South Pacific

Bay of Islands: The Birthplace of a nation

Bay of islands at Waitangi, New Zealand | Photo credit: Alan Vernon

To discover how New Zealand became the country it is today, you need to head north of Auckland on the North Island, to an area called Northland, to the Bay of Islands.

The Bay of Islands, is an irregular 16 km-wide inlet in the north-eastern coast of the island, and.comprises some 150 islands in and around a calm area of ocean. Not surprisingly, the Bay area is one of the most-visited areas of New Zealand. Described as a “naturally beautiful ocean playground” in today’s visitor guides, the area has changed a lot since the late 1800s, when one observer labelled it the “hellhole of the Pacific”. Fights were fought and blood was spilt in this lawless land, where sailors deserted their ships, whalers and sealers brawled in the streets, and rum and loose women were at top of everyone’s recreational list.

A melting pot of European and Maori culture since the late 1700s, the Bay of Islands was where many early disagreements between the indigenous people and the new arrivals were ironed out. In 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was created after Maori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown came together to decide the future of the land. This Treaty is generally considered to be the founding document of New Zealand as a nation.

Today, the Bay of Islands is an outdoor adventure playground for New Zealanders and visitors from around the world. Small, friendly towns are scattered throughout the area, providing quaint launching pads from which to explore the natural wonders of the area by foot, car or boat. And along the way, there are numerous places of great historical significance. Visitors are welcome to explore the well-preserved relics of the past, both Maori and European, in the towns of Russell, Paihia, Waitangi or Kerikeri.
The Towns in the Bay of Islands Region are: Kerikeri is the largest town. Waitangi is where the British and Maori signed the 1840 Treaty. Paihia is the primary centre for the Bay’s activities. Opua is a recreational port and gateway to the Bay of Islands. Russell is an historic site and the first capital of New Zealand. Kawakawa The town is known as “Train town of the north” and is also famous for its public toilets, designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

The Bay, with its pristine natural environment, has become the gathering place in the South Pacific for sailing yachts on world cruises, international sport fishermen, golfers and marine enthusiasts.

Did You Know?

  • A 2006 study found that the Bay has the second-bluest sky in the world, after Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
  • Captain Cook named the area after being the first European to visit in 1769.
  • The Stone Store at Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands is New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building (1836).
  • The Kiwi nickname for New Zealanders comes from the indigenous kiwi bird,
which is found only in New Zealand.

How to Get Here

Air New Zealand Link operates daily flights from Auckland to Kerikeri (Bay of Islands). The flight time is approximately 45 minutes. Airport shuttles, taxis and rental cars are available from the airport. From the Kerikeri airport, it is a 5 miute. drive to Kerikeri town centre, 25 minutes. to Paihia, 30 minutes. to Opua and 45 minutes to Russell.

The Bay of Islands is located about a three and a half drive north of Auckland.

New Zealand Dollar

The most convenient way to access cash in local currency is to use a debit or credit card in an ATM in New Zealand. All banks have ATMs accessible 24-hours a day, generally outside the branch or in the foyer.You might be charged a fee by your bank, and you may need a new PIN number, so contact your bank or credit card company before you travel to make sure you’ll be able to access your account.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

Travellers cheques are becoming less popular in New Zealand. If you do use travellers cheques, take cheques in NZ$ not Canadian or US funds. Travellers cheques can be exchanged for cash at banks, exchange houses and large hotels, or used to settle accounts in some, but by no means all, retail or dining establishments.

Credit cards are accepted in most establishments in New Zealand. Be aware you may be charged a fee to use credit cards abroad, and you should let your issuing company know what countries you are travelling to, as their fraud departments can sometimes freeze cards used in foreign countries.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Bay of Islands | Photo credit: Hidde de Vries

New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere so summer is from December to February, while winter falls in June, July and August.

Northland is New Zealand’s warmest region. Being in a sub-tropical climate zone, the Bay of Islands enjoys warm humid summers and mild winters. In summer, maximum daytime temperatures range from 22 to 26 C. In winter, high temperatures are between 14 and 17 C. In fact, the Bay area is often referred to as “winterless”.

Rainfall is common throughout the country and provides New Zealand its lush, green countryside.
Be aware that the weather can change unexpectedly, even in summer, so be prepared if you’re heading off on an outdoor adventure.

Getting Around

The best way to navigate the area is by car. A cluster of towns are located in the Bay and, although bus services do operate between towns, a car provides the freedom to explore the area and off the beaten track.

If you can’t drive, there are plenty of bus and coach tours that will take you to the main places of interest. Prices vary depending on how far you go, where you go and which company you use. Tickets that include a commentary are more expensive than buses that simply take you there and drop you off. You can inquire at the Visitor Information Centre.

Another alternative is to pick up a taxi in Kerikeri and arrange a personalised tour of the area.
To visit the islands you’ll need to join a cruise. To get over to Russell you can take a ferry from Paihia. Car and passenger ferries make the trip between the two throughout the day.

If you want to rent a car, free maps are available from a car rental agency or the Bay of Islands Visitor Centre in Paihia, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

What not to miss …

World Heritage Site(s)

 Christ Church (1831), Russell, Bay of Islands | Photo credit Phillip Capper

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently three World Heritage Sites in New Zealand

A great place to begin exploring is Paihia. This small, vibrant town is located in the heart of the Bay and is the ideal spot to base yourself for forays into the surrounding area. Often called the jewel of the Bay, this holiday town is alongside the beach.

Close to Paihia you’ll find Waitangi, where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. It’s a short drive over the Waitangi River bridge, but a more pleasant way to arrive is via the coastal walk that starts by the Visitor Centre in Paihia. You’ll soon find yourself in the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Run by the National Trust, this historical attraction includes the Treaty House, which was built for the first official British resident, James Busby and his family. Don’t miss the Te Whare Runanga, a traditional Maori Meeting House made from carved wood, Ngatokimatawhaorua, a huge ceremonial Maori canoe, and the Naval flagstaff, which marks the spot where the Treaty was signed. Stroll through the extensive grounds, visit the museum and watch the cultural performances.

Russell is a favourite with locals and visitors alike. You can stay here or take a ferry from Paihia. One of the first European settlements in the country, this charming historical township was also the first capital of New Zealand. Visit Christ Church, which bears scars from early Maori battles in the form of bullet holes, and the Catholic Mission ‘Pompallier’, built from rammed earth back in 1841. Stop in at the Russell Museum to pick up the Heritage Trail booklets to get the most from your visit.

The fastest-growing town in the region, locals joke that Kerikeri is so nice they named it twice. After a visit, you’ll probably agree. This historical spot is famed for the produce that grows in the regions’ fertile soils, and a day here will no doubt see you sampling the local goods – especially if you visit the chocolate factory and a couple of vineyards. A few minutes away by car you’ll find the magnificent 27m-high Rainbow Falls.

Kawakawa, originally known as Irishtown, is well-known for two unusual reasons. One, it is the only town in the country that has a railway track running down its main street and, two, its public toilets. Bizarre as it may sound, they really are a work of art. Designed by Frederick Hundertwasser, one of Austria’s most well-known artists, the toilets have become something of a tourist attraction thanks to their grass roof, bottle glass windows, mosaic tiling and the way a living tree has been incorporated into the design. Fans of the artist, who died on board the QEII in 2000, come from far and wide to see the building, and tour buses regularly pull up outside for this unique toilet stop. It is the only structure in the Southern Hemisphere designed by Hundertwasser, who made New Zealand his home and is now buried here.

For the kids …

Maori carvines, Bay of Islands | Photo credit: Marc Veraart

A heritage cruise down the tranquil waters of the Kerikeri Inlet is a relaxing way to see the history of the town, and an ideal way to introduce the kids to the past. Cruise past the country’s oldest residence, Kemp House, built in 1822, the Stone Store, built in 1836, and Rewa, a replica Maori village.

Swimming with dolphins in the Bay of Islands is always a fav … The Bay is a marine park and home to hundreds of aquatic species, so chances of the dolphins showing up are pretty high. If you’re lucky you might meet a few penguins too, or even see a magnificent baleen whale.

The Kawiti Glow Worm Caves four kilometers from Kawakawa will fascinate adults and children alike. These amazing creatures, which are actually a type of fly, glow to attract insects towards them. The doomed insects get caught in sticky strands that hang from the glow worm, and are promptly eaten. On a tour you’ll discover a maze of limestone cliffs, and ancient stalagmites and stalactites resting under a galaxy of glow worm stars. You might even get to stroke the tame eel that lives in the underground stream.

The Excitor Jet Boat experience is one adventure not to be missed. Departing from either Paihia or Russell, it blasts its way 18 nautical miles through the Bay to the famous Hole in the Rock formation. This natural landmark is a towering cliff with a hole that has been etched over the years by the wind and waves. On this adrenalin-pumping trip you’ll speed right through it – just pray the tide’s not too high …

About Shopping

Kerikeri has become something of an artists’ retreat. There is an official Arts & Craft Trail you can follow through town for a look at local works. The trail leads to 17 outlets, all either in Kerikeri or a few kilometres from town, and showcases everything from ceramics and handmade chocolates to kauri wood carvings and fine art.

Bay of Islands after dark …

The busy little town of Paihia has one of the largest choices of eating and drinking places in the Bay. There are a few restaurants, many offering the day’s freshest catch, and whether you want to dine on the water, by the water or in the town, there’s an establishment to meet your requirements. You can choose from a range of cuisines, including local, Mediterranean, Chinese and Thai.

The heritage town of Russell has a great selection of spots – head here for fine dining amongst some of the country’s oldest buildings. Charming, elegant and relaxed, Russell is always fun for a romantic night out.

Sports / Outdoor Adventure

The Hole in the Rock | Photo credit: Hugh Macdonald

The beautiful Bay of Islands is a centre for big-game fishing among the many islands made famous by the American writer Zane Grey who fished here. There is a Maritime park and an Historic Park. Daily boat cruises operate. You can join a charter and see if you can match – or beat – one of the many fishing records that have been set in the area.

You can catch the breeze and set sail for the day on the R.Tucker Thompson, a unique tall ship. Help set the sails, take the helm or just relax on board. A Devonshire morning tea and a barbecue lunch will take care of your hearty appetite.

Sea kayaking is another popular pastime. With so much water and so many islands and chunks of rock to explore, the Bay is an ideal kayaking playground. You can hire kayaks by the day or, if you’re not too confident out on the water alone, join an organised trip with a guide.

This is always the ultimate marine mammal experience. You can swim with fascinating animals and have the chance to view dophins, whales, penguins and even orcas up close. It’s best to take a fully guided tour, with all snorkelling equipment supplied and a hot shower afterwards, which ensures your safety and comfort.

If hiking and walking are your thing, there are plenty of tracks around. Called ‘tramping’ in the local lingo, this is a great way to get away from the crowds in season. One especially scenic track leads to Cape Brett Lighthouse. Standing 150m above sea level, the lighthouse stands at the entrance to the Bay and watches over the site of one of New Zealand’s earliest shipwrecks – the schooner Paramatta sank here in 1808. This is a full day’s trek, but you can stay overnight in a hut owned by the Department of Conservation, or arrange for a boat to pick you up and take you back.

Local Customs and Etiquette

As a rule Kiwis are a laid-back, friendly bunch. You’ll probably hear the phrase “How’s it going bro?” between friends and strangers alike, and if something’s good it’s often described as “sweet as”. Don’t be alarmed if you see two people pressing noses in the street – it’s a traditional Maori greeting.

New Zealanders tend to be outgoing and often express an interest in overseas visitors. It’s hard to offend a Kiwi, unless you see them as a second-class Aussie – there’s great rivalry between the two nations, particularly in the sporting arena.

A fairly liberal, forward-thinking country – New Zealand gave women the right to vote back in 1893 – most Kiwi etiquette rules relate to issues of equality. There is little class structure and not much racial tension between the many different ethnic groups.

Most Kiwis are very environmentally conscious and treat their land with a sense of respect that stems from the traditional Maori view that everything in nature has a life force. Damaging that life force hurts both the object and the offender. Actions that flaunt this belief are frowned upon.

Tipping is not expected in New Zealand. If you have received good service at a restaurant and want to show appreciation, five to 10 per cent of the bill is fine. There is no need to tip for every drink you order in a pub, although some bartenders in the flashier joints will try and encourage this by placing your change on a tray. If you don’t tip, it doesn’t usually affect how quickly you get served.
Above all, New Zealanders are honest and open, and appreciate the same from you.

All content © 2011-2018 Great World Getaways unless otherwise noted