Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Bay of Islands
When Europeans were first beginning to establish settlements in New Zealand, a race was on between British and French for who would have the most influence. While the Protestant British would eventually win out and form an island colony, the French still managed to build multiple settlements and influence local Maori. One of those ways was through Catholic texts that were translated and distributed in Maori, which were printed, tanned, and bound right here at the Pompallier Mission by Russell. Accessible today through a guided tour, the Pompallier Mission offers visitors a glimpse of early European settlements, as well as a thorough explanation of how British, French, and Maori tribes all skirmished and negotiated for land. Aside the early printing press and info relating to printing, the Pompallier building is a sight in itself, having been constructed in 1842 in a rammed-Earth style that was typical of the day in the French city of Lyon.
The northern end of Ninety Mile Beach is lit by the flashing beacon of Cape Reinga lighthouse.
Lighting the point where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, the remote lighthouse has an atmospheric end-of-the-world feeling, the ideal spot for long walks on the beach.
On the very tip of the cape is the 800 year-old pohutukawa tree, whose roots hide the entrance to the Maori Underworld, where the souls of the dead return. It’s a particularly spiritual place for the Maori, so eating and drinking here is best avoided.
Walks lead from here to surrounding bays and capes, and the area’s signature dunes.
While the name might suggest that this is a site solely dedicated to trees, the Kauri Museum in New Zealand’s Northland also offers a fascinating look at the nation’s early pioneers. It is true that the kauri tree is native to New Zealand, and one could also make the argument that these towering trees—which impressively rise to over 200 feet in height—were vital to early New Zealand settlements.
When Europeans first arrived in the Northland, they found forests of kauri trees that marvelously blanketed the hills leading down to the shoreline. Entire trees were felled for ship masts while the gum used to make varnish and resin. Everything from homes to ornate furniture was constructed from kauri hardwood. Today, the museum hosts interactive displays and hands-on exhibits that help bring these early days to life. Wander the halls of the 19th-century boarding house to get a feel for the life of a settler, and spend some time in the Steam Saw Mill to learn how to log a kauri.
The resort town of Paihia services the villages and islands of the Bay of Islands.
Boasting the area’s best accommodation and restaurants, Paihia Harbour is the ideal place to base yourself while you explore this lovely part of New Zealand.
Hire a kayak to paddle out to the islands, follow the rivers winding in from the bay, or take a walk through kauri forest to lookouts over the water.
To walk from Paihia to neighboring Waitangi is a pleasant 40 minutes one way.
What the Haruru Falls lack in height, they more than make up for in beauty, especially when floodlit at night. The falls are wide but relatively low at 5 meters (16.5 feet), which makes for particularly good swimming and kayaking at the base. The falls are surrounded by holiday parks and recreation areas, making the most of the lovely riverside setting.
Wild and lonely Cape Brett is a remote location on the scenic back road leading along the coast from Russell.
Along the route is the traditional Maori village of Rawhiti, the starting point for the rugged 7.5-hour trek to Cape Brett. On reaching the cape, hikers are rewarded with shelter for the night in the Cape Brett Hut.
For non-hikers, Cape Brett is a popular day cruise destination from Paihia or Russell. The cape is famous for its ‘Hole in the Rock’ on neighboring Motukokako Island, a natural archway formed by ceaselessly pounding seas over the centuries.
As well as spotting dolphins, penguins and other wildlife along the way, the cruise passes a lovely seaside landscape of sandy beaches and rocky cliffs, and the lonely lighthouse on the tip of Cape Brett.
The Bay of Islands is a corner of the world that was meant to be explored by boat. This was the first part of the North Island to be settled by Europeans, and you can see from the islands and turquoise coves why they were immediately taken with this shoreline.
All cruise ships arriving in the Bay of Islands will dock near Paihia at the Waitangi Wharf. To reach the town of Paihia, which is 1.3 miles away, you can either enjoy a 20-minute walk or a three-minute shuttle ride to the visitor’s centre.
Visitors to the Bay of Islands have a smorgasbord of options to choose from which range from water sports, to history, to adventure. To explore the harbor and the surrounding islands and get a glimpse of the local marine life, hop aboard a harbor cruise to Cape Brett or Hole in the Rock. Depending upon the length of the cruise, you might have the chance to stop at empty beaches or ply the waters for dolphins.
Spilling 85 feet over a wide cliff face, Whangarei Falls is often referred to as the most photogenic waterfall in New Zealand. This three-ribboned, curtain waterfall is the perfect place for a refreshing swim on a hot summer day in the Northland and serves as a romantic spot for poolside picnics or rest any time of the year. More than just an enjoyable lunch spot, however, Whangarei is incredibly popular for its convenient location and easy access; two viewing platforms are a short walk from a large, paved parking lot, and they provide a stable spot for photographing and viewing the iconic Northland cascade.
Once you've finished snapping photos or swimming in the clear, cool waters, take a stroll on one of the wooded trails that fan their way out from the falls. For an easy 30-minute stroll, the Whangarei Falls Loop crosses the river just above the waterfall, while the Sands Road Loop provides a three-hour journey along the Hatea River Walkway.
More Things to Do in Bay of Islands
By the bay and on a river, the fertile town of Kerikeri is a historic little town with a swag of natural attractions. Walkways follow the course of the Kerikeri River as it meanders inland from the Bay of Islands, passing recreation reserves, pretty pools and Wharepoke and Rainbow waterfalls along the way.
Kayaking on the river is popular here, along with visiting winery cellar doors to sip local wines and sample local produce grown in the area’s rich agricultural soils. There’s plenty of history here, including the 1830s Stone Store and 1822 Mission House, New Zealand’s oldest buildings. The furnishings and displays date from the early 19th century when missionaries first settled the area. Nearby, Rewa’s Village re-creates a pre-colonial Maori village.
For as much attention as the Bay of Islands receives for its empty beaches and coves, one of the best sights near the Bay of Islands has nothing to do with the water. Rather, the Puketi rainforest is set inland from the coast in some of the best-preserved wilderness in the Northland.
Set only a short drive from the Bay of Islands, this lush expanse of native foliage stretches over 37,000 acres of terrain. Here, kauri trees over 120 feet in height keep a watchful eye over the forest, and parts of the land have remained completely untouched since the arrival of the island’s first humans. In addition to the kauri—native hardwoods which were prized by Maori and exploited by European shipbuilders—there are over 370 different species of plants which thrive in the Puketi rainforest. Given the unique climate of the Northland and its geographical obscurity, a few of these plants are endemic to New Zealand and exist nowhere else in the world.
Things to do near Bay of Islands
- Things to do in North Island
- Things to do in Auckland
- Things to do in Waiheke Island
- Things to do in Tauranga
- Things to do in Waitomo
- Things to do in Rotorua
- Things to do in Taupo
- Things to do in Tongariro National Park
- Things to do in Hastings
- Things to do in Picton
- Things to do in Wellington
- Things to do in Christchurch
- Things to do in Mount Cook
- Things to do in South Island
- Things to do in Coral Coast