A travel guide to the Bay of Islands

. May 08, 2019
A travel guide to the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is a jewel in the North Island’s crown, a region studded with historical and natural treasures. We spend a weekend curating our pick of the gems...

Tucking into perfectly cooked fish and chips on the black-pebbled Russell beach, two Dutch tourists sit watching the orange sun sink slowly into the ocean. “This is paradise,” one of them sighs. The comment reminds us that, as Kiwis, we often take the beauty of our country for granted. In the Bay of Islands, however, it’s hard to ignore that paradise really is right here on our doorstep.

And when you’re in such a breathtaking natural setting, you don’t want to be wasting time scrolling down your phone screen to find the best places to visit, eat and sleep. Which is why we’ve highlighted our top picks for you – so you can focus on enjoying the eye-wateringly lovely surrounds and soaking up the stories of this history-rich region.

bay of islands

Within Russell there are a number of historic spots worth making time for. Pompallier House on the foreshore was built to house the Catholic mission’s printing press in 1842. It’s a beautiful building with a charming garden and a shop selling not just predictable curios but also a good selection of books and games for children.

Give those legs a workout and head up Maiki or Flagstaff Hill, where Hōne Heke three times cut down the flagpole flying the British flag. The 360 degree views from the top will make you glad you braved the climb. At Russell Museum, you’ll find a host of fascinating artefacts including a large-scale model of Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour. Stop in at Christ Church, too, the country’s oldest church, where you can play ‘spot-the-musket-ball-hole’; the building was hit by stray ammo during the Battle of Kororāreka in 1845 and still bears the scars.

When you’re weary of visiting the past, take a stroll through the present with one of the many  bush and bay walks. Or head to Long Beach, the perfect family-friendly swimming spot. Take a picnic and savour the views out to Roberton Island.

Take the short ferry ride between Russell and Paihia for a day trip or whip across the water to change up your dinner spot. Or head up to The Old Packhouse Markets in Kerikeri to stock up on fresh produce and pick up a caramel-filled doughnut and a coffee while you browse stalls like Rongoa Magic’s Māori medicinal balms; Hihi Olive Estate; or woven products from Nuku Craft. Open Saturday 8am-1.30pm and Sunday 9am-1.30pm. Then meander across the road to the Makana Boutique Chocolate Factory and sample their hand-made chocolate and truffles.

Rest your head

1. The Duke of Marlborough
This hotel is not just beloved by the dish team, it’s also an iconic piece of New Zealand history that happens to be located on one the most beautiful spots in the country. Perched on Russell’s waterfront with a view across the bay to Paihia, it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go down, cocktail in hand. The first place to be granted a liquor licence in the country, The Duke has been home to many a fabulous party since. The menu focuses on local produce and the food is consistently good. The rooms have been tastefully renovated and the beds are so comfy we didn’t want to leave.

duke of marlborough hotel

2. The Scenic Hotel
This Paihia hotel is an excellent base from which to explore the area. Designed in a resort-style with large tropical gardens and an outdoor swimming pool, it offers both business and conference facilities. With 114 rooms you could feel cramped but the layout and design ensure privacy and quiet.

scenic hotel bay of islands

Where to play in the Bay of Islands

To properly view the watery wonderland that is the Bay’s coastline you have to be on it. The sea, that is. And Explore boat excursions are your go-to for ferry trips, sailing, cruising and glimpsing the rich marine wildlife – including whales, orcas and our smiley aquatic friend, the dolphin. On the four-and-a-half-hour Discover the Bay experience, you’ll cruise among the 144 islands, ooh and aah at the sight of the occasional pod, explore the iconic Hole in the Rock and, conditions permitting, travel through it. And if your sea-legs are quivering at the thought of all that time on the ocean, don’t worry. You get to take a break at Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island  for lunch or dinner, and go for a wander, a swim or a kayak.

explore boats bay of islands

There’s also the Island Escape Hop On Hop Off option, so you can go free range and explore the islands at your leisure. Snorkel the lagoons on Roberton/Motuarohia Island or enjoy a native bird serenade on wildlife sanctuary Moturoa Island. 

Hit history refresh

No visit to the Bay of Islands is complete without devoting a day, or at least a good few hours, to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.

1. Waitangi Treaty Grounds
It’s our most important historic site, so not only is a visit to the Treaty Grounds a must, but it pays to take a guided tour to fully appreciate the cultural richness and significance of your surrounds. Better still, get a Day Pass, which covers admission to the grounds and museum, viewing of short film Birth of a Nation, a cultural performance and full access to the site’s riches.

treaty of waitangi treaty grounds

2. Te Köngahu Museum of Waitangi 
Nothing beats history told with a modern twist, and the Waitangi museum has stepped firmly into the 21st century with state-of-the-art technology that lets you delve deeper into the site’s stories and artefacts. View the document that changed the nation through a fully interactive multi-media display and marvel at the taonga on display.

treaty of waitangi museum

Where to eat

1. Charlotte’s kitchen
We’re big fans of this place. The location – at the end of the Paihia Wharf surrounded by the sea – has deservedly earned this restaurant and bar the title of “the place with the killer view”. While the menu changes, some favourites remain, and for good reason, such as The Slow-Roasted Free-Range Pork Knuckle served with mash, Bavarian Kraut, apple and radish. It’s best to order ahead. The pizzas are legendary and the Free-Range Rotisserie Chicken is delicious; add a super green slaw to take it to another level. The Salad of Silken Tofu with Pickled Ginger Spring Onion Mint and Cucumber is sublime. The cocktails are excellent (the Bloody Mary will sort any after-the-night-before dustiness) and the wine list well-chosen. We guarantee you’ll make time for more than one meal here during your getaway. 

charlottes kitchen bay of islands

2. Sage
Another restaurant with a fantastic view, this time out over rolling countryside down to Paroa Bay and Roberton Island. Sage, just 15 minutes’ drive from Russell, is part of the family-owned Paroa Bay Winery, which also offers accommodation. Highlights on the menu – Asian/Mediterraean with a focus on garden-to-plate – are the Charred Octopus with Tomato and Capsicum, Chorizo Crumb and Fresh Greens and the Burrata with House Made Olive Tapenade. The dishes have Paroa Bay Wine pairings, which is always the best way to sample.

3. Marsden Estate
Sit on the terrace under the grapevines, enjoy artfully prepared food paired with award-winning wines, and raise a glass to the dish reviewer who led you to this fabulous place. The family-run estate makes wine for some 21 local growers as well as offering tastings and sales of its own collections.

marsden estate bay of islands