The Top 10 Things to do in Northland / the Bay of Islands & Surrounds, NZ


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.

10

Kayaking Adventures with Bay of Islands Kayaking

Bay of Islands Kayaking

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. "

Some of the tour operators who run the kayaking tours will 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 epicenter 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.

9

Take an Overnight Cruise

Overnight Cruises Bay of Islands

The diversity of the Bay of Islands and the quantity of individual spots to visit is wide and large, making it extremely challenging to take in a majority of its offerings within a single day. It's largely due to this that overnight cruises of the Bay are highly popular, as they allow for a more robust and comprehensive itinerary while still being able to maintain the laid-back vibe that most visitors are expecting of a destination such as this. Local operators such as GreatSights know this and have created a range of great schedules aboard comfortable vessels that will allow you to take in all the area's marine highlights while having a place to crash after you're all sight-and-sunned-out from the day's worth of sightseeing.

These cruises also tend to have a strong sense of community and friendly atmosphere as you'll come into close contact with fellow travellers from all over the globe, and be participating in a variety of activities for exploration and adventure together as well. The boats are built for stability and typically feature a host of on-board facilities to make life on the water that little bit more comfortable; bars, pool tables, spacious common areas and even an open fire can all be expected during your trip. Both open upper decks and large spacious windows are a staple of most boats, so regardless of the weather you'll have a comfortable spot from which to enjoy good views of the Bay of Islands' inherent beauty.

" Staying overnight also gives you the benefit of being able to experience the Bay of Islands at night time, which may not seem special in itself until you gaze up into the sky – the area's famously clean and clear skies make for some of the best stargazing in the north of New Zealand. "

The overnight cruises tend to make their way around the generally calm waters of the Bay of Islands as the crew point out various regional highlights, while making various stops throughout the course of their journey to allow you to participate in the likes of snorkelling, fishing, kayaking and more. You'll also get the chance to disembark at certain points (Robertson Island is a favourite) for a bit of a walk & talk and view from the land. Staying overnight also gives you the benefit of being able to experience the Bay of Islands at night time, which may not seem special in itself until you gaze up into the sky – the area's famously clean and clear skies make for some of the best stargazing in the north of New Zealand.

The only downside to an overnight adventure can be the price, which typically decreases or increases depending on what type of room you're looking for (if you're willing to share with a group the cost can drop significantly), but if you factor in the cost of what booking accommodation, paying for meals and all other inclusions would be, it can work out to be quite cost-efficient and well worth your while. Our preferred operator is GreatSights; you can book a tour with them by clicking below.

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8

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands region also encompasses part of the North Island's mainland rather than just the islands themselves, and one of the focal points of the area is the historic town of Kerikeri. While the town is charming and rich with history and culture, it's the nearby natural attraction of Rainbow Falls that makes a visit here even more worthwhile. Getting their power from the waters of the Kerikeri River, the falls are situated in a wonderfully scenic and serene spot that is accessible by either a 4km walk (takes about 1.5 hours), a shorter and more arduous and steep walk, or a drive-and-walk combination that can save your legs that little bit extra energy.

Taking the longer walk to the falls is highly recommended, as you'll follow the course of the river and be exposed to some scenic examples of New Zealand's north island nature along the way, with the songs of birds combining with the running water to make for a truly tranquil atmosphere.

" Taking the longer walk to the falls is highly recommended, as you'll follow the course of the river and be exposed to some scenic examples of New Zealand's north island nature along the way, with the songs of birds combining with the running water to make for a truly tranquil atmosphere. "

The hike isn't particularly strenuous, either, so people of all fitness levels will be fine to participate, and upon arriving at the falls you'll see that the effort was worth it – even moreso if there has been recent rainfall as the falls will be flowing freely. Visiting during a sunny morning is advised as if you get your timing right, you'll be able to see why the falls have their name – a rainbow effect is created as the sunlight refracts through the water, which adds a charming touch to what is already a lovely area and makes for a great subject for photography.

While the falls are only of a moderate height, their strong flow and the surrounds they're in more than make up for this. The waterfall creates a pool below that is a popular spot for a quick swim, and is great for washing off some of the sweat caused by the humidity of the summer months, while the area surrounding the falls and the pool are a prime spot for a picnic and also have toilet facilities available.

While it may not be as consistently stunning as some of New Zealand's official “Great Walks”, the walk provides a highly enjoyable – and completely free – activity to take part in during your time in the Bay of Islands that showcases an entirely different type of scenery to that of the more ocean-focused things to do.

7

Visit Cape Reinga / 90 Mile Beach

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.

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6

Go Diving

Diving Bay of Islands 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.

Various PADI-certified diving operators are available to choose from in the region, and they'll do their best to assess your skill level and take you to the most appropriate dive site in the Bay or beyond (some trips require heading to the Cavalli Islands). 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.

5

Dolphin Swimming and Spotting Cruises

Dolphin Cruises Bay of Islands

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 the official tour operators in the Bay of Islands are all licensed to actively seek out the dolphins themselves (as there is a strict set of regulations in place dictacting 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.

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4

Scenic Flights over the Bay of Islands

Bay of Islands Scenic Flights

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 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 seaplane 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.

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3

Take a Sailing Cruise

Bay of Islands Sailing 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 sail. 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.

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2

Visit the Hole in the Rock

Hole in the Rock Cruise 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.

"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."

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 boat journey nicely before making the return trip.

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.

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1

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

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

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In addition, if you're looking for more things to do in the Bay of Islands including some of the best tours, attractions and activities, be sure to check out our main region section to browse for more information online.

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