In 1769, when Captain Cook became the first European to discover the Bay, he counted 144 magnificent islands. Although the Bay of Islands may attract a few more Europeans than it did back then, there’s still enough to see and do to keep everyone happy.
We arrived in Paihia, a small beach front town in the heart of the Bay of Islands. Here you can find a street (Kings Road) which houses all bar two of the hostels in the town – there are more motels but this is the main street for backpackers. Be sure to book ahead during the high season as almost everywhere was fully booked so Paddy and I had to stay in separate dorm rooms on our first night.
There are plenty of things to see and explore on the islands, regardless of your budget. Here is what we got up to for the three days we spent there…
Swim with Wild Dolphins
This is an experience completely different than swimming with captive dolphins. Seeing a dolphin pod circling you, leaping from the water and, let’s face it, showing off really goes to show how much they enjoy human company in their natural habitat. It may also explain why a dolphin’s lifespan is 40-50 years in the wild, versus about 4-5 years in captive-bred dolphins. Such a heartbreaking statistic.
As the dolphins are completely wild, they do whatever they want to do. Which means that on your trip out it comes down to luck as to whether you spot any and, if the pod has a baby, strict conservation laws mean you aren’t allowed to swim with them at all. Our trip was booked through Explore, who have a amazing 90% success rate with finding a pod to swim with (but if you don’t, they give you a second trip for free).
Finding a pod isn’t the end of the battle though; once you’re in the water it is so difficult to keep up with them. They love to play but they lose interest quickly, meaning you need to dance and make silly noises to keep them entertained. In short, it’s a difficult but incredibly rewarding experience.
Trip to Russell and the walk to Long Beach
Russell is like a smaller version of Paihia; lots of pretty shops and quaint places to eat. As it was the first permanent European settlement and sea port in New Zealand – being without law – it developed a bad reputation for prostitution and general debauchery. As a legacy of all that scandal, though, the island was left with New Zealand’s first ever pub, the Duke of Marlborough. Nothing spectacular by European old-pub-standards, but it’s still worth a visit.
After your pub lunch, take the walk over the hill to Long Beach. In truth, it isn’t actually that long but it was nice and quiet and the walk offers a beautiful view if the islands. Sand Flies everywhere, remember your bug spray.
The Top of the Bottom of the World – Cape Reinga
We booked our day trip with Awesome NZ as it worked out cheapest for us to book this through our hostel (Awesome NZ is actually the sister company of GreatSights, but with more of a focus on backpackers). There are many places selling this tour so remember to hunt around for the best price (NZ$100+) as they all offer the same package. Here’s the basic itinerary for the day:
1. Cape Reinga
It’s an odd sensation standing next to the Cape Reinga lighthouse, looking out to the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east as they collide in front of you. It’s a ruggedly beautiful place, but I would imagine it’s a little disappointing in poor conditions.
After the cape, you’ll be taken to some enormous sand dunes over looking the Te Paki Stream. We did some pretty serious sand boarding in Huacachina, Peru, so we weren’t too fussed about this one, but it’s still an adrenaline rush!
3. 90 Mile Beach
It’s not actually 90 miles long but it is a registered highway, so if the tide is right your driver will head off-road and drive a stretch of the beach where – if you look carefully – you can see wild horses grazing on the edge of the forest.
Even if you don’t spot any horses, the sheer vastness of it makes it one of the prettiest beaches I’ve ever visited. You can hop off the bus for a while to skim stones and take pics or maybe your driver will just do donuts for 5 minutes like ours did.
4 & 5. – Puketi Kauri Forest, Ancient Kauri Kingdom
The first of these final stops is the Puketi Kauri Forest. It’s only a 10 or 15 minute stop, but in the tour operator’s own words “take a short walk through the 15,000 hectare Puketi Kauri Forest. Take a deep breath of fresh NZ air while you hug a 2,000 year-old tree and gaze up at the rainforest canopy high overhead”. It’s actually very pretty and a welcome break from being on the coach.
You’ll also stop at the Ancient Kauri Kingdom, which is a showroom for all kinds of souvenirs and furniture made from 45,000 year old Kauri wood. Look for the staircase made from a single Kauri tree trunk.
Fish and chips
The Kiwis take pride in the fact that they’re better than the British at fish ‘n’ chips. Whilst I’m not entirely convinced that’s true (what is Chicken Salt, anyway?!) they definitely give is a good shot! There are a number of places in Paihia offering decent fish and chips so it really is a must, especially as there are some bargain lunch-time deals to be had.
Hike to Haruru Falls across the Mangrove Walkway
One of the benefits of being in a place like the Bay of Islands is that everywhere is beautiful, so one of the best things to do while you’re there is to go off hiking. From Paihia, there is a well marked trail taking you out of the town, through the Mangrove forests and to Haruru falls. From there you can either head back the way you came, or take the slightly shorter but entirely less scenic route along the highway.
This walk takes about 4 hours in total, so if you’re short on time a better option may be to drive or cycle straight to the falls.
Other Things to Do in the Bay of Islands
There are 144 islands to see, so there are many other day trips available from Paihia and the Bay. You can discover Kerikeri’s European history, Hokianga’s natural beauty, you can even take helicopter flights and soak up the landscape from the air or, if you’re feeling less adventurous, you can laze on any number of beaches or take a quiet coastal walk. We hope you enjoy the Bay of Islands as much as we did, if you have any questions let us know in the comments below!