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Top 10 Things to Do in the Bay of Islands, NZ

New Zealand is a destination rich in natural beauty and cultural diversity, and the Bay of Islands is no exception to the rule. Like a shimmering jewel, this waterworld dazzles all who visit. Tick off these ten fabulous things to do.
Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands on New Zealand’s North Island ranks as one of the country’s top tourist draw cards.

The region’s stunning turquoise waters are punctuated by more than 140 islands of varying sizes, and you’ll find water activities of every description on offer. But equally, there’s a strong historical and cultural heritage to discover. At just three hours’ drive north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands is also easily accessible and offers a range of accommodation options to suit every budget.

Here are ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands.

Watch our video of ten top things to do on a North Island road trip:

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1. Enjoy a day on the bay

It will come as no surprise that getting out on the water is one of the top things to do in the Bay of Islands, and there are many different day cruise options depending on your budget and interests. Scheduled public cruises are a great way to see the highlights in a relatively short space of time, while full-day chartered trips usually involve sailing time on the bay, morning tea, an island stop, snorkelling, and lunch.

10 Best Things to Do in the Bay of Islands
Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise. Image: InterCity Group

The Bay of Islands is a haven for marine life and dolphin spotting cruises are hugely popular. Fullers Great Sights’ Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise includes a run out to the end of the Cape Brett Peninsula (stopping along the way to meet the resident dolphins and occasional whale), before setting a course for the famous Hole in the Rock on Motukokako Island. If the conditions are right on the day, you’ll get to cruise right through the sea cave tunnel. It’s quite a thrill!

2. Take a scenic walk to a waterfall

The bay itself isn’t the region’s only watery highlight. There are also some lovely waterfalls to see, which are easily accessed on foot. Try the Rainbow Falls Walk or the gentle meander to the Haruru Falls. The birdsong combined with the sound of running water along the way makes for a truly tranquil atmosphere.

Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands: Haruru Falls

3. Explore local towns and villages

The Bay of Islands is dotted with characterful towns and villages, and each of them has something special to offer. Paihia makes a great base for a stay in the region. Here you can book all your tours and transportation and there’s accommodation to suit every budget.

Kerikeri is set back from the ‘action’ of Paihia and is widely known for its gourmet produce, fabulous chocolates, boutique vineyards, art galleries, cafes and artisanal stores. For the best local eats, try the Plough and Feather gastropub or fabulous Maha Restaurant.

Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands: Russell

A short ferry ride from Paihia, ‘Romantic Russell’ is a favoured destination for honeymooners. It offers a relaxed atmosphere with cosy dining along the waterfront. The area is steeped in history. Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, and the original capital.

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4. Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the site where the historic Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Māori was signed in 1840, signifying the birth of New Zealand as a modern nation. The treaty remains the linchpin of race relations in New Zealand, and a visit to the treaty grounds is one of the must-dos in the Bay of Islands.

Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands
Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands: Visit the Waitangi Treaty Ground.

You’ll see the original European-style Treaty House (where the treaty was worded) and a carved Māori meeting-house that was built in 1940 to celebrate the treaty’s centenary.  The flagstaff designates where the treaty was actually signed.

5. Do a wreck dive

The Bay of Islands is a celebrated diving destination because of the many reefs and various shipwrecks to be found in its waters. The water is temperate and home to a variety of tropical fish species. Two of the most famous wrecks in the area are the Rainbow Warrior (the former flagship of Greenpeace) and HMNZS Canterbury. Each offers a unique diving experience. Paihia Dive operates dives at both sites.

6. Go grape grazing

While most people will be familiar with the blue chip Marlborough wine region of New Zealand, the Northland region’s subtropical climate provides something entirely different. Zesty chardonnays and pinot gris, spicy syrahs and peppery pinotages are the signature offerings. Top local wineries include Okahu Estate and The Landing.

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7. Paddle a war canoe

If you’re looking for a unique holiday experience, Taiamai Tours Heritage Journeys provides a rare insight into traditional Māori life by giving guests the opportunity to paddle the Bay of Islands in a 40-foot waka taua (war canoe)! Learn about a variety of customs, rituals and traditions along the way, while gaining a unique perspective of the bay.

Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands
Image: Taiamai Tours Heritage Journeys

8. Get a bird’s eye view on a scenic flight

For those willing to splurge a little, a scenic flight offers the ultimate view of the Bay of Islands. As well as enjoying a spectacular panorama of the coastline, you’ll get a better appreciation for the jumble of islands and small settlements that make up the region as a whole.

9. Tell tales of the one that got away on a fishing charter

Fishing is almost a national sport in New Zealand and the waters of the Bay of Islands provide myriad opportunities for anglers of all skill levels to toss in a line. There’s probably no game fishing area in the world that has yielded more record catches than the waters off this stretch of coastline. Book a fishing trip with Spot X Fishing Charters and attempt to topple the world records for striped marlin, yellowtail kingfish and snapper.

Ten of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands
Visit Kawakawa’s artistic loo block. Image: Alamy

10. Spend a penny on a work of art

The public toilet block in the main street of the town of Kawakawa (a 20-minute drive from Paihia) is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Golden orbs adorn the grass-tufted roof of this truly unique washroom, designed by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Inside, the tile work is extraordinary.

The toilet block is renowned internationally as a work of art, and the busloads of tourists who visit to take photographs far outnumber those who simply want to use the loo.

Browse our range of New Zealand tours and experiences here.

Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Depositphotos, Bigstock & Envato

Stephen Hodges

About the writer

Stephen Hodges left his full-time career as a teacher to embark on a three-year overseas adventure. While travelling, he worked as a grouse beater in Scotland, a chicken farmer on a Kibbutz in Israel, and a camp counsellor in France. On his return to Melbourne, Stephen set up a travel business and ran it successfully for six years. He still has a passion for the industry, and believes that you can find memorable and meaningful experiences in the most unlikely places — if you look hard enough.





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