Inside: All the best things to do and see in the Bay of Islands, plus why Paihia makes the ideal home base to explore.
We’re nearing the end of this epic 3-month Round-the-World honeymoon, but luckily we still have two incredible destinations left on the itinerary. With a blissful week in Fiji behind us, it’s time to return to winter in the Southern hemisphere.
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All but one of my previous trips to New Zealand have been during the sunny summertime months of January and February.
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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.
Where is the Bay of Islands?
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.
Where to Stay in the Bay of Islands
We chose the seaside town of Paihia as our base for exploration in 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 have 7 nights to spend in New Zealand – 5 of them in Paihia – we again chose to rent an apartment. And, like earlier this month in South Korea, we scored a great place for well under $100 a night.
Auckland to Paihia
We land in Auckland just after 5:00pm and pick up the rental car we booked through RentalCars.com. From there, it’s an easy 3-hour drive north to Paihia.
Along the way, we stop to pick up some wine (because, New Zealand) and groceries.
The perfect apartment in Paihia
We arrive at our rental cottage, the Allure Lodge Cottage, in the hills overlooking Paihia a little after 9:00pm. I’m thrilled to discover it’s just as adorable as the pictures on Booking.com.
It even comes with a free cat, Daisy, a bonus in anyone’s book. Technically, Daisy belongs to the owners living in the main house next door. However, it quickly becomes evident she is perfectly comfortable entering the cottage any time we helpfully leave the door open.
The owners are away when we arrive but the door is unlocked and the keys are on the kitchen table for us. We unpack, settle in, un-cork the wine, and whip up late-night dinner after our long travel day.
With 4 full days ahead of us to explore the area, there’s plenty of time to relax and ease into our visit.
Things to do in the Bay of Islands
There are plenty of things to see and do in the Bay of Islands. Most of the day trips are boat trips that explore some of the outer islands. We’ll get to those in due course. But first, we want to check out a few of the sights located in and around Paihia.
First stop, a glow worm cave (naturally).
A Visit to a Glow Worm Cave
We indulge in a bit of a sleep-in after our late arrival last night, then hit the road for our first tourist activity of the day…a glow worm cave.
New Zealand is chocked full of unique experiences but a visit to a glow worm cave is likely to 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.
The Kawiti Glow Worm Caves
We arrive at Kawiti just before noon and are 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.
The glow worm cave experience:
We enter the cave following our guide along a wooden boardwalk and are quickly immersed in darkness. Our guide turns on a flashlight to light our path as we wind our way deeper into the cave. We duck around stalactites hanging from the ceiling and weave past stalagmites jutting up from the ground.
As we reach a good stopping place, our guide explains a bit about the short life cycle of a glow worm. Then, he turns off his light so we can get our first look at them. With the cave plunged into darkness, thousands of luminous glow worms are instantly visible dotting the ceiling of the cave like stars in the sky.
It’s actually pretty magical!
We continue 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 leads back to the parking lot.
Bay of Islands – Haruru Falls
From the glow worm caves, we have time to take in a few more sights before sunset.
After a quick perusal of the map, we decide on Haruru Falls, just a few minute’s 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 leads 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 is a typical rainy winter day so we choose to relax and enjoy the cottage for the morning.
Later, we head over to check out the Northland Wine Trail. 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.
Our apartment hosts recommended the Marsden Estate for our wine tasting experience. The vineyards are beautiful and we enjoy tasting several great wines including a fantastic Pinot Gris. The wines are 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 of Islands
The next day the sun shines again and the temps rise into the 60’s. It’s the perfect day to hit the open water for a boat trip around the Bay.
We booked the “Discover the Bay” trip with a company called Explore. The trip includes a cruise around the islands, a visit to the Hole in the Rock, and a picnic lunch at Otehei Bay.
Our trip begins with a relaxing, narrated cruise around some of the Bay’s most scenic islands. Our captain explains the history of the islands and points out some of the more spectacular homes and other accommodations in the area.
Cape Brett & the Hole in the Rock
From there, we head toward our primary goal for the day, Cape Brett and the Hole in the Rock.
When we boarded, our captain told us the conditions aren’t ideal for reaching the area but he will try to get us there if he can. As we head out into open water, the ride definitely gets rougher for the 30 minutes or so it takes to reach Cape Brett’s scenic lighthouse.
Just past the lighthouse, we reach 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.
It’s actually quite reminiscent of the Arch of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
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We stop 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 are spectacular. We could have spent days exploring them all and finding every hidden beach. But, alas, our stop on the island is only an hour-long and before we know it, it’s time to re-board the boat and head back to town.
Dolphins and Rainbows
On the ride back, we come across a pod of dolphins who stick with us for some of the trip.
We’re disappointed when we finally lose the dolphins, but we look up to see a magnificent rainbow forming over the nearby island. And it’s just the first of several we see that afternoon. What an incredibly beautiful place this is.
At the end of the trip, we have 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 haven’t seen Russell yet, we opt 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 get off the boat and take a walk along the charming shops fronting the water before settling in for some of New Zealand’s famous green-lipped mussels at a waterfront restaurant.
Later that afternoon we catch the last ferry back to Paihia (framed by yet another rainbow) and head back to the cottage to pack up. Tomorrow, we’re heading back to Auckland and I’m already sad to leave this amazing place.
Bay of Islands back to Auckland
For our last 2 days in New Zealand, I’m excited to show Dave one of my favorite cities in the world, Auckland. I’ve visited Auckland on most of my 9 round the world trips. Not only is it a fabulous city, but it’s also the perfect gateway to the islands of the South Pacific.
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I booked us a room at the Hilton Auckland on Princes Wharf. It’s my favorite hotel in the city because of its fantastic views of the harbor. We even lucked into an upgrade to a beautiful corner suite with panoramic views of the harbor and bridge.
It’s another unseasonably warm winter day so we begin our day with a walk over to the Sky Tower. The Sky Tower observation deck has the best view of the city. And, as a bonus, you can watch the Sky Jumpers plunge off the top of the Southern hemisphere’s tallest tower every 20 minutes.
If that’s not entertaining, I don’t know what it.
From there, we head over to the waterfront for one last meal of delicious green-lipped mussels. Man, I’m going to miss those.
It’s a perfect day for a walk along the waterfront. Dozens of sailboats cruise by enjoying the spectacular winter day. Not a bad way to end our excellent week in New Zealand.
Overall, we got fairly lucky with the winter weather while here in the Bay of Islands. 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!
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