There are about 150 islands in the bay, some uninhabited and barely explored. There are two main towns to base yourself. Choose Paihia if you like a thriving tourist center, or Russell if you prefer a bit more history and quaintness. Settle in, then get out amongst all those possibilities.
Day 1: Explore
You'll want to get your bearings and maybe have a closer look at all those beckoning islands. Since the 1920s a small boat has made its ways around the islands to collect milk and cream from the dairy farms and deliver mail; you can take this 'Cream Trip,' although on a more luxurious vessel than the original small boat. Or you can gaze at the islands from afar, walking along the pristine, sandy beaches of the mainland.
There is also fantastic bird watching, snorkeling, whale and dolphin spotting to be done. And of course, this being New Zealand, there are great places to eat wherever you go, and excellent wines to taste. Perhaps head for the waterfront restaurants in Russell for the evening.
Day 2: Discover
The Bay of Islands is where modern New Zealand began. The controversial Waitangi Treaty between the Maoris and the British was signed here. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is only a short half-hour stroll along the beach from Paihia and you can learn about history and Maori culture here. Kerikeri was the earliest permanent settlement in New Zealand and is now a charming, small artists town and worth a visit. Or take the short ferry ride between Russell and Paihia and explore whichever town you're not staying in.
Day 3: Thrill
Now that you've got the lay of the land and some history and culture, it's time to let loose. New Zealanders thrive on their adrenaline thrills so take the Excitor boat ride through the Hole in the Rock. If you prefer less risky adventures, head out on a tall ship. Or stay on dry land and drive Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga.
What an excellent day! We helped put up and take down the sails, took our turn at the wheel and even climbed out on the bow spit! We climbed the hill when the ship anchored and were able to see across the Bay of Islands. On the way back we saw dolphins. The crew were brilliant in explaining what we were doing and why and with the other visitors being fun and friendly we had a wonderful day.
Five Star +
We loved it! Great experience with a wonderfully happy and helpful crew. They love their jobs and it shows. The captain smiled when we boarded and that smile was on his face the entire time. An obviously happy man who loves to sail! He encouraged any of the passengers who wanted to take the helm, to do so - including two young boys who had the time of their lives. The BBQ chicken lunch was very good and plentiful. This trip included ages from 8 to 72 and all enjoyed it. The 20-something young people climbed the mast and swinging from a rope, jumped into the water from the side of the ship (not the mast!). This day turned out to be the highlight of our South Pacific trip.