With a blissful week in Fiji behind us, it was time to return to winter in the Southern hemisphere. All but one of my previous trips to New Zealand have been during the sunny summertime months of January and February. And while the North Island has generally mild winters, we wanted to give ourselves the best chance of the warmest temperatures so we decided to focus on the northernmost part of the North Island – the Bay of Islands – for our New Zealand stop.
Made up of 144 subtropical islands, the Bay of Islands is known for the beauty of its untouched beaches and the historical significance of its many Maori cultural artifacts. Just a 3 hour drive north of Auckland, it’s a popular destination for both Kiwis and international tourists alike.
The Maori were the first settlers in New Zealand, arriving in canoes nearly 1,000 years ago. The first European to sight the country was a Dutchman but it was the British who later made New Zealand part of their empire with the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The treaty established British law and is considered the founding document of New Zealand. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where the treaty was signed, is one of the most significant historical attractions in the Bay of Islands.
We chose the seaside town of Paihia as our base for exploration of the Bay of Islands. From Paihia, a variety of cruises take visitors out to the major attractions in the bay like the Hole in the Rock and Cape Brett. Since we had 7 nights to spend in New Zealand – 5 of them in Paihia – we again elected to rent an apartment through Airbnb. And, like earlier this month in South Korea, we scored a great place for well under $100 a night.
We landed in Auckland just after 5pm and picked up our rental car for the 3 hour drive north to Paihia, stopping along the way to pick up some wine and groceries.
We arrived at our rental cottage in the hills overlooking Paihia a little after 9pm and it was just as adorable as the pictures we’d seen. It even came with a free cat, Daisy, a bonus in anyone’s book. Daisy belonged to the owners living in the main house next door and was perfectly comfortable entering the cottage any time we felt obliged to leave the door open for her.
The owners were away but they’d left the door open and the keys on the kitchen table for us. We unpacked, settled in, popped open the wine and cooked a late-night dinner after our long travel day. With 4 full days ahead of us to explore the area, we had plenty of time to relax and ease into our visit.
Glow Worm Caves
We slept in a bit the next morning before embarking on our first tourist activity of the day…a glow worm cave.
New Zealand is stocked full of unique experiences but a visit to a glow worm cave would likely make any visitor’s Top 10. A distant relative of the more common lightning bug, glow worms are actually insects that glow through bioluminescence. While they can be found in smaller numbers in India, Morocco and Australia, the caves of New Zealand are their primary habitat.
The glow worm caves of Waitomo are New Zealand’s largest and most famous but there are several others including the smaller Kawiti Caves just a few miles from Paihia. We arrived at Kawiti just before noon and were joined by only one other family on our semi-private tour.
The Kawiti caves were discovered in the early 17th century by Roku, a runaway wife of the Nagatitu Tribe who used the caves as shelter. She was later discovered by a famous chieftainess of the Ngati hine Tribe who saw smoke coming from the caves. Today, the caves are owned and operated by the Kawiti family, direct descendants of that chieftainess.
You can’t take pictures inside the glow worm caves so I’ll have to set the scene for you. We entered the cave following our guide along a wooden boardwalk and were quickly immersed in darkness. Our guide turned on a flashlight to light our path as we wound our way deeper into the cave ducking around stalactites hanging from the ceiling and weaving past stalagmites jutting up from the ground.
As we reached a good stopping place, our guide explained a bit about the short life cycle of a glow worm and then turned off his light so we could get our first look at them. With the cave plunged into darkness, thousands of luminous glow worms were instantly visible dotting the ceiling of the cave like stars in the sky. It was actually pretty magical!
We continued along through several more caves, including one they call the “Milky Way,” before emerging back into the sunlight into a lush green rain forest with a hiking trail that led back to the parking lot.
From the glow worm caves, we had time to take in a few more sights before sunset. After a quick perusal of the map, we decided on Haruru Falls, just a few minutes’ drive from Paihia.
Maori for “big noise,” Haruru was once home to more than 100 Maori villages lining the banks of the river. The falls are unique in their natural horseshoe-shaped design and a short walking trail led from the empty parking lot right to their edge. Maori legend says that a water monster lives in the lagoon below the falls…but we can neither confirm nor deny that based on our brief visit.
The Northland Wine Trail
The next day was a typical rainy winter day so we elected to relax and enjoy the cottage for the morning and then check out the Northland Wine Trail that afternoon. New Zealand is well-known for its wine industry and the first vines were planted in the Bay of Islands in 1819 by missionary Reverend Samuel Marsden.
Wine production began in earnest in the late 1800’s but it wasn’t until the 1990’s that New Zealand wines began to make their mark on the worldwide wine industry. Today, Marlborough is the country’s most famous wine-producing region (and home to my favorite sauvignon blancs!) but Northland wines are gaining popularity with tropical Chardonnays and spicy Syrahs.
Based on a recommendation from our Airbnb hosts, we chose the Marsden Estate for our wine tasting experience and enjoyed several great wines including a fantastic Pinot Gris. The wines were the perfect accompaniment to a delicious lunch with a view of the vineyards. Not a bad way to spend a rainy winter afternoon.
Cruising the Bay
The next day the sun shone again and the temps rose into the 60’s. It was the perfect day to hit the open water for a boat trip around the Bay. We chose the “Discover the Bay” trip with a company called Explore which included a cruise around the islands, a visit to the Hole in the Rock and a picnic lunch at Otehei Bay.
Our trip began with a relaxing, narrated cruise around some of the Bay’s most scenic islands as our captain explained the history of the islands and pointed out some of the more spectacular homes and other accommodations in the area.
From there, we headed toward our primary goal for the day, Cape Brett and the Hole in the Rock. When we boarded, our captain had told us the conditions weren’t ideal for reaching the area but that he would try to get us there if he could. As we headed out into open water, the ride definitely got rougher for the 30 minutes or so it took to reach Cape Brett’s scenic lighthouse.
Just past the lighthouse we reached our final goal, the Hole in the Rock, also known as Piercy Island. The island is considered the most important in the Bay of Islands in conservation terms due to its near pristine condition with no presence of animals. Centuries of wind and waves have created the 60-foot hole at sea level that is one of New Zealand’s most naturally beautiful sites.
Dolphins and Rainbows
We stopped for photo ops at the Hole in the Rock before continuing on to Otehei Bay for lunch and a little hiking. The island’s hiking trails were spectacular and we could have spent days exploring them all and finding every hidden beach but, alas, our stop on the island was only an hour long and before we knew it, it was time to re-board the boat and head back to town.
On the ride back, we came across a pod of dolphins who stuck with us for some of the trip. When we finally lost the dolphins, we looked up to see a magnificent rainbow forming over the nearby island. It was the first of several we would see that afternoon. What an incredibly beautiful place this is.
At the end of the trip, we had the option to return straight to Paihia or hop off in the town of Russell and take a return ferry at our leisure. Since we hadn’t seen Russell yet, we opted to hop off the boat for a while and check it out.
Russell, New Zealand
Just a 20 minute ferry ride across the bay from Paihia is the historic 19th century whaling town of Russell. While it’s a peaceful and scenic place today, this quaint town was once known as the “hell hole of the Pacific” during its day as a raucous shore leave destination for whalers, sailors and traders. We got off the boat and took a walk along the charming shops fronting the water before settling in for some mussels at a waterfront restaurant.
Later that afternoon we caught the last ferry back to Paihia (framed by yet another rainbow) and headed back to the cottage to pack up for the drive back to Auckland the following day.
Ending in Auckland
For our last 2 days in New Zealand I wanted to show Dave one of my favorite cities in the world, Auckland. We booked a room at the Hilton Auckland on Princes Wharf – my favorite hotel in the city because of its fantastic views. We lucked into an upgrade to a beautiful corner suite with panoramic views of the harbor and bridge.
It was another unseasonably warm winter day so we began our day with a walk over to the Sky Tower to enjoy the best view of the city and watch the Sky Jumpers plunge off the top of the Southern hemisphere’s tallest tower every 20 minutes. Always entertaining.
From there, we headed over to the waterfront for one last meal of New Zealand’s famous green-lipped mussels…man, I’m going to miss those. It was a perfect day for a walk along the waterfront and dozens of sailboats cruised by enjoying the day. Not a bad way to end our excellent week in New Zealand.
We were fairly lucky with the winter weather but for our last stop we’re headed across the Dateline and back to subtropical temperatures to wrap up the world’s longest (and best!) honeymoon…next stop, Tahiti!