Balancing scenic splendour with a bounty of wildlife, awesome adventuring opportunities, and arguably New Zealand’s most significant historical site, the Bay of Islands reads almost like a Greatest Hits of Aotearoa. Verve takes a wander through this Northland wonderland.
Holiday Through History
The site of the founding of modern-day Aotearoa New Zealand, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, just a couple of kilometres north of Paihia, the bay’s main base, promise to capture the imagination of those with even just a passing interest in history. The Waitangi Flagstaff—protruding from raised, green land visible from much of the bay—marks the spot where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, towering over the nearby Treaty House (one of the nation’s oldest structures), and Te Whare Rūnanga (House of Assembly) whose intricately carved walls host cultural performances to welcome—and wow—guests. The site’s pièce de résistance is undoubtedly Ngātokimatawhaorua, an awe-inspiring wāka that stretches for nearly 40 metres, seats 120 souls, and requires at least 76 paddlers to steer it (it’s launched every Waitangi Day). The world’s largest war canoe, Ngātokimatawhaorua was named after Kupe’s legendary vessel and sits, poised, overlooking the Pacific in front of the gargantuan stump of the kauri tree from which it was carved. The grounds also host the state-of-the-art Te Kongahu Museum of Waitangi which recounts the region’s indigenous and European history by way of films, interactive displays, weaponry, and historical text—including sections of the original treaties (more than one treaty document was created for iwi around the country). Opposite the grounds, a forested and riverside trail incorporates a gorgeous boardwalk through mangroves on its way to the thundering Haruru Falls (which translates to “big noise” for good reason). The photogenic, horseshoe-shaped curtain of water cascades into a plunge pool that, according to legend, still harbours a taniwha (water monster).
A short ferry ride across the bay, atop Te Maiki Hill, stands another flagstaff that marks the complicated historical relationship between Māori and the Crown. The mound, also known as Flagstaff Hill, hosted several flagpoles that were felled under the orders of Ngāpuhi leader Hōne Heke during the mid-19th century in defiance of the Crown, with a permanent monument now in place. The spot also affords jaw-dropping views of the Bay of Islands, including the shimmering Victorian town of Russell beneath. The nearby Tapeka Point Historic Reserve represents a former pā with visible defensive trenches and terraces. A Māori tale tells that this imposing headland was the site from where a young couple flung themselves when their elders forbade them from marrying, leading it to be known as ‘Lovers Leap’.
Few towns—if any—in the whole of Aotearoa match Russell in terms of picturesqueness—it’s gleaming white buildings contrast vividly against the backdrop of the bright blue bay; the land and water separated by rows of pōhutukawa. Serious mental gymnastics are required to grasp that this seaside settlement—originally called ‘Kororareka’—was once considered the ‘hellhole of the Pacific’ owing to its lawlessness as drunken European sailors and whalers rampaged through its streets. Russell Museum does a fine job of telling the town’s historyand boasts a one-fifth scale replica of the Endeavour, ship of Captain Cook who first anchored offshore in 1769. The nearby Pompallier Mission hosts New Zealand’s only remaining printing press, responsible for producing some of the world’s first Māori texts, and a tannery. Also on the waterfront stands the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, the nation’s oldest licensed premises, along with The Gables, our oldest restaurant, where outside sit oceanside tables beneath fairy lights strung romantically beneath those pōhutukawa trees. A couple of blocks east, Christ Church, also one of Aotearoa’s oldest, still bears battle scars of the New Zealand Wars by way of bullet and cannonball holes, while its cemetery cradles prominent local figures including the Ngāpuhi chief, Tamati Waka Nene.
History aside, the Bay of Islands is perhaps most renown for its ocean-going adventures, its luminous waters home to bottlenose dolphins most predominantly, along with common dolphins, and, occasionally, orca, and Bryde’s, humpback and long-finned pilot whales (blue whales are also known to pass by but are rarely seen). Though swimming with bay’s dolphins was stopped in 2019 (due to declining numbers and detrimental changes in behaviour due human interaction), there’s ample opportunity to still witness them—and their acrobatic skills—up close from aboard a cruise or even a kayak.
Around 150 islands pepper the bay, including the legendary Motu Kōkako, a 148-metre monolith that’s punctuated by the iconic “hole in the rock”, a 16-metre-high sea cave that’s large enough to squeeze sightseeing boats through. The island (which can be accessed via approved helicopter tours) is said to be the landing place of the legendary Tūnui-ā-rangi wāka, and it is said that ancient Māori warriors used to paddle through the tunnel pre-battle as the drips from the ceiling would bestow upon them good luck. Those wishing to try their hand at paddling a wāka may do so through Taiamai Tours who steer guests through the Waitangi estuary and past the Treaty Grounds while teaching traditional chants and techniques.
If you’d rather check out the water wonderland from above, there are scenic flights, parasailing and skydiving opportunities aplenty—including the chance to take part in the nation’s joint highest, and its sunniest, jump of 20,000 feet with an 85-second freefall—all with views of this most incredible of coastlines.
For those with an urge to explore beneath the waves, the region is home to some of Aotearoa’s best dive sites, including the wrecks of the Rainbow Warrior and HMNZS Canterbury. On the way—up or down—from the Bay of Islands, Poor Knights Islands, off the Tutukaka Coast are a regular on many a ‘world’s best dives’ list, with Jacques Cousteau famously labelling them as one of the planet’s top 10. The volcanic archipelago harbours plunging underwaters cliffs and towering arches home to an array of colourful fish, rays, coral and forest of kelp, with underwater visibility stretching for 30 metres.
Back on dry land, you’d need to go a long way to find more fun, off-road, on two wheels than at the incredible Waitangi Mountain Bike Park whose network of 50-plus-kilometres of trails—for all abilities—wind through towering, shady forest with regular breaks that afford views over the bay, as well as downhill tracks. And for something a little more soothing, there’s New Zealand’s most northerly Great Ride, the Pou Herenga Tai Twin Coast Cycle Trail. The two-day jaunt connects Paihia to hidden Northland gem of Hokianga Harbour that passes tunnels, farms, wetlands and townships via a former railway corridor.
The Bay Rocks
Covid permitting (fingers crossed!), the Bay of Islands Country Rock Festival will see dozens of the nation’s best acts further brighten the streets of Russell and Paihia with live performances and line-dancing from 7-9 May. Visit countryrock.co.nz to find out more.