The Bay of Islands is one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations, and for good reason.
Stunning natural beauty and over 144 islands make for an easily accessible aquatic playground, with activities like boating, fishing, sailing, snorkelling, paddleboarding, kayaking...the list goes on.
There’s also more to this area than meets the eye, as the area is rich in history and culture. Many of the pivotal moments in Aotearoa New Zealand’s story happened here, including the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (the Treaty of Waitangi), considered the country’s founding document, at what is now the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Quaint seaside towns like Russell have plenty of stories to share, from the site of the country’s first capital to the oldest licenced premise in the country. The Bay of Islands area extends well beyond the waters’ edge too, with inland villages like Kerikeri and Kawakawa to wander through, waterfalls to explore, historic and cultural sites, and unique attractions like the geothermal hot pools at Ngawha Springs.
Hidden gems in the Bay of Islands
- The mineral-rich geothermal hot pools at Ngawha Springs, near Kaikohe
- The cycling experiences like Waitangi Mountain Bike Park or the Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail
- The Old Packhouse Markets in Kerikeri where you can find the freshest local produce and incredible artisan products
- The five waterfalls in Kerikeri including the popular Waianiwaniwa Rainbow Falls
- The incredible walks like the Cape Brett Track, Te Maiki Flagstaff Hill, or the Bay of Islands Coastal Walkway
Towns and Villages
Discover the Bay of Islands
Paihia, Russell, Waitangi & Ōpua
These towns make up the visitor hub of the Bay of Islands and are an excellent base from which to explore the wider area. A range of activities depart from Paihia and Russell, including most boat cruises, sailing trips, passenger ferries, adventure activities and more. There are numerous dining options too, from over-the-water eateries, historic hotels and restaurants, and hilltop wineries. Russell has a fascinating history and hours can be spent wandering the town, tracing the history and browsing boutique stores. Ōpua is an attractive port settlement with handy facilities, and for those who arrive to Aotearoa New Zealand by sea, Ōpua is the easiest and primary port of entry. The vehicle ferry crosses from here to Okiato, connecting Russell to State Highway 1.
Urupukapuka is the largest island in the Bay, and a hub of activity. During the summer months the fully licenced café is open and there are loads of activities both on water and land, including kayaking, swimming, walking and hiking, and more! It is one of the seven main islands in Project Island Song, an over decade-long project that has returned the islands to a pest-free state and restored the natural eco-systems, creating a wildlife sanctuary. Exploring the island on foot is easy with numerous walking trail, and those who want to stay over are spoiled for choice with three Department of Conservation campsites. Other islands worth visiting include photogenic Waewaetorea Island, a peaceful and extremely picturesque island in the outer reaches of the Bay; iconic Motuarohia Roberton Island with its stunning twin lagoons, earning it the title of most photographed scene in the Bay; scenic Moturua Island with lush vegetation and crystal-clear waters; and of course, the distinctive Motukōkako Piercy Island with its iconic "Hole in the Rock".
Kawakawa, Kaikohe and Ōkaihau
These inland hidden gem towns are more than meets the eye. Kawakawa is a colourful quirky town, where Austrian-born New Zealand artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser settled. His legacy includes the bold, bright (and popular) public toilets in his unmissable artistic style, as well as Te Hononga Hundertwasser Memorial Park, a community and visitor centre that celebrates his connection to the small town. Kawakawa is also the only town in Aotearoa New Zealand to boast a railway track through the centre of its commercial main street, where the vintage engines take passengers from the quaint railway station at the southern end of town, along the main street and out into the countryside. Just south of Kawakawa are the spectacular Waiomio Glow-worm Caves.
Kaikohe and Ōkaihau are the heart of the mid-north and have a rich cultural and pioneering history. The Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail connects all three of these towns, and Kaikohe is an exceptionally good base, as both directions on the trail take a generally downhill route from here. Nearby to Kaikohe is the geothermal hot pool complex Ngawha Springs, where the mineral-rich healing waters have been attended for generations.
Kerikeri and Waipapa
Nature-lovers, knowledge seekers, and foodies will be charmed by Kerikeri, where historic and heritage sites, art and craft galleries, and vineyards and orchards sit side by side. At Kororipo Heritage Park you’ll find the Stone Store (Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building), Kemp House, Te Ahurea (Northland's Living Village and Cultural Experience) and the Kororipo Pa Site. Taitokerau Northland vintners can lay claim to cultivating their craft in Aotearoa New Zealand's oldest wine growing region, and today there are several excellent wineries in Kerikeri producing award-winning wines. This area is also known for its citrus and kiwifruit, so make sure you stop off at the roadside stalls – they are easy to spot as they’re generally right in front of orchards that are bursting with colour. If you can’t get enough, don’t miss The Old Packhouse Markets on Saturdays and Sunday mornings, which draw crowds from near and far, for delicious food, great coffee, local products, and arts and craft. Beautiful Kerikeri also has two 'Gardens of National Significance’ and the spectacular 27-metre curtain Waianiwaniwa Rainbow Falls are on the must-do list. The Rainbow Falls Walk is a short walk that begins in the carpark and leads to the top of Rainbow Falls where three platforms allow you to take in stunning views. A network of walks leads to four other waterfalls in the area. Waipapa plays a service town role to the outskirts of this area and boasts a large shopping centre with big box stores.
Te Rāwhiti, Cape Brett and Elliot Bay
Te Rāwhiti is a small beachfront town in the Bay of Islands, about 27km from Russell. This holiday haven with beautiful beaches, spectacular views, sailing, fishing and water sports is also a starting point for the Cape Brett walk. The coastal route from Te Rāwhiti to Ōakura is part of one of the Northland Journeys – The Secret Coast Route, which extends from Russell to Helena Bay. Rich in history, the drive from Te Rāwhiti to Ōakura will take you via Whangamumu, which is nestled into one of Taitokerau Northland’s most picturesque harbours and accessible only by private boat or the Whangamumu Track on Rāwhiti Road. Continuing on your journey you’ll pass a series of stunning bays and harbours – Elliot Bay, Taupiri Bay, Bland Bay/Whangaruru Peninsula and onto Ōakura Bay. Ōakura Bay is a beautiful east facing beach, almost a kilometre long adjacent to the deep-water entrance to the Whangaruru harbour. The area was reputedly named by Puhimoanariki, the captain of the legendary waka Mataatua. After searching for a long time Puhimoanariki found shelter from bad weather here. Whangaruru means ‘sheltered harbour’ in Te Reo Māori (the Māori language).