A Bay of Islands Tour + Other Things to Do in Paihia and Russel, New Zealand
If you’re into rugged coastal scenery, deserted beaches and being out on the open water you’ll want to head for the Bay of Islands, around three hours north of Auckland. There is heaps to do in the area, including a couple of waterfalls, two of New Zealand’s nicest seaside towns and of course, the famous Bay of Islands boat tour. We spent a couple of days in the Bay of Islands on our recent North Island road trip – keep reading for more tips on getting the most out of the beautiful Bay of Islands.
A Bay of Islands Tour
Chances are if you’re visiting the Bay of Islands you’ll want to leave the safety of dry land behind you and jump on a boat tour. There are various options available, so choose wisely. We opted for the “Hole in the Rock Tour + Island Stopover” with Fullers Great Sights. It’s a popular option which we chose because we wanted to get out and explore Urupukapuka Island. The other popular tour sacrifices the island stop for a dolphin watching experience – you can’t go wrong with either of those options.
The tour starts in Paihia (or Russel, but more on that later) and you can choose between the morning or afternoon sailings. Soon enough we were cruising through the Bay of Islands, serenaded by the captain’s informative commentary. He told us stories of the Bay of Islands’ grim history – luckily he had a good sense of humour! I won’t give you too many spoilers, but this was a rough area back in the day. Russel, with its numerous pubs and brothels, was nicknamed the “Hellhole of the Pacific” for good reason! We passed by some small islands, one of which was Roberton Island, where Captain James Cook stayed a while in 1769.
The Hole in the Rock
After reaching the end of Cape Brett, with its lonely light house and tamper’s hut the only sign of life, we pulled up to the imaginatively named “Hole in the Rock”. It’s basically a big rock (island I guess) with a hole through it. The captain then gingerly navigated the boat through the hole, and like magic (or an island with a hole in it) we were on the other side.
The highlight of our Bay of Islands boat tour was the hour we spent on Urupukapuka Island. There’s a café where you can chill out by the beach, but I’d recommend walking up the hill to a series of viewpoints. You’ll see Otehei Bay (where the boats dock) and dozens of other small coves, islands and beaches. We ended up waiting up there for the weather to clear (which it eventually kinda did) – hopefully you get perfect blue skies to really bring this place to life. The beach at Otehei Bay, right by the pier where you get off the boat, is stunning and if you’re feeling a little lazy you could easily kill an hour or so there.
Despite its unappealing name (it’s a bit like calling a town Derek or George), Russel is easily one of New Zealand’s nicest seaside towns. The main drag features old buildings facing out to the beach / port area. You can stroll the historic streets in about 10 minutes but it’s also worth walking up the hill to the viewpoint above town. From there you’ll see Russel spread out below as well as some of that clear blue water that the Bay of Islands is famous for. If you book a tour with Fullers Great Sights, you can get dropped off in Russel afterwards and then get a free ferry ride back to Paihia. Do this if you have the time – a relaxing hour or two in Russel is a great way to finish your Bay of Islands tour. You can also catch a regular ferry across to Russel – it should cost around $15 return.
Paihia is the main town in the Bay of Islands and is the perfect base for exploring the area. The beachfront area is nice (go for a walk around sunset if you can) and there are heaps of cool cafes and restaurants to try. It’s pretty touristy but I really like Paihia’s vibe. It’s small so you can walk everywhere and there are accommodation options to suit all budgets.
This small waterfall is located around 5 minutes’ drive from Paihia and is worth a quick look. It only takes a minute or so to walk to the falls and is quite nice, despite being small.
Larger than both Paihia and Russel, Kerikeri boasts a couple of interesting sights including Rainbow Falls and the Stone Store. A guy in Matapouri told us about the Stone Store and it was worth checking out – apparently it’s the oldest surviving stone building in New Zealand. The river area is cool too and there are paths leading to some small waterfalls.
Rainbow Falls is another great place to see. You can get some good views from the lookouts above but it’s also worth heading down to the small lake. Kauri dieback, a disease which kills New Zealand’s native kauri trees, is prevalent in this area so make sure to wash your shoes at the entrance and don’t stray too far off the path.
The grounds of Waitangi, where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed is one of the most popular things to do in the Bay of Islands. I learnt about the treaty of Waitangi at school so didn’t feel the need to visit (and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t free!) but it could be worth a look if you want to learn more about New Zealand’s history.
Where to Stay in the Bay of Islands
We stayed at the camping ground (around 5 minutes’ drive from town) the first night and then moved to the centre of town for the next night. I’d recommend staying in town if you can – it’s great being able to stroll around a town like this, have a couple of drinks and some food and then have a short walk back to your hotel.
Getting to Paihia
From Auckland it’ll take around 3.5 hours to reach Paihia, but you should consider stopping a couple of times along the way. Head to Whangerei to see Whangerei Falls and then drive along the Tutukaka Coast to Matapouri. This tiny beach town features two of New Zealand’s best beaches (Matapouri Bay and Whale Bay) which are linked by a scenic coastal track. Assuming you spend a couple of hours in Matapouri / Whangerei the detour will add three hours or so to your journey. Definitely do it if you can spare the time. Obviously, if you have heaps of time you should look to spend a night in Matapouri (there’s a freedom camping spot right next to the beach).
Are you planning to do a Bay of Islands tour? What are you most excited to see? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I was hosted by Fullers Great Sights on our Bay of Islands boat tour. All thoughts and opinions are my own.