New Zealand’s Bay of Islands attracts international visitors as well as locals. We go year after year for an eclectic mix of adventure and relaxation. We bring overseas guests to help them discover the key to the country’s history. There are so many things to do in Bay of Islands, just never enough time.
Visitors enjoy safe beaches, striking sunsets, hiking, exciting water sports, and an overall family-friendly attitude. Plus, the region is overflowing with cultural opportunities and historic sites.
If you are planning a visit, you will want to read the recommendations and tips below. If not planning, perhaps you will be inspired.
As American expats who have been living in and exploring NZ for over 20 years, we see things from both a local’s perspective and from that of a visitor. Therefore, we understand what it’s like to come here and have things be similar, but not always exactly what we are used to. We share the information on this page from this perspective.
Where is the Bay of Islands?
The Bay of Islands is located about 225 kilometres north of Auckland along the Pacific coast. It is an enclave containing 144 islands. The central city, where we generally stay, is Paihia. While there are plenty of things to do in Paihia, we recommend exploring Waitangi, Russell, and Kerikeri as well.
22 Things to do in Bay of Islands
- Visit Waitangi Treaty Grounds
- Explore Russell, New Zealand’s first settlement
- Discover the Kerikeri Mission Station and Stone Store
- Take a boat to the Hole in the Rock
- Go dolphin watching
- Be adventurous: snorkel, sail, skydive, parasail
- Side trip to Cape Reinga
- See a waterfall: Haruru or Rainbow falls
- Enjoy the sunrise or sunset
- Use the facilities at the Hundertwasser Toilets
- Enjoy a drink or a meal (including a gluten-free meal)
Start with 47 seconds of Bay of Islands highlights
Cultural and historic things to do in Bay of Islands
Some of New Zealand’s oldest history is found in the Bay of Islands.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The birthplace of New Zealand, Waitangi Treaty Grounds is one of the country’s most important historic sites. It was at this location in 1840 that native Māori chiefs and British representatives signed the Treaty of Waitangi, thus founding the New Zealand we know today.
Visitors can take a guided tour, walk the grounds, and get up close to several waka (canoes). A traditional Māori greeting welcomes guests before a cultural performance inside the carved meeting house. Finally, you won’t want to miss the Waitangi Museum. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds day pass is actually good for two days and includes the tour, cultural show, and museum entry.
Those seeking a more complete cultural experience can add a hāngi (traditional meal cooked using heated rocks buried in a pit oven) and concert. Click here to check reviews or book the day pass, hāngi, and concert.
Russell, New Zealand’s first settlement
Across the bay from Paihia is Russell, New Zealand’s first capital. This 19th-century whaling town was once nicknamed ‘the Hell Hole of the Pacific‘. Today, historic Russell is a charming piece of New Zealand history. Access is either by passenger ferry from Paihia or vehicle ferry from Opua. Check both timetables here.
Russell is an easy town to explore on foot; although, it’s best to pick up a map at the Paihia tourist information site before boarding the ferry as we have never been able to find one in Russell. A visit to Russell is one of my favourite Bay of Islands activities.
Kerikeri Mission Station and Stone Store
New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building is part of the Kerikeri Mission Station. Originally a storage depot built before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the Stone Store has been operating as a general store since the 1870s. It is part of New Zealand’s first European settlement under the protection of local Māori chiefs.
There are a few other buildings to see here. Some are free to enter, but the museum in the upper level of the Stone Store and the Kemp House have entry fees.
Things to do in Bay of Islands – adventures on the water
New Zealand is famous for extreme sports, and they are not just found in Rotorua or on the South Island. The list of active things to do in Bay of Islands sometimes seems endless.
Take a boat to the Hole in the Rock
Trying something different for us, we took a fast boat out to the famous Hole in the Rock at Cape Brett on Explore’s Ocean Adventure. Fast-paced and exciting, we jetted through nature at its best. It turned out to be the trip’s highlight. The thrilling ride was comfortable, thanks to newly redesigned spring-loaded seats.
Weather permitting, many go through the Hole in the Rock. We had wild waves breaking as they passed through the hole on the day we went. Although I imagine cruising through the hole to be exciting in its own right, watching the big waves was fabulous (see our video above).
Officially named Motu Kōkako in Te Reo Māori or Piercy Island in English, the Hole in the Rock sits near the northern tip of Cape Brett in the Bay of Islands. It is a must-see for anyone who gets out on the water. We loved our fast ride on the Ocean Adventure, however, for those who prefer a slower, scenic ride, Explore also offers a Bay Discovery Cruise out to the Hole in the Rock.
With limited time, we had to choose between the Ocean Adventure (above) or a dolphin nature cruise. This was a difficult choice, as both sounded so fantastic.
What we missed on the dolphin cruise was a four-hour scenic adventure searching for marine mammals on a purpose-built catamaran, an opportunity to snorkel (weather permitting) and the option to stay on Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island and return on a later ferry.
Check for discounts on the Dolphin Nature Cruise.
Note that due to the new Department of Conservation regulations, swimming with dolphins is not permitted in the Bay of Islands.
Other adventurous opportunities (links to discount options, where I can find them)
- Snorkel, swim, and sail with a day out on the Gungha II: This highly rated six-hour adventure begins aboard the Gungha II, a large ocean-going yacht that you can help sail, if you desire. The day includes an island stop for snorkelling, swimming, or a bushwalk.
- Day Sailing on the Vigilant, a Single Mast Yacht: A six-hour adventure, with passengers input on destination and activities. You can relax and let the skipper do it all, or participate as much as you want in the sailing. Be sure to read the outstanding reviews.
- Tall Ship Sailing Excursion on a classic schooner: Hoist the sails, climb the rigging, or just relax with morning tea, lunch, and a swim. The choice is yours on this highly-rated sail adventure on the tall ship R. Tucker Thompson, built in the tradition of 100-year-old schooners by locals.
- 9,000 Foot Tandem: Skydive: including a 20-second freefall before a gentle flight down under the canopy.
- Parasailing Adventure: A ninety-minute adventure, including 10-minutes in the air and views of the Hole in the Rock.
Or, take an organized day trip to Cape Reinga
Dune Ride – Cape Reinga via 90-Mile Beach
This 11 hour adventure starts in Paihia. It includes a stop at the top of the island to explore the Cape Reinga lighthouse, a drive along 90-Mile beach in their unique dune rider coach, sandboarding at Te Paki giant sand dunes, and lunch. Reserve your 90-Mile beach dune ride adventure here.
Cape Reinga Tour and Scenic Flight
This 4.5-hour tour includes a roundtrip scenic flight from Paihia to Cape Reinga over the Northland coastline, a guided mini-bus tour at the top of the island, a walk to the Cape Reinga lighthouse, morning tea including and a stop at the giant sand dune famous for sandboarding.
Hike to a waterfall
Two of our favourite North Island waterfalls are located in the Bay of Islands. Both can be accessed by short walks from free car parks, or by longer hikes.
Haruru Falls in Waitangi may be short in comparison to other falls, but it is loud and powerful. Haruru translates to “big noise” from Māori. The falls are popular for photographs, for kayaking below the falls, and as a swimming hole. While many locals jump in, there are warning signs against it.
Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri is the other key waterfall we visit. In the last scene in the video above, the children are jumping from the rocks near the falls.
Relaxing things to do in Bay of Islands
With so many things to do in the Bay of Islands, we personally take very little restful time.
Sunrise walk along Paihia beach
Mist often settles across the water in the early morning, especially in the winter. Typically, it burns off, resulting in a warm, sunny afternoon. To our surprise, the dog walker on Paihia Beach was practically the only other person we saw on our early morning walk.
As the day progresses, the beach will fill with families and others who like to chill out on the beach.
Fabulous Bay of Islands sunset
On a visit one July, we found the deep golden colours of the sunset nearly warm enough to allow us to forget it was winter in New Zealand. As we waited for the ferry from Russell, the Bay of Islands sunset captivated us.
Other things to do in Bay of Islands
Use the facilities at the artistic Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa
Toilets? Really? These are not just any toilets. Designed by internationally renowned artist, architect, and ecologist Fredrick Hundertwasser, this toilet block is often referred to as the only Hundertwasser structure in the Southern Hemisphere, but it turns out there are two more locations in New Zealand.
The small village of Kawakawa is located about 16 km south of Paihia and is usually our first stop before we roll into town. There is no charge for using the toilets.
Have a drink (or stay) at New Zealand’s first licensed hotel
Duke of Marlborough Hotel is New Zealand’s first licensed hotel, established in 1827. Located in Russell, dinner out on the deck on a warm evening is simply wonderful. Check accommodation options here.
Enjoy a meal overlooking the sea in Paihia
While the food is good, it is the views that keep us coming back to Zane Grey’s Dock Restaurant & Bar right on the wharf. Of course, for an even closer view of the sea, we could choose a lunch cruise on a tall ship.
Gluten-free eating in Kerikeri
If you are gluten-free, you won’t want to miss Santeez in Kerikeri. Open for breakfast, brunch, and lunch, this wonderful 100% gluten-free restaurant serves food so good, even the gluten eaters in our group were happy.
Are you arriving Bay of Islands via a cruise ship?
If you are arriving via cruise ship, you will be tendered into port. There is no dock large enough for a cruise ship in the Bay of Islands. If it’s a big ship, many activities may book out, so advance ticketing is often a good idea.
Here are two top-rated cruise excursion options that are backed by Viator’s worry-free shore excursion guarantee. Be sure to check it’s still on when you book.
- Helicopter Tour: This 20-minute helicopter aerial tour over the Hole in the Rock and the historic townships of Russell, Paihia, and Waitangi. Reserve your helicopter tour here.
- Russell and Waitangi Treaty Grounds: If it’s the culture, history, and natural beauty of the region that interests you, this top-rated shore excursion seems to take the best advantage of the limited time. It visits Paihia, Russell, Kerikeri, Haruru Falls, and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Reserve your tour here.
Where to stay: accommodation in the Bay of Islands
We prefer to stay in Paihia as it is centrally located. Russell requires a ferry passage and is both more relaxed and more expensive. Kerikeri is a bit farther, but still a good choice. Paihia accommodation options that we recommend:
Edgewater Palms Apartments: This is our favourite place to stay if we are travelling for multiple days. With sea views from every room, the spacious apartments have both a kitchen and laundry. When we want to head out, it’s only a five-minute walk to the Paihia wharf and beach, but more likely you will find us relaxing in the infinity pool. Reserve your Edgewater Palms Apartment here
Kingsgate Hotel Autolodge: Another option with fabulous sea views, Kingsgate is even closer to the wharf and beach. They offer a swimming pool, hot tub, and free bicycle usage; however, do not have laundry. Reserve your stay at Kingsgate Hotel Autolodge here
Haka Lodge For budget travellers, the Haka Lodge is a highly-rated backpackers for when you need a quick and inexpensive place to stay. Reserve your stay at Haka Lodge here
Tour the Bay of Islands in a day
Not the optimal way to do it, but if you only have one day, you can take an all-day private tour from Auckland. You will travel via private vehicle from Auckland with a private guide, seeing giant Kauri trees and visiting waterfalls along the way, then tour the Waitangi Treaty grounds, followed by a hole in the rock and dolphin cruise before your return to Auckland.
Or, check out these other one-day options from Auckland.
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The Bay of Islands is one of many fascinating places to visit in the north of New Zealand. While it is frequently a destination on its own, if you are a visitor to New Zealand, you may want to consider our favourite Northland itinerary. It’s a four to seven-day adventure, with the first stop in the Bay of Islands.
What will you do in the Bay of Islands?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
Disclaimer: We worked with the local tourism board, NorthlandInc, Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and the Explore Group. Various entrances and other assistance were provided to aid in writing this page. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.