When traveling New Zealand, many people head straight to the South Island, but I promise you’re missing out. Much of the cultural history is based on the North Island, a significant portion of it in the Bay of Islands.
After having 2 winters in a row (oh how poorly I planned when leaving the Northern Hemisphere for the Southern), I was definitely ready for the beach. I need some sunshine and saltwater, so off I went!
I knew I wanted to end up in Northland at some point during my time in New Zealand. I hadn’t exactly planned on Paihia, or working at a hostel at all, but you can read more about that here. For 3 months I was living and working at Seabeds and I absolutely loved my experience there.
The town itself is quite small, but I still prefer it over both Russell and KeriKeri. Everything is walking distance and it is your gateway to the Bay. You’ve got all the shops you’ll need and plenty of places to grab an ice cream or fish and chips.
There are a few bars on Kings Road (just down from the main street), but be aware that this is where the backpackers hang out. I recommend starting at Thirty30 and seeing where the night takes you. If you’re looking for something a bit more mellow and upscale, head over to the harbor and have a drink at Charlotte’s Kitchen.
The best way to experience the Bay of Islands is to get in a damn boat. So many times I had to listen to that stupid helicopter take off, and while I’m sure its beautiful up there, the history is here on the water.
I took two different boat tours, Gungha (spend the day on a 65ft sailboat) and The Cream Trip (a large tourist boat on a historic shipping route). If you have to pick one trip, Gungha is the winner by a landslide. Both allowed me to see many of the brilliant islands, stop off on a few for snorkeling, learn about the history of trade in the area, as well as the relationship between the European settlers and the Maori. Plus, you’ll get to see some dolphins.
I was lucky enough to live right across from the beach, which I frequented regularly. There are 2 beaches, one on either side of town. These are easily walkable and rarely crowded. You’ll be able to rent sea kayaks and paddle boards at both ends.
If you take the ferry to Russell be sure to take the 20 min walk over to Long Beach. You’ll find a beautiful pristine place to spend the day. Just don’t go too far to the left, due a rumored nudist beach just around the corner.
You can also make the drive up to Maitai Bay, which is said to look like Fiji. The day we went was windy as, but absolutely stunning none the less.
Right outside of town you’ll find Haruru Falls. They are an easy half day hike from town, a 2 hr return kayak trip, or a short 6 minute drive. But if you take the drive you’ll miss exploring the mangrove forest, which I definitely recommend.
My favorite falls in the area are Rainbow Falls. They’re a 20 min drive from Paihia, just outside KeriKeri. After a 2 min walk from the carpark, you find towering falls with a beautiful swimming hole at the base. Swim across and hike up behind the falls, just be careful on the rocks. Make the stop at the nearby Charlie’s Rock too.
I can’t talk about life in the Bay of Islands without talking about the history. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed right here at the Waiting Treaty Grounds. Signed between the British and the Maori, it is still controversial today due to a debate about the translation and what it meant for the nation. It is, however, what has helped create the New Zealand you know today.
The museum is walking distance from town, and is something you absolutely cannot skip. The guided tour, cultural performance and museum will take you 2-3 hours total. If you’re looking to learn about the culture while in New Zealand, this is it. I even got the be there for Waitangi Day Feb 6th for a full day of vendors, performances and a celebration of culture.
I recommend hitting the treaty ground in the morning, especially if there is a cruise ship in port. Then head over to Russell for the rest of the afternoon and evening. You’ll learn about the history of the former capital while at the museum, and it’s the best place in the Bay to catch the sunset.
The northernmost point of the North Island, the Cape holds additional cultural significance for the area. The Maori believe that after death, spirits come to the cape before departing for the afterlife, and its spectacular. The Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean also meet here, just to the left of the lighthouse. On a clear day you’ll see the swirling waters, slightly different shades of blue, and even as far as Three Kings Island.
You’ll be able to hike around the cape, the lighthouse, and the nearby beach. On your way up, stop at 90 mile beach and marvel at the open space, just try no two get blown away. Then hit the dunes for some sandboarding.
You can book a day tour with any hotel/hostel or you can rent a car and drive yourself.
A few other things to check out while in Northland:
-Whangerei Falls and the Mermaid Pools
I feel so lucky to have been able to spend so much time in Paihia. During my 3 months there I met some incredible people and made some beautiful memories. I highly recommend visiting Northland during your New Zealand adventure.