Bay of Islands, New Zealand

An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983

Bay of Islands

Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Stunning scenery, pristine beaches, and important historical sites: the Bay of Islands is one of the highlights of New Zealand’s North Island.

Around three hours drive (or a 35 minute flight) north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands consists of 144 islands between Cape Brett and the Purerua Peninsula. Uniquely, the Bay of Islands has a subtropical micro-climate, making it part of the ‘winterless north’, with hot summer temperatures (usually reaching the early 30s celsius) and a mild winter (with days getting up to 25 degrees celsius) meaning that water-based activities can be enjoyed all year around.

The Bay of Islands has played an important role in New Zealand’s history. Around 700 years ago, Maori tradition holds, the great voyaging canoe Mātaatua reached the Bay of Islands from Hawaikithe ancestral home of the Polynesian people. The captain of the canoe was Puhi, one of the progenitors of the Ngāpuhi iwi (or tribe), the most populous iwi in contemporary New Zealand, with over 125, 000 people identifying as Ngāpuhi in the 2013 census. Significant Ngāpuhi and other Maori settlements were established both on the islands and on the peninsulas and inlets of the bay.

Bay of Islands
Aerial view of the Bay of Islands, New Zealand.

The first European to visit the area was Captain James Cook, who sailed past in 1769, and gave the area the name ‘Bay of Islands’. It was the first area in New Zealand to be settled by pakeha (or European New Zealanders). Whalers arrived in the late 18th century, with the first missionaries landing in 1814. The first European child born in New Zealand, Thomas King, was born in the Bay of Islands at Oihi Bay in 1815.

The town of Russell, known in the early 19th century as Kororareka, was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi, establishing the conditions of European settlement in New Zealand, was signed on the island of Waitangi, in the Bay of Islands. The treaty is today regarded as a founding document of New Zealand.

Things to see:

Bay of Islands - Dolphins
Dolphins are frequently seen in the Bay of Islands.

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a must-do site for all visitors to New Zealand keen to learn about the island’s history. Waitangi was traditionally a meeting ground for the peoples of the Bay of Islands, and is today a place of ‘spiritual, cultural and historical importance for Aotearoa New Zealand’. The Treaty Grounds today is now a museum complex, combining historic sites with Maori cultural experiences. The Treaty House was the first residence for British Government officials in New Zealand, with the Treaty signed at the Flagstaff in its grounds. The Museum of Waitangi uses a variety of interactive technologies to bring the story of the Treaty to life.

The Treaty Grounds also offers a number of opportunities to experience the history and culture of Maori New Zealanders. The Te Rau Aroha museum tells the stories of Maori who fought in New Zealand’s armed services, while the Te Whare Rūnanga (The House of Assembly) is a stunning meeting house dating from the 1940s, carved in the distinct styles of iwi from all over New Zealand. The ceremonial war canoe Ngātokimatawhaorua is the world’s largest, built in 1940 to mark the centenary of the Treaty. The Carving Studio allows visitors to meet artists working in ancient Maori tradition, and learn more about the intricacies of Maori wood carving. In the evening, the Treaty Grounds play host to a traditional Hāngi and Concert, offering a traditional cultural performance, followed by a hāngi feast cooked in an earth oven.

The town of Russell, previously known as Kororareka, was the first European seaport and settlement in New Zealand. In its early years it had an infamous reputation as a lawless and rowdy place inhabited by deserting seamen, runaway convicts, and bootleggers, nicknamed the ‘hellhole of the Pacific’. Today, Russell is a holiday town, attracting visitors to its historic buildings (many dating to the 1840s), including New Zealand’s first pub, the Duke of Marlborough, and attractive seafront location.

Nearby Okiato, also known as Old Russell, was New Zealand’s first capital, from 1840 to 1841, before the seat of government was moved to Auckland. Kerikeri Mission is home to New Zealand’s oldest European structure, a Georgian-style wooden house built in 1822, and its oldest stone building, built 1835. Te Waimate Mission is New Zealand’s second-oldest house and oldest farm, built 1831. It hosted Charles Darwin in 1835, as he circumnavigated the world on the HMS Beagle. The Pompallier Mission was the headquarters of the French Catholic Mission to New Zealand, with a printery used to translate Christian religious texts into Maori.

'Hole in the Rock'
‘Hole in the Rock’, Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands is also renowned for its beautiful scenery: crystal clear waters, isolated coves, and the world’s second bluest skies (beaten only by Rio de Janiero). With warm, calm waters, it is a marine playground, perfect for swimming, boating, kayaking, diving, and other aquatic activities. Take a cruise around the bay to see dolphins, whales and seals, and look overhead to see seabirds including gannets, gulls, petrels and mutton birds. On land, songbirds rest in the treetops of the native rainforest, and dotterels and oystercatchers play on the beach.

Make sure to look out for the ‘Hole in the Rock’ on Motukokako (aka Piercy Island) on your cruise of the bay, a natural passageway in the rocks, big enough for a cruise vessel to pass through. On land, Haruru Falls is a stunning opportunity for kayaking and walking, while Rainbow Falls is a stunning single-drop waterfall, easily accessible by walking trail.

Walk New Zealand with Odyssey Traveller:

Tongariro Crossing.

Odyssey Traveller visits the Bay of Islands as part of our walking tour of New Zealand. Beginning in Auckland, our tour first heads north to the Bay of Islands, where we base ourselves in Russell for walks around the golden beaches of the Bay of Islands. We then head south to Auckland city, stopping for a nights accommodation, before we enjoy a walking tour through the Turangi Wetlands. We then head to Tongariro National Park, home to the iconic Tongariro Crossing. Tongariro is a dual World Heritage Area, recognised both for its Maori spiritual significance and for the natural beauty of its three volcanoes. We undertake a challenging eight-hour hike through the spectacular scenery of the national park.

The day after our walk we head to Rotorua in order to fly to Queenstown on the South Island, before driving to Wanaka, the base for much of our walking holiday. Wanaka is set among the stunning Mount Aspiring National Park. We enjoy a scenic flight of New Zealand’s southern alps, and a three-hour walk with views over Aoraki (Mount Cook). The tour then heads to Te Anau, on Lake Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park, the largest of New Zealand’s many national parks. We hike part of the Milford Track, rivalled only by the Routeburn Track as New Zealand’s most famous great walk, which links Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound.

The following day, we catch the ferry to remote Stewart Island, south of the South Island, a natural wilderness virtually untouched by the modern world, where we see the iconic kiwi on a guided walkReturning to the South Island, we stay in Queenstown, on Lake Wakatipu, enjoying a short walk in Invercargill, and a trip to the charming Gold Rush village of Arrowtown.

Odyssey Traveller has specialised in bringing Australian travellers to the world since 1983. In recent months, with the current coronavirus outbreak, we are reorienting towards tours of Australia and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand – along with other small countries including South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – have been successful in containing the number of coronavirus cases through a strong system of testing, tracing, and quarantine, and are starting to lift strict lockdown measures. We anticipate that with further lifting of coronavirus restrictions we will be able to travel by domestic flight later this year, and indications are – given talks between the Australian government and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – that there may be opportunities for trans-Tasman travel. While the coronavirus pandemic might mean that your cruise ship holiday or trip to the United States will have to be cancelled, there’s no reason to give up on your travel dreams entirely, especially when Australia and New Zealand have so much to offer. 

Every Odyssey Traveller guided tour is designed for mature and senior travellers, who seek an authentic experience of their destinations. While our tours take you to the major tourist attractions – Wellington, Christchurch, Franz Josef Glacier and Milford Sound – we also pride ourselves on getting off the beaten track, taking you to lesser known sites. Our guided walking tour is led by an experienced tour guide, chosen for their in-depth knowlege of New Zealand, and is joined by local guides. The tour price includes accommodation, entrance fees for attractions, and several meals, including breakfasts, lunch, and dinners.

For more information on our New Zealand walking tour, click here. Hiking fans may also be interested in our numerous walking tours.

Queenstown, Otago, New Zealand
Queenstown, Otago, New Zealand

Articles about New Zealand published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to New Zealand:

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