path to the lighthouse that marks the Cape. If I’m there anyway, I’m doing it, right?
Anyway, the fog stayed and all I could see was white. Then it even started to rain. There really wasn’t much to see in these conditions.
Sandboarding at Ninety Mile Beach
Fortunately, Cape Reinga wasn’t the only point on the itinerary for the day. Earlier, we had already visited a Kauri forest to look at the giant NZ trees. Now we had a few more places to go.
The fog lifted as we left the Cape (of course) and made our way towards Ninety Mile Beach. Shortly before reaching it, we stopped by the sand dunes for another action activity: everyone interested could go sandboarding!
It was my second time ever doing this after one attempt over ten years ago in Western Australia. Honestly, walking up the dune with the board is the worst part. In comparison, going down is easy!
It was only made a bit more complicated by the fact that it was still very wet and there was a huge puddle right at the bottom of the dune. You wanted to have enough speed that you passed this and didn’t stop right in the middle of it. But no matter how well you managed, we were all completely covered in wet sand after. Good thing I’m not the one who had to clean the bus after we all got back in…
Along the Beach
Maybe said bus was insulted at our dirtiness because it got stuck in the sand and we couldn’t go on. The driver had to call a colleague who was also in the area with a tour and then came to pull us out. After that, however, we made it safely to the Ninety Mile Beach on the Western coast.
It’s actually not 90 miles but 88 km. You can drive right on the beach, as it’s officially a highway. It’s a great beach for surfing, and we also spotted some horseriders on the way. We basically just followed it for quite a way, making stops in between so we had a chance to get out and properly take in the huge beach. And, of course, take photos.
I loved the variety you get to experience on the Bay of Islands. From history over nature and wildlife to fun activities, there’s just something for everyone!
Have you been to the Bay of Islands? Which activity would you like to try the most? Share in the comments!