Whether you’re on a weekend getaway from Auckland or a North Island road trip, the scenic Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s best coastal retreats. From historical buildings to beach days, from scenic island hopping to great hiking, there is something to do in the Bay of Islands for everyone.
There are a few fantastic places to base yourself in the Bay of Islands, with Kerikeri and Paihia both being great options. I chose Kerikeri for its gorgeous riverside accommodations and felt far from the city sounds closer to my base in Auckland.
Where is the Bay of Islands and how to get there?
The Bay of Islands is in the Northland region of New Zealand, not far from the tip of the country. Roadtrippers may include Kerikeri in a longer road trip reaching up to Cape Reinga – the very highest point in NZ.
For Aucklanders, you can drive to the Bay of Islands in three to four hours, traffic dependent. The majority of the drive is pretty straight forwards – just follow the state highway 1 going North and you’ll eventually see signs to Paihia or Kerikeri – through some pleasant countryside.
You can also take an intercity bus from Auckland to Paihia (four hours) which also stops at Whangarei. Alternatively, many tours and cruises are available.
Things to do in Kerikeri, Bay of Islands
Kerikeri: waterfall walks, coastal drives and New Zealand’s oldest building
STONE STORE & KENT HOUSE
Kent House was built in 1821-22 by missionary carpenters and Māori sawyers in a Georgian design.
The Stone Store, New Zealand’s oldest stone building, was built in 1832. Initially a missionary warehouse that later became everything from a library and boys’ school, to a barracks and trading post. Today, the building has been reimagined once again as a gift store, while a museum remains upstairs.
These buildings were both built as part of the Kerikeri Mission Station which was established in 1819. It is now famous for being one of the first places in which Māori chiefs invited visitors to live alongside them. This makes it an important part of New Zealand history.
Visitors can take a guided tour to better understand its significance, or roam heritage gardens for a relaxing day out.
This ancient Māori settlement dates back to around 1774 and is just a short walk from Kent House. Built in on a fortified hill with strategic lookouts over the river, you can still imagine the layout of the once important tribe of Hongi Hika – the Māori chief who also protected the Mission and his tribe.
From Kororipo Pa, you also have views back over the river towards Kent House and the Stone Store. The river made this area an important and strategic landing and meeting places – since this area was seeing ever increasing foreign ships – alongside tribal warfare – its not hard to imagine the importance of powerful tribes like this one.
From here it is also a short walk to ‘Rewas Village’ – a replica Māori fishing village and a garden
RAINBOW FALLS TRACK
The Rainbow Falls track is ideal for anyone staying nearby to Kent House or this section of the river since you can walk there directly along the Kerikeri River Track. I was able to walk there directly from my campsite, Pagoda Lodge, from which it took ninety minutes each way.
This track is not too steep or strenuous, though you could also drive closer to Rainbow Falls if you wish.
From Kent House, take the bridge over the river. From here, turn left to begin the track, which is signposted.
Along the path, you will also cross another waterfall – Wharepuke Waterfall – before you reach Rainbow Falls, and it’s a great way to enjoy the local forestry and fauna.
Rainbow Falls itself 27m high and a beautiful sight through the native fauna from above, though you can walk closer to the top for multiple perspectives,
If you still want to visit more waterfalls during your stay, Charlie’s Rock Waterfall (popular for swimming) and Wairoa Stream Waterfalls are also nearby.
Among the wineries in Kerikeri include Marsden Estate, Cottle Hill and Ake Ake. You can take a wine tour or visit directly – just check opening times in advance.
If you prefer something equally delicious but non alcoholic, stop at the Makana Chocolate Factory.
A place to tread carefully and enjoy the native wildlife, Aroha Island is a bird sanctuary best known for its local kiwis. For the chance of spotting one, book a night walk, or visit during the day to take a more casual nature walk.
MATAURI BAY, TAURANGA BAY & WHANGAROA HARBOUR LOOP DRIVE
This loop takes a total of two hours of driving and is a fantastic way to see what this coastline has to offer in a short time.
There are panoramic views over the islands from this winding, elevated drive. The two beaches were well worth it for anyone after some picturesque scenery.
Alternatively, you could simply enjoy a beach day at Matauri Bay, which is 45-minutes north to drive.
RELAX BY THE KERIKERI RIVER
I loved stopping by the river, with its overgrown wildflowers and clear, bubbling waters. It may also be possible to swim here depending on where you stop – in this section, it was too slippery underfoot.
Families staying in Kerikeri or Paihia may also be interested in visiting the following attractions:
- the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway
- Parrot Place
Kerikeri is famous for its citrus and kiwis, so don’t miss out on tasting their perfectly fresh fruit if you pass a roadside stall.
Things to do in Paihia, Bay of Islands
Paihia is a 25-minute drive from Kerikeri.
Paihia is the location of the important Waitangi Treaty Grounds – where the New Zealand’s founding document was signed
WAITANGI TREATY GROUNDS
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a large museum complex including historic buildings, the award-winning Te Kongahu Museum of Waitangi, a carving studio and the largest ceremonial war canoe in the world. Plus a visitor centre and cafe.
The day pass also includes the opportunity to do a guided tour (50 minutes) and view a Cultural Performance (30 minutes).
Adult prices are $50 for non-residents and $25 for NZ residents (ID is required.) Children under 18 enter for free when visiting with a parent or caregiver.
VIEWS OVER THE BAY (FROM WAITANGI GOLF COURSE)
Thankfully, for those of us on a low budget, a drive around the golf course next to Treaty Grounds is free.
PAIHIA – OPUA WALKWAY
I loved the Opua walk, complete with its many unique skinny trees and the winding path – the views over Paihia and Russell at the end are great too. Perfect for anyone who enjoys woodland walks and the sound of cicadas!
Haruru Falls are an easy visit since they are only a 1-minute walk from the car park. However, you can also enjoy them on a 2.5-hour walk along the Waitangi Track, which connects the falls with the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Haruru Falls are only 5m tall but still make an impression due to their width and the easily accessible Rockside lookout.
Paihia Beach is a popular local beach suitable with shallow waters suitable for families.
Personally, it was too cold for me to swim here when I visited in early January. However, I must just be a wimp, because plenty of other people took a dip here!
Tip: myself and my vegan friend ate lunch at Orange Frog Cafe which had a large selection of vegan meal options.
More things to do in the Bay of Islands
Did you know that Russell was the first capital of New Zealand? It was the first European settlement in New Zealand, once known as ‘Kororareka’, and New Zealand’s first seaport too!
Catch a passenger ferry from Paihia or a vehicle ferry from Opua. You can drive too, but it will take 40-minutes rather than five!
Things to do in Russell include:
- Visit Oneroa Bay (also known as ‘Long Beach’) for a family friendly swimming spot
- Walk up to the top of Maiki Hill (Flag Staff Hill) for awesome 360 views back over the islands.
- Visit Russell Museum to learn more about its history.
- Walk around the oldest Roman Catholic building in NZ – the Pompallier Mission and Printery. Alongside visiting the building, you can also enjoy the Victorian and Edwardian gardens, and enjoy fantastic views from the hillside walk.
SNORKELLING AND DIVING
It’s probably no surprise that the Bay of Islands has more to explore beneath the surface! Snorkelling tours usually leave from Paihia or Russell and often include trips to the ‘Deep Water Cove’ protected marine reserve.
Diving enthusiasts can also dive in the shipwreck ‘Rainbow Warrior’.
Tip: Be sure to wear reef-safe sunscreen when swimming in protected areas around the world.
For a free snorkelling point, check out Wairoa Bay (near Paihia) and look out for fish and stingrays too!
BOAT TRIPS – DOLPHIN CRUISES AND ‘THE HOLE IN THE ROCK’
Despite being one of the more famous ways to spend a day in the Bay of Islands, you’ll have to budget for these picturesque cruises – adult prices are hard to come by under $100.
However, alongside dolphin spotting (and potentially swimming with dolphins if you get lucky!), there are some great sights best seen by boat. These include Cape Brett, native birds and wildlife, and the hole in the rock.
BOAT TRIPS – SEE THE ISLANDS
Other boat trip options will allow you to island-hop amongst the serene natural scenery best explored by boat. Some of the most beautiful spots to include on a day trip are Motuarohia Island (which has fantastic views if you hike to the peak), the beautiful Twin Lagoon Bay and relaxing or hiking on Urupukapuka Island.
This is also a way to better understand the routes Captain James Cook once made through this region bay in 1769.
NATURAL ATTRACTIONS NEARBY:
- NGAWHA SPRINGS – geothermal hot springs
- WAIPOUA FOREST – giant kauri trees
- KAWITI GLOW WORM CAVES – the highest-rated glow worm caves in New Zealand
- RAWAWA AND MATAI BEACHES – one hour north of Kerikeri and some of the best beaches around
WHERE I STAYED IN KERIKERI
Camping is a great and affordable way to visit the Bay of Islands. This is especially the case if you’re visiting in the Summer; while the best time to visit New Zealand is still up for debate, this coastal region definitely exceeds expectations in sunny weather.
I spent my time in the Bay of Islands camping at PAGODA LODGE, KERIKERI. They do have ‘glamping’ tents, with cute decks, set up which looked very nice. However, we took our own tent.
Pagoda Lodge has a beautiful and spacious communal decking area overlooking Kerikeri River, with an assortment of picnic tables and comfy chairs available. There is also a communal kitchen (with ample equipment available) and a cute gazebo with fairy lights and charging points too.
There are four showers available with hot water between 7am to 9am and 7pm to 9pm, alongside separate men’s and women’s toilets. These were always clean when I used them.
The reception staff were always friendly and have lots of information available about the local area – from activities to local walks and restaurants, and how to book them.
The campsite has a sweet, family-owned vibe which I enjoyed.
Hi, I’m Cassie, and I’ve been solo travelling the globe since May 2018. In this time, I’ve backpacked around Southeast Asia, Japan and The Balkans, alongside spending a year living in Australia. Currently isolating in New Zealand.