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The Bay of Islands is one of the most breathtaking places to visit in New Zealand. The large bay is filled with amazing scenery, an abundance of wildlife, and breathtaking beaches. To me, the Bay of Islands should be on everyone’s New Zealand bucket list.
But what truly makes it such an awesome place to visit is the huge number of awesome things to do in the Bay of Islands. On the surface, it appears as though the Bay of Islands is just about beaches and cruises, but if you dig a little deeper, you can enjoy more unique experiences!
Here are all the best things to do in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.
Things to do in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand
1. Relax in Pahia
Paihia is perhaps the most popular tourist destination in the Bay of Islands, that’s because most of the best bars, restaurants, and cafes are located here. Personally, I love El Cafe on Kings Road for casual Mexican food, or if you want to truly spoil yourself check out the famed Charlotte’s Kitchen on the wharf! For your caffeine fix, there are plenty of awesome cafes in town – I highly recommend Letz Cafe on Williams Road and Third Wheel Coffee Co. on Marsden Road.
The town of Paihia runs alongside a golden sandy beach and in fact, one of my top tips for enjoying Paihia is to grab a portion of fresh fish and chips from Paihia Fish & Chips on Williams Road and head to the beach to watch the sunset. Just beware of the hungry seagulls hovering overhead!
On a sunny day why not walk the length of the 1.2-mile beach (2 kilometers) and even go for a swim. The water here is quite warm averaging around 68 Fahrenheit (20 Celsius) during the summer!
Paihia is the perfect place to base yourself to explore the rest of the Bay of Island attractions and there are lots of great accommodation options here too!
2. Dolphin cruise
One of the best and most popular things to do in the Bay of Islands is going on a dolphin-watching cruise. The entire bay is a sanctuary for dolphins and you can find pods of dolphins in the hundreds. Of course, you do have to be lucky to see the larger pods of the dolphins but it’s very common to see them in smaller groups.
Most Dolphin cruises (including this tour here) leave from both Paihia and Russel but start in Paihia picking up people in Russel along the way. The tour above is the one that I did in the Bay of Islands and it takes between 3-4 hours. This cruise also visits the Grand Cathedral Cave and Hole in Rock that I mention below.
3. Visit Urupukapuka Island
Urupukapuka Island is the largest island in the Bay of Islands and it is also a pest-free island. Visiting the island gives visitors a chance to see rare birds including the North Island Robin, hike the Urupukapuka Island walk, visit historical Maori sites, and enjoy the many beautiful beaches.
There are plenty of great snorkeling and dive spots around the island and you can opt to stay the night at one of the three DOC-run campsites on the island.
Honestly, a day trip to Urupukapuka Island is a great activity in Bay of Islands to spend the better part of a day.
Related Read: For another amazing view, hike to Pouakai Hut for the best view of Mount Taranaki.
4. Enjoy the Hole in Rock cruise
The Hole in Rock boat cruise is a classic Bay of Islands cruise that involves a 3-hour long cruise through the bay to the Hole in Rock.
The Hole in Rock is actually an island called Motukokako Island that has a huge hole in the middle of it. On the cruise, you’ll get to take a drive through the hole on your boat (providing the weather isn’t really bad.) You can read more about our experience on the Hole in Rock cruise here!
These cruises are a great way to see the bay and you can also see dolphins on this cruise if you’re very lucky. With that said, the dolphin-watching cruise I mentioned above is the better option if it’s not fully booked – which happens a lot in summer if you don’t book in advance. It includes a visit to the Hole in the Rock AND the dolphin watching!
5. Kauri Walk in Puketi Forest
A 40-minute drive from Paihia and near the small town of Kaeo you’ll find the Puketi Kauri Forest walk. Here, you can walk among giants – the giants in question are the native kauri tree. Would you believe it, some of the trees here are 164 feet tall (50 meters)!
But that’s not even the most impressive thing about them some of them have a girth of 52 feet (16 meters), which is huge. Most of the kauri trees in the Puketi Forest are believed to be over 2,000 years old!
The 1,148ft (350m) boardwalk here winds through the forest and is suitable for buggies and wheelchairs, it will take just 15 minutes from start to finish. But, you will want to stop along the way and take some photos! There are also several interpretive panels along the way which explain all about the unique ecosystem here which includes a swamp forest and native flora and fauna only found in this part of New Zealand.
6. Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
The Northland region and the Bay of Islands are important places for the Maori people. So, a trip to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to experience and learn all about the Maori culture and their history is a must-do Bay of Islands attraction.
At the treaty grounds, you can join a few different experiences including Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi, a dinner experience with traditional hangi, cultural performances, a Maori carving studio, and lots lots more!
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are located only a short 1.2-mile (2 kilometers) walk or drive from Paihia in the Bay of Islands and are open daily from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM.
7. Play a round of golf at Waitangi Golf Course
“Where the sea meets the tee” that’s the catchy tagline used by the incredibly scenic Waitangi Golf Course, just a 5-minute drive from Paihia town and right next door to the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds. This 18-hole golf course boasts views throughout the Pacific Ocean, off-shore islands, as well as the town of Paihia.
It’s considered quite a challenging course due to the varying nature of the terrain here, however, it is suitable for all skill levels. The course is well-groomed and there are several shaded spots to shelter from the warm Northland summer days. The locals here are super-friendly so if you need to take your time they will be more than accommodating and may even offer some pointers.
There’s also a Club House here serving up lunch, snacks, and drinks. Waitangi Golf Course is open 7 days a week and it costs $60 NZD for 18-holes.
8. Island cruise
One of the Bay of Islands attractions that doesn’t get enough attention are the island cruises. These cruises don’t just have you enjoying the bay from the water, but also from secluded beaches and stunning hiking trails.
On this specific cruise that departs from Paihia Wharf, you’ll visit 2 islands where you’ll have the chance to take a short hike to a stunning viewpoint, go snorkeling or stand up paddle boarding, and just enjoy the beautiful beaches without the crowds. It is one of the best values and top-rated tours that lasts for over 5 hours!
In all honesty, this is a great option and super fun but also good for those who maybe get a little seasick or don’t like being confined to a boat for long periods of time since the cruise stops at beaches for you to enjoy most of your day.
Related Read: Is Hobbiton worth visiting? Here are our thoughts.
9. Check out some glow worms
Seeing glow worms in New Zealand is definitely a must-do, and in the Bay of Islands, you can visit the Kawiti Glow Worm Caves and join a 45 to 60-minute tour of the cave system to see lots of glow worms! The caves are open from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM daily and tours cost $40 NZD for adults and $20 NZD for children, but you’ll have to drive yourself out to the caves.
Alternatively, you can also join a tour from Paihia by the Yacht Club in town and get a visit to the caves with a guide. There is also another option that takes you on an additional 30-minute guided walk in the Opua Kauri Forest (where you can walk among the 1000-year-old Kauri Trees.) This is a very cool experience that you can read more about below.
If visiting the paid glow worms isn’t in your budget then check out our guide to the best free glow worms caves, Waipu Caves, in the area!
10. Go sightseeing in Russell
The historic town of Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, thanks to its unique coastal position. The once large population of loud British sailors earned the town the nickname “the hell hole of the Pacific”. Thankfully, today the town is certainly not a hell hole – and in fact, I would describe it as one of the most beautiful small towns on the North Island.
Russell is a very popular tourist destination in New Zealand and for good reason. Firstly, the beach which runs the length of the town is especially pretty with gorgeous pohutukawa trees dotted along this stony beach. Just opposite the beach is the famed Duke of Marlborough bar and restaurant, which dates as far back as 1843. Grab a seat outside and watch the world go by.
If “the Duke”, as locals affectionately call it, is full (it often is) walk onto the town’s Main Street where you’ll find lots of other great restaurant options like The Gables and Butterfish. For coffee or a light bite to eat you can’t go wrong with Hell Hole Cafe on York Street. There’s also a small museum in town, as well as the oldest standing church in the country (it was built back in 1835) – Christ Church is located on Church Street.
A 20-minute walk from the town is the family-friendly Long Beach which is ideal for swimming. It’s also a great place to stretch your legs on a walk, to walk the length of the beach will take you about 30 minutes.
Russell can be reached by ferry from Paihia or a 45-minute drive, although it’s worth noting that part of the drive is quite windy and unsealed in parts.
There are also plenty of great hotels and holiday homes to stay in Russel.
11. Go skydiving
Around New Zealand, there are tons of places you can skydive but few offer the stunning ocean views of the Bay of Islands. From the air, you’ll get a nice, but nerve-racking, scenic flight above the bay before taking the plunge on your tandem skydive.
Another thing to mention is that Skydive Bay of Islands is New Zealand’s highest skydive with one jump at 20,000 feet (6,100 meters)! That means you’ll get over 85 seconds of freefall before landing safely on a stunning beach!
Unfortunately, I never did the skydiving here as they only do tandems and I have a solo skydiving license and prefer to do it on my own. But I love skydiving and know that this is one of the best things to do in the Bay of Islands.
Skydive Bay of Islands picks up from most locations around the bay so no matter where you’re staying you can get your adrenaline fix. I highly recommend booking the 20,000-foot jump in advance!
12. The Rock Adventure Overnight Cruise
I know, another cruise, really? Well, this one is completely different from the rest and is actually so much fun! The Rock Adventure Overnight Cruise is the ultimate overnight trip filled with amazing views, great vibes, and lots of fun activities.
On the cruise you can go kayaking under the stars, fish for your dinner, target practice, explore the island, and more. This cruise isn’t aimed only at young people either and the entire family can join for an awesome 22 hours of new activities in the Bay of Islands.
The Rock Adventure Cruise departs daily at 5 pm and returns the following day at 3 pm. These cruises include all your food, accommodation, transport (cruise), and activities for around $350 NZD. Of course, alcohol is not included but they have a licensed bar on board!
13. Visit Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach
If the Bay of Islands was as far north as you had planned to go then you’re likely missing the highlight of Northland – Cape Reinga and Ninety Mile Beach, one of New Zealand’s best beaches.
Cape Reinga is a truly stunning area that sits at the most northern point of New Zealand. Ninety Mile Beach is a very long and beautiful beach that’s not actually 90 miles long (it’s 55 miles) but it’s pretty hard to tell when you’re there!
But for those without transport or short on time, I recommend booking this tour from Paihia. It is great because you’ll jump on a small plane to enjoy a scenic flight as your mode of transport to Cape Reinga – this saves you hours of driving! Then once you land in Cape Reinga, you’ll visit Ninety Mile Beach, drive along the beach, explore Cape Reinga Lighthouse, and visit Tapotupotu Beach. It’s a 2.5-hour tour of Cape Reinga before your flight back to Paihia.
Overall, this is a great tour in the Bay of Islands if you aren’t planning on visiting the area independently. Please note, I have not done this tour as I visited Cape Reinga on my own.
14. Go on a scenic flight
Views of the Bay of Islands only get better with elevation so if you aren’t game to go skydiving then a scenic flight will literally take your breath away. There are a few options when it comes to scenic flights (they are one of the most popular activities in the Bay of Islands) but your main decision will be either helicopter or plane.
Of course, a plane is the cheaper option but my recommendation is to do what I did and take a helicopter. We all fly on planes but an experience in a helicopter is one I’ll never forget!
For a great helicopter ride, I recommend this tour that lasts for 20 minutes and takes you out to the Hole in Rock. Or, if you’ve already seen the rock, this 30-minute tour along the coast is perfect. For those wanting an airplane flight, this tour includes 2 scenic flights to and from Cape Reinga with a 2.5-hour guided tour.
Related Read: For another awesome scenic flight, read about our Mount Cook Helicopter Ride.
15. Visit the stunning Rainbow Falls
For those after a very short hike to a stunning waterfall, you can’t skip Rainbow Falls. It’s an 89ft (27m) waterfall located only a 25-minute drive from Paihia. The walk from the parking lot to the falls is only a quarter of a mile (400 meters) one way. This short hike is accessible by wheelchair and once there you can visit a few different viewpoints from both the bottom of the falls and the top.
If it’s warm enough it’s safe to swim here and you’ll often find people cooling off in the middle of the day.
16. Set sail on the R Tucker Thomson historic ship
Easily one of the most famous working boats in Northland, the R Tucker Thompson, is truly a sight to behold. At 85 feet long (26 meters), you can’t but miss this replica vintage schooner in Russell bay. In fact, this is one of the only places in the world where you can cruise the waters on such a heritage boat!
This half-day tour (it’s 5.5 hours long to be exact) departs from Russell, included in your ticket is a free ferry ride from Paihia to Russell should you need it.
Relax as you set sail to discover the Bay of Islands from the water, help your skipper hoist the sail, and then climb up the rigging if you’re feeling brave! The boat will stop for a time in a secluded bay where you can go swimming in the clear waters – working up your appetite for the delicious BBQ lunch they serve on board. This particular tour costs around $161 NZD per person!
17. Walk the Opua Forest Lookout Track
For those not doing a scenic flight or skydive, there is one other way to get a great view of the Bay of Islands and that’s via the Opua Forrest Track. This short 15-minute trail (one way) leads through the thick Opua Forrest to a small viewing deck.
From here you can enjoy views of the bay as well as enjoy some time surrounded by a stunning forest filled with old trees. The view is good but not spectacular.
There are two ways to hike the trail with the shorter version starting from Oromahoe Road, Opua. From this road, the track is well signposted with a parking lot on this road on the right-hand side coming from Opua.
The longer way starts in Paihia at the start of School Road. From here it takes just over an hour to complete the walk up and back down.
Related Read: Our ultimate guide to Whanganui Journey – one of New Zealand’s Great Walks!
18. Flagstaff Hill in Russell
For those staying in Russel, there’s also a great viewpoint trail for you to enjoy right from town. The Flagstaff Hill in Russell is, in my opinion, a much better view than the Opua Forrest Lookout but doesn’t pass through the same beautiful forest. However, it is even more appealing to people because you can also drive up if you don’t want to walk the 1.6 miles loop (2.5 kilometers).
If you do want to hike the trail then check out the DOC website for the trailhead location which changes depending on the tide. This is a good viewpoint and also a historical place where the Union Jack was first flown in New Zealand in 1840.
19. Have lunch at Paroa Bay Winery
Situated high above Paroa Bay and boasting some of the best ocean views in the Bay of Islands – Paroa Bay Winery is a must-visit for any wine lover. The winery has only been in operation since 2012, yet it has over 16,000 vines. The main wines they produce here are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Merlot, and Syrah.
What I especially love about Paroa Bay Winery is their holistic approach to wine production, they rely only on the natural cycle of seasons and don’t use irrigation!
You can try out their delicious wines at their on-site restaurant Sage which specializes in using fresh New Zealand produce especially seafood. The staff can pair each dish with one of their wines. Sage is open from 12 pm daily but is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. They also offer a complimentary shuttle service to and from Russell, but this needs to be booked in advance.
20. Drive, Kayak, or Walk to Haruru Falls
Haruru Falls is another waterfall located in the Bay of Islands area. To be honest, it’s not the most beautiful waterfall and does not compare to Rainbow Falls mentioned above. But it’s not just about the falls and getting there is exciting because you can either drive, walk, or join a kayaking tour.
The kayaking tour is what makes Haruru Falls worth a visit and a really fun day out. The tour has you paddling right up to the falls before enjoying a swim if you want. The 5.6-mile (9 kilometers) walking track that starts in Waitangi is also popular however I haven’t completed it.
Alternatively, you can just drive up to the falls from Paihia by heading to Haruru Falls Road.
21. Hike the Cape Brett Walkway
If you came to the Bay of Islands for a real adventure then nothing beats the Cape Brett Walkway. This 2-day 1-night hike to the most beautiful and unique DOC run hut in New Zealand is truly spectacular.
The trail isn’t easy though and involves a 10-mile (6.2 kilometers) walk each way that takes around 7 hours to complete. However, the walk is stunning and the hut? Well, you’re paying peanuts ($15 NZD) for such a stunning location.
There is a lot to know about this hike so be sure to read up on the official DOC website about the track. The hut does need to be booked in advance here but usually has space even in the summer months. There is also a trail maintenance fee of $40 NZD for adults and $20 NZD for children.
This is easily the best hike in the region yet it remains unknown and off the beaten path!
Where to Stay in the Bay of Islands
There are two main towns perfect for exploring the Bay of Islands. They are Paihia and Russell. Both towns offer lots of accommodation options and sit on the shores of the bay.
With that said, Paihia is the more convenient option and more tours are offered from there. The downside to Paihia is that it is much busier and in summer, is filled with tourists. Russell, on the other hand, remains far less crowded.
Centabay Lodge– This is easily my top choice in Paihia. Despite offering some dorm rooms, it’s not just a hostel but more of a cheap place for families and couples to stay. They offer dorm beds but also beautiful privates and they’re located right on the beach! Honestly, check this place out – but book in advance as it’s always sold out! You can book on Hostelworld or Booking.com.
Austria Motel – If being close to town is important then you can’t beat the Austria Motel. This place is super affordable and offers studio and 2-bedroom apartments. This is a very welcoming place to stay with great facilities.
Chalet Romantica – As you may have guessed Chalet Romantica is for couples visiting the Bay of Islands. This small boutique hotel is one of the best rated in town and comes with all the nice luxuries without a ridiculous price. The views from the property are amazing and it includes breakfast for every room.
Motel Russell – If you’re after a budget option in Russell this is your best option. For just over $100 NZD a night you can get yourself a studio in this modest motel. The reviews are quite good but it’s nothing fancy.
The Duke Of Marlborough – As the name suggests this is a rather nicer option in Russell however surprisingly the price doesn’t reflect that. It’s located right in town and on the water and the rooms are vibrant and decorated to the colors of the sea. Also, the reviews are very good!
Thanks for reading!
Thanks so much for reading our guide to all the best things to do in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. I really hope this guide has helped you plan your trip to this stunning region. If you have any questions please leave them below.
Also if you liked this article then be sure to jump over to our official New Zealand page for more great travel guides or check out these related articles below: