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The Top Things to do in Bay of Islands

Looking for things to do in the Bay of Islands? Near the remote northern-most tip of New Zealand’s North Island, the Bay of Islands is considered a favourite holiday destination for both Kiwis and international visitors alike. The Bay enjoys a balmy, sub-tropical climate with high sunshine hours perfect for enjoying the sweeping white sand beaches, and making the most of a myriad of marine activities for which this region is renowned. Game fishing, nature cruises, sailing, diving and kayaking are all popular pastimes in this picturesque region full of history and the birthplace of modern NZ.

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

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New Zealand's wonderfully scenic Bay of Islands off the north-eastern tip of NZ's north island has long been a travel paradise for all things aquatic, as renowned for its bevy of marine life as it is for its spectacular series of islands, each which feature something a little different – yet no less beautiful – than the next.

Rich in both history and geography, the region is home to numerous highlights both natural and man-made, with some exhibiting European influences and other steeped in Maori tradition all within just a few hour's drive from Auckland. If you're planning to visit this amazing archipelago and its 144 islands during your trip to New Zealand, here's our detailed breakdown of the top things to do in the Bay of Islands.

1. Waitangi Treaty Grounds

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Location: Tau Henare Dr, Waitangi, Bay of Islands

If history is a focal point during your travels, then there are few places of greater significance to you in the Bay of Islands than the excellent Waitangi Treaty Grounds - much less in all of New Zealand.

As the site where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed between the Maori locals and the British Crown, formally establishing the partnership between the two cultures, it's a spot that played – and continues to play – an important part in New Zealand's history.

Throughout the Grounds you'll find various well-presented displays and multimedia presentations which offer insights into Maori culture and its customs that are both educational and entertaining, while daily cultural performances which are put on for the public are must-do's and encourage audience involvement (someone will get to become “chief”!).

There's also the chance to enjoy a traditionally-prepared hangi meal that's both delicious and healthy – a nod to the “simpler” methods of food preparation of years past.

"If history is your thing, then there are few places that will be of greater significance to you than the Waitangi Treatry Grounds in all of New Zealand, much less just the Bay of Islands."

Located roughly 2km from Paihia and set in an impressive location that looks out over the Bay of Islands, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a well set-up exhibition which features various attractions within its boundaries such as the historic Treaty House (build back in 1833 and the spot where the actual document was signed and which now serves as a kind of museum), the Meeting House (called whare runanga in the Maori tongue, which is a carved building commemorating the 100th anniversary of the treaty's signing) and the world's biggest ceremonial war canoe.

Taking a guided tour while there is highly recommended, as the guides are renowned for taking things one step further and providing solid, detailed explanations of everything on site while also responding well to any questions you may have on the grounds' history or any specific items of significance.

As one of the true locations in the country that encapsulates everything “New Zealand” is all about, the Waitingi Treaty Grounds should be an inclusion on your NZ travel itinerary whether you're specifically planning to visit the Bay of Islands or travelling more generally.

2. Visit the Hole in the Rock

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Location: Motukokako Island, NZ

While its name might not sound that impressive, this formation is one of the most well-known signs that you're in the Bay of Islands. Located at Piercy Island at the very northern tip of Cape Brett, the Hole in the Rock has great value both from a cultural and a sightseeing perspective as its historic association with sacred customs and unique visual formation make it of the region's most iconic attractions.

Many cruises of the Bay of Islands use the Hole in the Rock as their focal point, as the journey to its rocky face is scenic in its own right and allows you to take in a bevy of the marine life the Bay of Islands is famous for along the way; dolphins and whales are both common sights in the surrounding waters.

Passing through the Hole in the Rock is said in Maori legend to bestow a blessing upon warriors as they paddle off to battle, and while it's always one of the goals of cruise operators during their tours (affectionately called “threading the needle”), weather and sea conditions such as swells and tides can sometimes make this impossible.

"The Hole in the Rock has great value both from a cultural and a sightseeing perspective, as its historic association with sacred customs and unique visual formation make it of the region's most iconic attractions."

It still maintains its impressive state when viewed from afar, however; the hole is an expansive 18 metres (60 feet) wide, and has been formed over thousands of years by the combined etchings of both wind and wave and its rock walls are nothing if not formidable. It's a strangely satisfying and emotional experience, if rather touristy, and caps off the journey nicely before making the return trip.

Those looking to visit the Hole in the Rock will have multiple options for doing so, by both sea and air - operators Fullers Greatsights and Explore Bay of Islands both offer quality boat-borne journeys that see you navigating the hole itself when the tides are cooperative, while Salt Air offer scenic flights which provide an unforgettable perspective on this distinctive formation.

Combining scenery with mythology and wildlife with a ruggedly beautiful seascape, the Hole in the Rock makes for the ideal destination for a cruise and deserves its monicker as one of the Bay of Islands' true icons.

3. Go Sailing

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Location: Bay of Islands, NZ

In a similar vein to the scenic flights above, one of the more exclusive ways to get away from the crowds and explore the Bay of Islands' offerings is on a sailing adventure, which differs from one of the more standard cruises by having a smaller number of passengers and encouraging you to get involved with the act of sailing rather than just being a passive observer.

Sailing plays a large part of New Zealand's culture in general, and there are few more “NZ” experiences then enjoying a sail through such a scenic part of the country.

Passages between most of the islands in the bay are relatively short, which allows sailing vessels to wind their way from one to the next and disembark to explore their many natural offerings.

"Sailing plays a large part of New Zealand's culture in general, and there are few more “NZ” experiences then enjoying a sail through such a scenic part of the country."

It's a common sight to see various parts of the Bay of Islands dotted with sail boats both operated by tour companies as well as by private owners enjoying the lovely surroundings, and there are also charter options for visitors to sail themselves with tuition available for those who need a hand learning the art of sailing.

While the Bay of Islands' more open areas can sometimes be exposed to winds from the East and North, there are plenty of more sheltered harbour areas, coves and inlets to explore each with their own charming little discoveries to be made in what is on the whole quite a compact body of water to navigate.

The Bay's four main islands offer plenty of shore-based exploration opportunities, with some showcasing nature while others provide a more historic emphasis.

Itineraries and tours for sailing in the Bay of Islands are many and varied, with some being half-day mini-doses of yachting fun while others include meals and more extended, pre-planned courses; hoever the majority depart from the ports of both Paihia and Russell and then head out accordingly.

Combining serenity with scenery, flexibility with fun and less noise and a more relaxed vibe than your general Bay of Islands cruise, sailing provides one of the most authentic and rustically enjoyable ways to get your dose of NZ sightseeing action.

4. Scenic Flights with Salt Air

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Location: Paihia, Bay of Islands, NZ

If you're looking for the ultimate way to explore the Bay of Islands and are willing to splurge a little, then there are a few ways to get a more impressive viewpoint than from the air with local tour operator Salt Air.

Granting a spectacular panorama of stunning coastline and untamed island scenery, depending on your chosen itinerary you'll see the likes of local highlights the Hole in the Rock, Cape Reinga, Waipoua Forest and plenty of small coastal settlements which can be found in the greater Bay of Islands area.

Both helicopter and light plane flights are available from suppliers in the region, with each type offering their own benefits and drawbacks; a plane can cover more distance in quicker time, while a helicopter allows more flexibility in performing island landings, for example – which of these matters the most will be entirely up to you (and your wallet) to decide.

"If you're looking for the ultimate way to explore the Bay of Islands and are willing to splurge a little, then there are few ways to get a more impressive viewpoint than from the air."

Many of the available scenic flight itineraries depart from Paihia then make their way north past Whangaroa Harbour and continue over the various other harbours, beaches and bays before stopping and making a landing at one of various locales, giving you the chance to explore some of the Bay of Islands' more remote areas on foot – often accompanied by experienced Maori guides who will give you more insight into the history and culture of that particular island, with a walk through the world's largest Kauri Forest a noteworthy itinerary inclusion.

While in the air you'll also get a dose of commentary from the pilots who know the area like the back of their hand from years of picking out the region's best spots and local highlights.

After the flight experience is over you'll also typically have the option of purchasing a DVD/media pack that features professionally taken photography and footage to commemorate the occasion (albeit at additional cost). In short, while cruises of the Bay of Islands are amazing, if you're short on time or have a bit of extra cash to spare, then it's hard to match the spectacle on offer when viewing this incredible slice of New Zealand's nature from above.

5. Swim with Dolphins with Fullers GreatSights

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Location: The Wharf, Bay of Islands, NZ

As mentioned, marine life is one of the main drawcards to the Bay of Islands region, and one of the best examples of this is its large number of Bottlenose and common dolphins which can be found in its waters all year round.

These inquisitive, friendly and highly social creatures enjoy the Bay due to its sheltered, warm waters and will often approach visiting vessels by their own will, however tour operators Fullers GreatSights in the Bay of Islands are licensed to actively seek out the dolphins themselves (as there is a strict set of regulations in place dictating procedure for interacting with marine mammals set down by the New Zealand government).

Often said to be one of life's true “bucket list” items, swimming with dolphins can provide you with a whole new perspective on how these delightful ocean dwellers behave; to see them in their own habitat free and unrestricted by glass is truly something else.

Along the way, you'll learn about dolphin behaviour and history of their impact on the region as well, which when combined with the scenic pleasantry of cruising through the islands themselves makes this an overall very satisfying adventure package.

"Often said to be one of life's true “bucket list” items, swimming with dolphins can provide you with a whole new perspective on how these delightful ocean dwellers behave; to see them in their own habitat free and unrestricted by glass is truly something else."

Dolphin-viewing vessels are purpose-built to help enhance the sightseeing and swimming experience, with many equipped to have as minimal an impact on the dolphins as possible; low viewing decks let you get closer to the water, while underwater microphones amplify their sounds and water-jet engines create the smallest possible disturbance in the surrounding waters.

To cap it all off, most Bay of Islands dolphin cruise operators will offer a “dolphin sighting guarantee” to ensure you get a free return trip if (on the rare chance) no dolphins are spotted during your time on the water, which only serves to add an extra layer of reassurance when booking.

If you've got a fascination with marine life or simply wanting to get a taste of what it's like to come face to face with one of nature's most treasured creatures, this is a must-do while visiting the Bay of Islands.

6. Scuba Diving with Paihia Dive

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Location: Bay of Island, NZ

The Bay of Islands is a renowned diving destination that is quite the adventure playground for underwater enthusiasts due to the many reefs and shipwrecks which can be found in its waters.

The waters of this region are temperate, and play a large part in attracting various kinds of tropical fish to the area such as Gold Ribbon Groupers, Lord Howe Coralfish, stingrays and numerous other schools of smaller fishes that tend to congregate among the wrecks that form ideal dive sites in their own right.

The Paihia area is the main focus of diving in the Bay of Islands region, and is home to the wrecks of both the Rainbow Warrior (former flagship of Greenpeace) and HMNZS Canterbury, each of which offer their own unique diving experience.

The 40m length of the Rainbow Warrior provides plenty of fish to take in while various kinds of anemones add a dash of colour to the proceedings, while the Canterbury serves as the tranquil home for a variety of other aquatic species including John Dory, Leather Jackets and even the occasional octopus.

"The Bay of Islands' reefs, meanwhile, make for a unique dive with a subtropical climate and some of the world's largest stingrays, which can grow as large as three metres across!"

The Bay of Islands' reefs, meanwhile, make for a unique dive with a subtropical climate and some of the world's largest stingrays, which can grow as large as three metres across! The number of reefs in the Bay of Islands is almost as numerous as the islands themselves, with Putahataha Island being a favourite due to its consistently high level of visibility and accessibility for both newer and experienced divers alike.

The shallows of the reefs are full of marine life, while further out in deeper waters various caves open up and are ripe for exploration, home to some of the more weird and wonderful ocean dwellers such as moray eels and crayfish.

Operator Paihia Dive offer quality dive trips in the region, and do their best to assess your skill level and take you to the most appropriate dive site in the Bay or beyond.

Regardless of if you're a newly-certified diver or a vet looking to challenge yourself further, the variety of diving in the Bay of Islands ensures there's something for everybody to come away with a memorable marine adventure.

7. Cape Reinga & 90 Mile Beach

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Location: Cape Reinga, NZ

While not technically "in" the Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga is a popular day trip area on the mainland several hours' drive north of the Bay of Islands renowned for its vast, untouched level of beauty blending expansive and pristine beach, with stretches of lush Puketi kauri forest and regional architectural highlights into a single comprehensive sightseeing destination.

The Cape is situated in a location where both the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet and produce some interesting wave patterns, with the vivid blues of both contrasting beautifully with the vibrant greenery of the land that sits just alongside it. It's in this way that Cape Reinga stands out; the area blends rolling Northland-style rural countryside with thick forest, ruggedly beautiful coastline and views of the ocean in postcard-worthy fashion.

Cape Reinga is famous for its relative lack of civilisation; there are few restaurants or towns here, and commercial development is basically nonexistent, which while it can be a bit of an inconvenience if travelling yourself, only helps increase the sense that you're truly getting “off the beaten track” with a proper getaway.

One of the Cape's key attractions is the picturesque 90 Mile Beach – a stretch of coast that is popular both due to its stunning sunsets and for its quality of surfing – which covers a vast distance and is explorable via 4WD vehicle (only driven by licensed tour guides , by the way).

The beach's sand dunes are a popular venue for engaging in a spot of sandboarding, while digging for shellfish in the sand can provide a little added local keepsake from your trip.

"The Cape is situated in a location where both the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet and produce some interesting wave patterns, with the vivid blues of both contrasting beautifully with the vibrant greenery of the land."

Perhaps the area's most famous man-made icon is its lighthouse, which sits proudly atop a hill on the peninsula overlooking the sea and was built back in 1941. It's a popular focal point for photography and sightseeing with a charming facade, however it's not open to the public, so you'll have to be satisfied with external views.

History and culture also play a large role here, as the Cape has a special spiritual significance to the Maori people, and Maori guides are available to hire who can grant you access to some of the more restricted places of the area for an in-depth show-and-tell of its various legends and highlights. Plaques are also available along the track to the lighthouse which outline the area's history in summary form.

While getting to Cape Reinga requires a fairly large investment of time due to its isolation, if you're on the North Island and wanting to visit an area of pretty contrasts away from civilisation, there are few better places on the mainland to do so.

8. Parasailing with Flying Kiwi Parasail

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Location: 69 Marsden Rd, Paihia

Take to the skies and fly high above the Bay of Islands on an exciting parasail with Flying Kiwi Parasail.

This water sports activity is one of the most popular ways to discover the beautiful islands and waterways of any coastal region and the Bay of Islands are no different.

The chance to get airborne is an exhilarating experience that can be shared with up to three people during one parasail flight and absolutely no experience is necessary.

Strap yourself in and hold on tight as you float above Paihia to admire the turquoise coloured waters and golden shores of the Bay of Islands. A few dolphins along the way may even join you during the adventure.

The boats used by Flying Kiwi Parasail have been purpose built for parasailing and at full speed and height you can be floating above the Bay of Islands at 1,200 feet-the highest parasail towline in New Zealand!

It is quite the thrill to be floating high up above Paihia taking in the views of the picturesque coastline with flights lasting approximately 10 minutes and the entire duration lasts 1.5 hours.

Some people may feel a little nervous about the take off and landings but the process is smooth as you stand on the back deck of the boat as the towline slowly releases you into the air.

"The boats used by Flying Kiwi Parasail have been purpose built for parasailing and at full speed and height you can be floating above the Bay of Islands at 1,200 feet-the highest parasail towline in New Zealand!"

If you do want to ramp up the adrenaline of this parasailing experience then a water landing where your legs touch the water can be requested.

Parasail flights can accommodate a single, tandem or triple riders as long as the minimum and maximum height requirements are reached.

While cruises around the Bay can take you closer to the shores of these beautiful islands, the only way that you can see all 140 subtropical islands and their lush greenery is from the air.

Enjoy the ride as the views of the Bay of Islands unfold before your eyes on a parasail at up to 1,200 feet.

This activity can be taken in the morning or afternoon with regular time slots available throughout the day to suit your itinerary.

So, go on and give it a try for a fun and memorable holiday experience in the Bay of Islands that will always stick in your mind.

9. Puketi Forest Walks with Adventure Puketi

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Location: Puketi Forest, Paihia, Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is a region filled with contrasting landscapes from secluded bays and beaches to rugged coastlines and rock formations but step away from the water’s edge and you will find yourself immersed in the tranquil, ancient rainforest of Puketi Forest.

The Bay of Islands is lesser known for its Kauri Rainforest than its 140 sub tropical islands but this is a fact that only adds to its mysterious beauty.

Take a walk through the uncrowded forest and be wowed by the giant Kauri Trees that are estimated to be over 2,000 years old on short 10 minute walks or longer 2 day treks for the seasoned hiker.

Puketi Forest is approximately 30 minutes drive from Paihia, the centre of the Bay of Islands and a visit to the forest offers guests a chance to unwind amongst nature to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere while viewing the native flora and fauna of the Bay of Islands.

The Puketi Nature Trail is a circuit walk on a raised boardwalk and is just one way that you can gain an insight into the rainforest and native plants.

"The Bay of Islands is lesser known for its Kauri Rainforest than its 140 sub tropical islands but this is a fact that only adds to its mysterious beauty."

A guided tour can add another layer to your experience of the rainforest with locals sharing with you the fascinating history, culture and knowledge of the rainforest ecosystem and wildlife that inhabit this region.

Adventure Puketi is one such operator that run eco tours to the ancient Puketi Forest with local guides who not only know every trail within the forest but are passionate about conservation and can accurately tell you all about the native flora and fauna that you come across throughout the tour.

Choose between a half day, full day or night time walk for a more comprehensive experience of the Puketi Kauri Rainforest in the Bay of Islands.

Tours are suitable for all fitness levels with the forest walks low impact to cater for young children right through to the elderly.

So lace up your shoes and join this guided tour into Puketi rainforest with transfers, meals, refreshments and informative commentary included making for a great day trip exploring a different side to the Bay of Islands.

10. Kayaking Adventures with Coastal Kayakers

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Location: Bay of Islands, NZ

Being an archipelago, the Bay of Islands is all about water exploration, and there are few ways to get more of an intimate and up-close look at all its natural offerings than by kayak.

The Bay of Islands offers some of the best sea kayaking in New Zealand due to the relatively sheltered nature of its waters, and tours with Bay of Islands Kayaking take advantage of the proximity of one island to the next coupled with the sheer number of islands on offer so that you'll never have to paddle too great a distance to discover the next wondrous sight.

It's also a great way to take in some of the history and other highlights of the region as you'll be able to explore local points of significance such as mangrove forests, Haruru Falls and the completely unpopulated Motumaire Island.

Kayaking allows much more freedom in stopping and exploring the little, more hidden gems that cruises cannot, and this truly comes in handy given that the coastlines of many of the islands are dotted with small, golden beaches and plenty of scenic outlooks that offer breathtaking views over the Bay.

The ability to stop and enjoy a picnic on a completely secluded beach with no one else around only serves to add to the sense of isolation, and given that kayaking requires only a moderate level of fitness it can be a great option for both single adults and families with kids alike.

"Kayaking allows much more freedom in stopping and exploring the little, more hidden gems that cruises cannot, and this truly comes in handy given that the coastlines of many of the islands are dotted with small, golden beaches and plenty of scenic outlooks."

Operators Coastal Kayakers can even take you first via cruise boat up into rivers in the heart of an island then transfer you to a kayak so that you may explore the very centre of their nature and experience a variety of environments throughout the journey.

Lush surrounds intermingle with the calls of various bird life and even tumbling waterfalls to create a truly escapist adventure experience, and options are typically available for everything from simple half-day “taste of the islands” tours all the way up to more epic, multi-day adventures that include overnight stays and/or camping as part of their itinerary.

Departure points for Bay of Islands kayaking tours typically head out from either Paihia, Russell or Waitangi and each feature their own little quirks and favourite spots; they're all of a generally high quality however, and the local guides are renowned for the pride they take in providing the best experience possible.

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