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Tucked away at the northern tip of New Zealand’s North Island, the Bay of Islands gleams like a coastal jewel. Spanning 144 subtropical islands, it’s not just the sparkling blue waters and sun-drenched beaches that grab your attention. This region is a lively crossroads where history dances with culture and nature, offering a cocktail of experiences that have left us smitten every single time.
While Paihia might be on many travellers’ radars for its picturesque beaches and sought-after dive spots, for us, the heartbeat of the Bay of Islands is best felt aboard a boat. As you sail, it’s not just about the scenic vistas; it’s about soaking in the islands’ rich narratives, from ancient Maori legends to tales of intrepid European settlers.
Every time we visit the Bay of Islands, we fall in love with it all over again. There’s something about the Bay that keeps calling us back, and so, this weekend, we find ourselves packing up and heading out, ready for another round of adventures exploring the hidden gems of the Bay of Islands.
Join us as we embark on a scenic road trip from Auckland to Paihia, unveiling Northland’s hidden gems along the way. We’ll guide you through Paihia’s must-visit spots, offering insights into the Bay of Islands Cruise and its myriad offerings. From the serene shores of Otehei Bay to the historic charm of Russell and the vibrant energy of Kerikeri, we’ll showcase the Bay of Islands in all its multifaceted glory, ensuring you have a treasure trove of memories, whether you’re travelling with little ones or flying solo.
And if you’re thinking of an extended stay in the Bay of Islands (which we think is a great idea), you’ll find the most comprehensive family guide on the best accommodation in the Bay of Islands here. Jump in, and experience the Bay’s unique charm for yourself.
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Is it Worth Going to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand?
The Bay of Islands is a captivating blend of stunning natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and vibrant marine life. Whether you’re keen on exploring secluded beaches, diving into historical Maori sites, or embarking on water adventures like dolphin watching and sailing, the Bay has something for everyone. It’s a must-visit for those seeking a truly unique New Zealand experience.
How Long to Stay in the Bay of Islands?
The ideal duration for a trip to the Bay of Islands varies based on your interests. A 3-day stay allows you to explore the main attractions of Paihia, Russell, and Kerikeri.
However, if you wish to indulge in activities like sailing, fishing, or diving, and truly immerse yourself in the region’s rich history and culture, a week or more is recommended.
Read on to plan your perfect itinerary to the Bay of Islands.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Bay of Islands?
The Bay of Islands is welcoming all year. Summer (Dec-Feb) offers the warmest beach-friendly weather, but it’s also the busiest.
Autumn (Mar-May) is slightly cooler with beautiful foliage, though there might be some rain.
Winter (Jun-Aug) is chillier but less crowded, ideal for exploring indoors and enjoying clear sunny days.
Spring (Sep-Nov) sees blooming landscapes and rising temperatures, but be prepared for occasional showers.
Choose your season based on your preferences and activities in mind.
5 Fun Ways to See the Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is vast and varied, so how can you make the most of it? Here are some straightforward ways to explore and enjoy this special place.
1. By Boat: A Must-Do Experience
The Bay is best known for its water, and there’s no better way to see it than by boat. Whether it’s a relaxed Hole in the Rock family cruise, a glass bottom boat tour, a sailboat adventure, or a tall ship sailing with BBQ lunch, you’ll get to see the islands up close. Each one has its own character, from quiet spots to popular harbours.
2. On Foot: Explore the Trails
If you like walking, there are plenty of trails in the Bay of Islands. They range from easy coastal paths to more challenging hikes in the hills. As you walk, you’ll find signs and landmarks that tell the area’s history.
3. By Air: See It All From Above
For a different view, why not try a helicopter tour or even skydiving? It’s a chance to see the whole Bay from above, with all its islands and beaches.
4. Road Trip: Drive and Discover
Renting a car or catching a bus lets you explore the Bay’s towns at your own pace. From busy Paihia to quieter spots like Opua, you can decide where to stop and what to see.
5. Dive into Culture: Learn and Connect
The Bay of Islands is rich in history and culture. Visit local Maori communities, join in local events, or simply learn about the area’s past at museums and historic sites.
In short, the Bay of Islands has a lot to offer. Whether you’re into history, nature, or just relaxing by the water, there’s something here for everyone. So, plan your trip and enjoy everything the Bay has to offer!
6 Reasons Bay of Islands is Perfect for Kids
The Bay of Islands is a fantastic destination for families and here’s why bringing your kids to the Bay can make for an unforgettable family holiday:
1. Kid-Friendly Beaches
The Bay boasts calm and shallow waters, making it safe for kids to splash around. The sandy shores are perfect for building sandcastles, and the clear waters offer a chance for children to spot marine life in their natural habitat.
2. Educational Experiences
The region is rich in history, from Maori legends to early European settlements. Visiting historic sites and museums can be both fun and educational for kids, giving them insights into New Zealand’s past.
3. Wildlife Encounters
Dolphin-watching tours, bird sanctuaries, and nature walks allow children to connect with nature. It’s an opportunity for them to learn about different species and the importance of conservation.
4. Adventure Activities
For older kids, there’s no shortage of adventure. From kayaking to beginner’s snorkelling, the Bay offers a range of activities that can cater to varying age groups and skill levels.
5. Local Events and Festivals
Throughout the year, the Bay of Islands hosts several family-friendly events and festivals. These events often feature games, food stalls, and performances, providing a taste of local culture.
6. Easy Accessibility
The Bay of Islands is well-connected, making it easy for families to navigate. Whether you’re driving or using public transport, getting from one spot to another is hassle-free.
Top 10 Things To Do in Bay of Islands for Families
The Bay of Islands provides a mix of relaxation and adventure, ensuring that both kids and adults have a memorable time. It’s a place where families can bond, learn, and create lasting memories together. Let’s explore some of the top things to do in Bay of Islands with kids.
1. Paihia: Visitor’s First Stop
Nestled in the heart of the Bay of Islands, Paihia stands as a vibrant hub for visitors. Often the first stop for many, this lively town sets the stage for the adventures that await in the broader region.
Upon arriving in Paihia, you’re immediately drawn to its bustling waterfront. Cafes and eateries line the shore, each offering a unique taste of local flavours. The gentle hum of conversation, combined with the rhythmic lapping of waves, creates a welcoming atmosphere.
As you stroll through Paihia, it’s almost certain you’ll find yourself in Paihia Lanes. This charming nook is brimming with unique boutiques and chic eateries, offering a delightful blend of shopping and dining experiences.
As day turns to night, Paihia reveals another side. The waterfront, illuminated by the soft glow of streetlights, becomes a hotspot for evening relaxation. Whether you’re keen on a quiet dinner or just a leisurely stroll, Paihia’s evening charm is undeniable.
Considering a longer stay? Paihia offers a variety of accommodations to fit any preference. From quaint inns to more upscale lodgings, there’s something for everyone. For those looking for recommendations, our Bay of Islands Accommodation Guide provides a curated list of the best places to rest your head.
2. Hole in the Rock Cruise
The Bay of Islands is renowned for its stunning landscapes, and at its heart lies the iconic Hole in the Rock. This natural wonder, carved by the elements over centuries, stands as a beacon of the Bay’s beauty. While soaring above in a helicopter provides a unique perspective, there’s an unmatched thrill in approaching it by sea.
Sailing towards this massive rock formation, with the vast ocean around and the sky overhead, offers a sense of scale and wonder. It’s an excellent opportunity to teach the kids about the vastness of our world and their place within it. It’s also a reminder of nature’s power and the timeless beauty of the Bay of Islands, making the cruise an unmissable experience for anyone visiting the region.
Our journey aboard the Discover the Bay Cruise was a harmonious blend of relaxation and discovery. As we smoothly sailed through the Bay of Islands, the morning sun cast a gentle glow over the waters, setting the tone for the day ahead. The cruise itself was a treat, with every moment offering a new perspective of the bay’s beauty.
The crew, always ready with a smile, shared fascinating tidbits about the islands with a dash of humour. Their knowledge and passion for the region made the cruise feel like a casual chat with a local, turning our voyage into an enriching experience.
Here are some of the highlights of the Discover the Bay Cruise:
- Cruise among the 144 beautiful islands, accompanied by insightful commentaries.
- Enjoy a buffet lunch at Otehei Bay, with options to swim, hike, or kayak.
- Travel through the iconic Hole in the Rock, offering numerous photo opportunities.
- Benefit from a complimentary drop-off and return ferry ticket to Russell.
We secured a fantastic deal for our Bay of Islands Hole in the Rock Cruise with a 40% discount off the original price.
However, there are many tour operators that run Hole in the Rock Cruise in the Bay of Islands. Depending on your itinerary and preferences, you can definitely find one that suits your budget and schedule from this list of Bay of Islands Tours.
Honestly, if the weather is on your side, you’ll have a great time in the Bay of Islands, no matter which tour you choose.
3. Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island
We’ve been to the Bay of Islands many times, and we can confidently say that you haven’t truly experienced the Bay of Islands unless you’ve explored the islands on water.
Nestled within the Bay of Islands, Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island is a slice of paradise that often goes unnoticed by many travellers. Its untouched beauty and serene ambience make it a top attraction in Bay of Islands for those seeking tranquillity amidst nature.
Before our tour on the Discover the Bay Cruise, we hadn’t heard of Otehei Bay. We expected a simple buffet lunch, but what awaited us was a revelation of nature’s grandeur. The bay, with its crystal-clear waters and pristine shores, quickly became one of our favourite hidden gems in New Zealand.
Surprisingly, the island isn’t just about scenic beauty; it boasts a cosy café and bar. It’s fascinating to learn that some of the staff, dedicated to offering the best service, actually reside on this secluded island.
Lunch at Otehei Bay was an experience in itself. We savoured a beautiful buffet spread right on the beach. From fresh salads and roasted vegetables to succulent chicken drumsticks and barbecued meats, every bite was a treat after a day on the water. Our little one, meanwhile, found joy in the simple pleasures of the bay, making friends, enjoying the gentle waves and watching the ripples her rocks made.
For those who love exploring, Otehei Bay offers walking trails around the bay. It’s a great way to work up an appetite before lunch or to walk off that full belly afterwards.
In addition to its everyday charms, Otehei Bay is also a popular destination for special occasions. From dreamy island weddings to the annual Otehei Bay New Year’s Eve bash, it’s a venue that promises unforgettable memories.
If you decide to explore this piece of paradise on your own, there’s an Otehei Bay Ferry that’ll take you across to Urupukapuka Island. You can spend half a day here and enjoy this piece of paradise at your own pace.
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Alternatively, chartering a boat to Otehei Bay and spending a night here would be one of the most spellbinding experiences you can have in New Zealand, ranking high on the top things to do in Bay of Islands bucket list.
4. Russell: A Glimpse into New Zealand’s First Capital
It might be surprising to learn that Russell holds the title of being New Zealand’s first capital back in the 1840s. From its days known as the ‘Hellhole of the Pacific’ because of its lively past, Russell today is a calm and peaceful place, quite different from its old reputation.
At the heart of Russell, The Duke of Marlborough – New Zealand’s first licensed hotel, bar, and restaurant, stands proudly on the waterfront. Still in operation today, it offers not just a taste of history but also luxurious waterfront rooms for those wishing to extend their stay in Russell.
Discover the best of Bay of Islands accommodation: Paihia accommodation highlights, holiday homes in Russell, Kerikeri and Opua for your family’s dream escape.
Wandering through Russell, the old colonial buildings tell stories of days gone by. Among these historic gems is Christ Church, New Zealand’s oldest standing church, adding another layer to Russell’s historic charm.
If you’re curious to dive deeper into the town’s past, the local museum in Russell is packed with interesting tales and facts.
Among the boutique shops that dot Russell, one sign proclaiming “Best hot chocolate” particularly caught our attention. Drawn in, we decided to give Newport Chocolates a try. The hot chocolate was indeed indulgent and lived up to its rich promise, though a tad pricey. And while the chocolates were a treat, we felt the service didn’t quite mirror the brand’s premium feel, perhaps a busy day due to the influx of day-trippers from Paihia.
For our family, the essence of Russell was best captured in a leisurely walk along its waterfront. With our toddler peacefully napping after the Discover the Bay Cruise, it was a moment of pure simplicity. The Bay of Islands stretched out before us, and in that tranquil setting, we cherished the beauty of slow living and simply being present with each other.
This is also one of the top reasons why we recommend booking a holiday home in Russell. It’s a great base for families to check off all the things to do in Bay of Islands.
5. Dolphin Watching in the Bay of Islands
One of the most magical moments in the Bay of Islands is coming face-to-face with wild dolphins. These playful creatures are often seen leaping out of the water, chasing fish, or simply swimming alongside kayakers. Their curious nature and friendly demeanour make them a favourite among visitors, especially kids.
For those unfamiliar with the area or kayaking, there are several guided tours available, such as this Island & Wildlife Day Cruise. These tours are led by experienced guides who know the best spots for dolphin sightings. They also share fascinating insights about the local marine life and the bay’s ecology.
6. Kayaking in the Bay of Islands
Kayaking in the Bay of Islands is an experience like no other. The calm and clear waters make it suitable for both beginners and experienced kayakers. As you paddle, you’ll navigate through serene bays, past mangrove forests, and around rocky outcrops. The bay’s coastline is dotted with secluded beaches, perfect for a quick rest or a picnic.
If you’re a family with little ones, don’t let that deter you from kayaking in the Bay of Islands. Many operators offer double kayaks and may allow toddlers as young as one-year-old to sit at the front while you paddle at the back.
We’ve done our share of asking around New Zealand’s top kayaking spots, and while some operators might say no to young children for safety reasons, many are open to having kids on board if you’re experienced.
So if you love kayaking as much as we do, check with the kayak rental company before crossing it off your list. It’s genuinely one of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands with kids.
7. Waitangi Treaty Grounds
Just a stone’s throw away from Paihia, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds beckon with tales of New Zealand’s rich history. This site, where the Treaty of Waitangi was inked, stands as a testament to the nation’s journey and the harmonious melding of Maori and European cultures.
For families, it’s an immersive educational experience where children can grasp the essence of New Zealand’s past, understanding the pivotal moments that shaped the relationship between the Maori and European settlers. It’s a narrative that’s both profound and enlightening, making it a thing to do in Bay of Islands for anyone keen on delving into the country’s heritage.
But the Waitangi Treaty Grounds offer more than just history lessons. By booking a Waitangi Treaty Grounds Skip the Line 2-Day Pass, visitors can bypass queues and dive straight into the experience. One of the highlights is the Maori cultural show, a vibrant performance that brings Maori traditions and stories to life.
And for those with a penchant for authentic experiences, the Hangi & Concert Combo Package is a treat not to be missed. Here, you’ll get to savour hangi, a traditional Maori dish cooked in an earth oven. It’s a culinary journey that complements the cultural insights, rounding off your visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds perfectly.
8. Haruru Falls: A Hidden Gem Near Paihia
Just a 5-minute drive from the bustling town of Paihia lies a serene spot that has captured the hearts of many – Haruru Falls. This waterfall, though not the tallest or the grandest, has its own unique charm that makes it stand out.
While Paihia is known for its vibrant energy, Haruru Falls offers a peaceful retreat. The sound of the water crashing down, combined with the lush greenery surrounding the falls, creates a calming atmosphere. It’s the perfect spot to relax, have a picnic, or simply sit and reflect.
Haruru, which means “big noise” in Maori, has its own set of legends and stories. Local Maori tales speak of the unique horseshoe shape of the falls and its significance. When visiting, it’s worth taking the time to learn about these stories, adding depth to your experience.
And unlike many other waterfalls where you admire from a distance, Haruru’s one of the few waterfalls where you can get incredibly close to the cascading waters, feeling the cool mist on your face. For the more adventurous, there’s the opportunity to sit at the very top of the waterfall, feeling the rush of water beneath you. It’s a thrilling experience that’s bound to be one of the top things to do in Bay of Islands.
One of the best things about Haruru Falls is its accessibility. A short, well-maintained path leads you straight to the waterfall, making it suitable for visitors of all ages. Whether you’re pushing a pram, walking with toddlers, or accompanying elderly family members, everyone can enjoy the beauty of Haruru without any hassle.
For those who love capturing moments, Haruru Falls is a dream come true. The waterfall, with its unique shape and surrounding greenery, offers numerous angles and perspectives for that perfect shot. Whether you’re a professional with a smartphone or DSLR, the falls guarantee stunning photos.
9. Kerikeri: Local Secrets of the Bay
Just when you thought you’d seen the best waterfalls in the Bay of Islands, Kerikeri Rainbow Falls comes into the picture. Much like the Whangarei Falls, the Rainbow Falls offers a blend of natural beauty and adventure. Reaching the base of the falls is a breeze with a straightforward 10-minute hike. The path is well-trodden and suitable for visitors of all ages. As you approach, the sound of cascading water grows louder, building the anticipation. The highlight of the Rainbow Falls is undoubtedly the swimming hole at its base. The clear, cool waters beckon, offering a refreshing dip after your short hike. Surrounded by nature, swimming here feels like a rejuvenating embrace by Mother Earth.
But the charm of Kerikeri doesn’t end with the falls. Far from the usual tourist trail, Charlie’s Rock is where locals come to unwind. The natural pools formed by the lake are a favourite among kids, who can be seen splashing around, their laughter echoing in the air. For those seeking a quiet moment, Charlie’s Rock offers a tranquil retreat. Here, you can sit by the water’s edge, lost in your thoughts, or simply soak in the beauty around you. The gentle ripples in the water and the chirping of birds create a soothing soundtrack to your relaxation.
To truly immerse yourself in the history and culture of Kerikeri, consider joining a shore excursion. This guided tour not only takes you through the significant sites of the area but also includes a delightful lunch. It’s a comprehensive way to experience Kerikeri, blending its natural wonders with its rich history.
10. Horse Trekking in the Bay of Islands
For families looking to add a touch of adventure to their Kerikeri excursion, horse trekking offers a unique way to explore the stunning landscapes of the Bay of Islands. It’s not just about the thrill of riding; it’s about connecting with nature, bonding with these magnificent creatures, and seeing the bay from a completely different perspective.
Horse Trekking in the Bay of Islands is one of the most unique things to do in Bay of Islands with kids. This 1-hour trek is tailored to cater to both beginners and experienced riders, ensuring everyone feels comfortable and safe. As you meander through lush green trails, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the bay, with its shimmering waters and dotted islands.
What makes this trek even more special is the opportunity for families to bond. Parents and kids can ride side by side, sharing moments of wonder and excitement. Along the way, knowledgeable guides share tidbits about the local flora and fauna, making the journey both fun and educational.
For the little ones, the experience of interacting with the horses is in itself a joy. These gentle animals, with their calm demeanour, are perfect companions for kids, teaching them about trust and empathy.
Get your Horse Trekking Family Pass here »
Incorporating horse trekking into your Kerikeri itinerary promises a blend of adventure, learning, and unforgettable family moments. It’s a chance to step away from the usual tourist trails and truly immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Bay of Islands.
Your Next Chapter in the Bay of Islands
There you have it, adventurers and family explorers! We’ve journeyed together through the heartbeats and hidden corners of the Bay of Islands, and if there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s that this coastal wonderland is brimming with tales waiting for you to be a part of. From the gentle gallop of horses on verdant trails to the whispers of history echoing through Kerikeri, every moment here is a page in a storybook.
The Bay of Islands isn’t just about the places we’ve mentioned or the activities we’ve highlighted. It’s about the memories you’ll craft with your family, the laughter you’ll share when reminiscing through the photos, and the stories you’ll tell when you return home.
So dive into your own Bay of Islands saga. Let the winds guide you, let the waters beckon, and let the islands play host to your family’s next grand adventure. And if you’re wondering where to start, browse through the plethora of things to do in Bay of Islands and let the magic unfold. After all, the Bay is not just a destination; it’s a feeling, an experience, a memory in the making. Come, be a part of the Bay’s tapestry.
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