15 Unforgettable Things to Do in Bay of Islands, New Zealand

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The Bay of Islands is a stunning holiday destination in subtropical Northland in the far north of New Zealand. It’s an area of idyllic islands, golden beaches, rolling green hills, and native forest rich with birds.

It’s an important place in New Zealand’s history—Waitangi is known as the birthplace of the nation, and Russell is the oldest and prettiest town in the country.

If you love beaches, water activities, and coastal hikes, don’t miss Bay of Islands.

Here are my picks for the best things to do in Bay of Islands as well as where to stay, how to get there, and a map of the top Bay of Islands activities.

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Where to Stay in Bay of Islands

The Best Base for Bay of Islands

The three main towns in the Bay of Islands are Paihia, Russell, and Kerikeri.

Paihia is the most popular base. This small seaside town has the most accommodation, restaurants, and tour options, and it’s conveniently located on the mainland.

Paihia is the best place to stay if you want to be in the heart of the action and have easy access to the rest of Northland or are visiting without a car.

While Paihia is pleasant enough, we much prefer Russell. It’s smaller, quieter, prettier, and full of historic charm.

The Strand waterfront road in Russell, the best base for Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Russell’s waterfront street The Strand

Russell is a bit harder to reach as it’s on a peninsula and is best accessed from the mainland via a short car ferry ride from Opua.

There are passenger ferries ($13 return) between Russell and Paihia, which only take 15 minutes, so it’s easy to visit one from the other.

Kerikeri is a bigger town a 30-minute drive north of Paihia. While I think it’s worth visiting, I wouldn’t stay here as it’s away from the sea.

Where We Stayed in Russell

Sunset view from our Russell holiday house in Bay of Islands
Sunset view from our Russell holiday house

We stayed in this beautiful two-bedroom house with incredible bay views from all rooms and the large terrace. It’s immaculate and well-equipped.

The house is only a five-minute drive from Russell, but it feels far away from it all up on a hill. We heard kiwis at night and saw many native birds in our garden during the day.

If you have a car, it’s the perfect place for a relaxing stay. Check prices and availability here.

Other Options

If you’d rather be in walking distance of restaurants, beaches, and the ferry to Paihia, stay in the centre of Russell.

The 19th century Duke of Marlborough Hotel has the perfect location on the waterfront. Go for a room with a sea view and balcony.

If you’d like to stay at the best beach in the area, look for a bach at Oneroa Bay, a five-minute drive from Russell. Options include Pencarrow Cottage, Oceanfront Beach House, and Godwin Cottage 1950s Bach.

Another lovely, secluded spot five minutes from Russell is Tapeka Point—staying in one of the beachfront baches would be wonderful.

Tapeka Point Beach in Russell New Zealand
Holiday homes at Tapeka Point Beach near Russell

For a truly unique and luxurious stay, check out romantic Donkey Bay Inn. It’s hidden away above a secluded beach next to Oneroa Bay with the most spectacular views. It’s on our wish list for next time.

Search for more accommodation in Russell here.

Or browse the options in Paihia here.

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Best Things to Do in Bay of Islands

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1) Cruise the Islands

Viewpoint on Motuarohia or Roberton Island in Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Viewpoint on Motuarohia Island

The absolute best thing to do in Bay of Islands is get out on the water and explore the 144 islands in this natural harbour.

On a Bay of Islands boat trip you’ll see dramatic rock formations, lush green islands, sandy beaches, native birds, and, if you are lucky, dolphins, seals, and whales.

We sailed ourselves in a small yacht as part of a six-day learn to sail in the Bay of Islands course.

Most people take a day cruise that includes the iconic Hole in the Rock and perhaps a stop at one of the islands. Here are a few options:

  • Bay Discovery Cruise with Explore – This is one of the main companies that run larger boat tours. They can pick up in Paihia or Russell. This five-hour cruise includes 1.5 hours on Urupukapuka Island.
  • Day Cruise and Island Getaway – This small group islands cruise from Paihia includes a walk to the viewpoint on Roberton Island and time to snorkel, paddleboard, or relax on Urupukapuka Island.
  • Island Hopper Day Sailing Cruise – Another more intimate trip from Paihia; this one is on a sailing catamaran and includes an island stop with snorkel and paddleboarding gear.
  • Full-Day Tall Ship Sailing Excursion – The Tucker Thompson tall ship is an impressive sight and a fun way to explore the bay. You can help sail the schooner, climb the rigging, or just relax and enjoy the view. Our friends said this trip was one of their New Zealand highlights. You can depart from Russell or Paihia (via the ferry).
View from Moturua Island in Bay of Islands Northland
View from Moturua Island

If you’d rather spend more time on an island and less on a boat, you can take a water taxi to one of the islands.

Urupukapuka Island (see below) is the most accessible with regular ferries in high season.

We also enjoyed Motuarohia Island (also known as Roberton Island), which has a beautiful viewpoint, and Moturua Island, where we saw many native birds (included the rare tieke) on the 4.6km track that loops the island.

We used the Sea Shuttle Bay of Islands water taxi, which runs on-demand from Paihia or Russell. The helpful Russell Information Centre helped us get a group of five together in off season, so it only cost us $60 per person return from Russell to Urupukapuka.

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2) Hike Around Urupukapuka Island

View from Urupukapuka Island in Bay of Islands NZ

Urupukapuka Island is the largest island in the Bay of Islands, and it’s well worth spending the day there in addition to a boat cruise.

We fell in love with its white sand beaches, vibrant green hills, rugged cliffs, and idyllic bays.

It’s perfect for hiking, swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, or relaxing on some of the best beaches in Bay of Islands. In summer, there’s even a cafe in Otehei Bay.

One of our favourite Bay of Islands activities is to hike around the entire island. We walked an 11.5km loop to most of the bays, but there are plenty of shorter hikes.

See my guide to Urupukapuka Island walks for more details.

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3) Explore Historic Russell

The Strand waterfront street in Russell, Bay of Islands NZ
The Strand waterfront street in Russell

I think Russell is the prettiest town in New Zealand and a must-see on your Bay of Islands itinerary.

On the waterfront, historic white buildings, gnarled pohutukawa trees, and an impressive Moreton Bay fig tree overlook the beach and calm bay. It’s a scenic spot for a stroll or sunset drink at one of the cafes.

Russell was the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand, and in the early 1800s, it was a very different place. Known as Kororāreka, it attracted traders and whalers, and the lawless town was know as the Hell Hole of the Pacific.

Now the tiny town has a laid-back atmosphere with its seafront cafes and cute shops (I recommend Newport Chocolates).

There’s not much to do in town, but it’s a charming base for exploring the Bay of Islands. I recommend some hikes and beaches on the peninsula below.

Hone’s Garden is our favourite restaurant in Russell—the wood-fired pizzas are served in their garden (or get a takeaway). Greens is a solid choice for Indian food (there’s also a branch in Paihia).

The iconic Duke of Marlborough Hotel and Restaurant, which dates back to 1827, has the best waterfront location. We enjoyed a sunset drink on their terrace but didn’t eat here as vegetarian options are limited.

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4) Enjoy the View on Flagstaff Hill

View from Flagstaff Hill in Russell, Bay of Islands
View from Flagstaff Hill

One of the best things to do in Russell is visit Flagstaff Hill Historic Reserve. You can drive up, but it’s worth the walk.

At the top there are stunning views down to Russell and over to the islands. Information panels explain the historical significance of the flagstaff.

The Union Jack that flew here in 1840 was cut down four times by Māori leaders in protest against British rule, eventually leading to the Northern War in 1845.

We walked the Flagstaff Hill Track, a 3.4km loop that took us an hour from the centre of Russell.

At low tide, it starts at the far end of the beach over the rocks, up a trail through the forest, and then on the road to the flagstaff. At high tide, walk up Wellington Street to reach the track.

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5) Relax on Long Beach

Long Beach in Russell, Bay of Islands New Zealand

We were regulars at Long Beach (also called Oneroa Bay) during our stay in Russell. It’s the best beach in the area with a lovely curve of golden sand and usually calm water for swimming.

We liked walking here at low tide when the patterns in the sand were exposed. A return walk from one end of the beach to the other took us about 25 minutes.

At low tide, you can scramble over the rocks on the left (facing the sea) to a smaller beach that’s popular with naturists (it was empty on our visit).

You can walk to Long Beach from Russell in 20 minutes or drive in five minutes.

The only facilities are toilets and an occasional coffee cart. One of the beachfront baches would be a great place to stay (see options above).

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6) Walk the Tapeka Point Track

View from Tapeka Point Track in Russell, Bay of Islands
View on the Tapeka Point Track

Our favourite walk near Russell is the Tapeka Point Track at the far end of the peninsula.

From the top there are spectacular 360º views of the surrounding bays and islands. It’s especially beautiful in the late afternoon light and at sunset.

Tapeka Point Track at sunset in Bay of Islands
Sunset over the Bay of Islands from Tapeka Point

It’s a steep but short 1km return walk that took us about 20 minutes. The grassy track can be muddy and slippery after rain.

The trail starts from Du Fresne Place, where you can find street parking. Or park at Tapeka Point Beach and walk from there. It’s a pretty little bay that’s usually calm for swimming.

Tapeka Point is a five-minute drive from Russell or you can walk here in about 30 minutes, but you have to climb up and over a fairly big hill. You could also stop at Flagstaff Hill on the way.

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7) Eat Lunch at Paroa Bay Winery

Lunch at Sage at Paroa Bay Winery near Russell in Bay of Islands

For beautiful food in a beautiful location, head to Sage at Paroa Bay Winery for a leisurely lunch on their hillside terrace overlooking the bay.

A few vegetarian options are marked on the seasonal menu—we shared a beetroot carpaccio and wonderful cheese plate. Their chardonnay and CMC red blend are just as good as the food and setting.

It’s well worth the winding 15-minute drive from Russell. It’s best to book in advance and request an outdoor table.

Omata Estate is another winery and restaurant near Russell, and there are many more in Kerikeri.

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8) Escape the Crowds at Mimiwhangata Coastal Park

Okupe Beach in Mimiwhangata Coastal Park in Bay of Islands
Okupe Beach at Mimiwhangata Coastal Park

If you want to get away from it all, drive the Secret Coast Route from Russell to Helena Bay.

It’s a beautiful, quiet, but nausea-inducing winding road past lush hills, picturesque bays, and native forest.

We’ve visited several beaches and hikes on the route, but our favourite is Mimiwhangata Coastal Park near Helena Bay.

We spent a glorious few hours hiking the trails and relaxing on the wild empty beaches in this stunning park—and we only saw two other people.

We did the Peninsula Loop walk (5km, which took us 1.5 hours), which included some hills but wasn’t too challenging. We hiked through farmland past fluffy black cows and young horses, over ridged green hills, and along sandy beaches.

It’s a breathtaking place and we couldn’t believe we had this hidden gem to ourselves.

Hiking the Peninsula Loop in Mimiwhangata Coastal Park, Bay of Islands
Mimiwhangata Beach in Mimiwhangata Coastal Park, Northland NZ
Mimiwhangata Beach

It took us 1 hour 15 minutes to drive from Russell to Mimiwhangata, and the last 15 minutes is on an unsealed gravel road with farm gates to open and close.

The main car park is in a field next to Okupe Beach. There’s a toilet and info board with a map, but there are no details of the walks, so download the brochure from the DOC website in advance.

If you really want an escape, there are a couple of DOC-managed houses for weekly rentals on Okupe Beach. There’s no cell service and they book up far in advance for the summer.

Helena Bay Gallery and Cafe on the Bay of Islands Secret Route
Helena Bay Gallery and Cafe

After visiting Mimiwhangata, I highly recommend stopping at Helena Bay Gallery and Cafe. This quirky family-run place is 25 minutes from the park up a hill with incredible views over the forest with the sea in the distance.

The sculpture garden and gallery are fun to wander, and the delicious cake (and glass of wine) was much appreciated after our hike.

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9) Learn About Māori Culture at Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Cultural performance in the Te Whare Rūnanga (Carved Meeting House) at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Paihia
Traditional welcome to the cultural performance

Waitangi Treaty Grounds are one of the top Bay of Islands attractions.

It’s an important historical site where the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, was signed in 1840 by Māori leaders and the British Crown.

It’s so much more than just a museum. You need at least three hours and could spend the whole day here learning about the history and Māori culture. The grounds are beautiful with views over the bay to Russell.

Highlights for us were:

  • 50-minute guided tour for an overview of the history of the treaty.
  • Cultural performance in the Te Whare Rūnanga (Carved Meeting House) including songs, poi, and haka (traditional war dance).
  • Huge waka (war canoe) built in 1940 to hold up to 150 paddlers.

The Waitangi Experience Pass costs $50 for international visitors and $25 for NZ residents and is valid for two days. It includes entrance to two interactive museums, guided tours, and performances.

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are a five-minute drive outside Paihia.

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10) Admire Haruru Falls

Haruru Falls near Paihia, one of the best Bay of Islands attractions

Haruru Falls are worth a quick stop while you are in Paihia. These horseshoe-shaped falls are short but wide and intensely powerful after rain—Haruru means “big noise”.

We drove to Haruru after visiting Waitangi (the falls are a short walk from the car park), but you can also walk there on a 6km trail (each way) through mangroves and along the Waitangi River.

The most fun way to experience the power of the falls is in a kayak. This one way Waterfall and Mangrove Kayak trip is suitable for all levels and takes you through mangroves on the way to the waterfall.

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11) Hike the Bay of Islands Coastal Walkway

Opua to Paihia Coastal Walkway, one of the best Bay of Islands activities
The Opua to Paihia Coastal Walkway

The Bay of Islands Full Circle Coastal Walkway connects Paihia to Russell in a loop hike that includes two ferries (Opua to Okiato and Russell to Paihia).

You can start at any point and it takes up to six hours for the 14km hike. The trail is a mix of boardwalk through mangroves, dirt and gravel trails through forest and along the coast, and road walking (outside Russell).

We did shorter sections of the track, and the one I most recommend is from Paihia to Opua. It has the best sea views and is easier than the steep forest track near Okiato.

We did this from Russell by parking at the Okiato car ferry terminal (a 10-minute drive from Russell), taking the short ferry ride as passengers ($1 each) to Opua and walking to Paihia Wharf. If you are staying in the centre of Russell, take the passenger ferry to Paihia and walk from there.

Each way the walk was 6.5km and took us 1.5 hours. There are some ups and downs but nothing too steep. My favourite part is walking around the bay in the little port town of Opua, admiring the yachts in the marina, discovering little beaches, and eyeing up the holiday homes on the water.

We had a Mexican lunch at El Cafe in Paihia and then walked back.

It’s best at low or mid tide so you can walk on the beach outside Paihia—otherwise, you’ll have to walk on the road.

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12) Discover Waterfalls and Historic Sites in Kerikeri

Rainbow Falls in Kerikeri
Rainbow Falls

Kerikeri is the largest town in the area. It’s located inland and is surrounded by gentle rolling hills and farms growing grapes, oranges, avocados, and kiwifruit—look for the roadside farm stands or visit the weekend farmers market.

My favourite thing to do in Kerikeri is swim in the large pool at the lovely 27-metre Rainbow Falls.

The waterfall is only a short walk from the car park (there’s also a tea house), but it’s worth continuing down the Kerikeri River Track.

It’s an easy, pretty walk through a forest of young kauri and totara trees, along the river, past more waterfalls and the 1930 hydro-electric station, which provided the first electricity to the area.

We finished our walk at the Georgian Stone Store, which dates back to 1832 and now sells souvenirs and local products.

It’s part of the 1819 Kerikeri Mission Station including Kemp House, New Zealand’s oldest European building, which can be visited on a guided tour.

The complex is worth visiting even just to stroll the gardens and have a drink or meal at the Honey House Cafe.

The river walk from Rainbow Falls car park to Kemp House is 4km and takes about an hour each way.

Other popular stops in Kerikeri include the Makana chocolate shop and wineries such as Ake Ake, Marsden, and Cottle Hill.

You can also do a scenic skydive in Kerikeri.

Kerikeri is about an hour’s drive from Russell (via the Opua ferry) and 30 minutes from Paihia.

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13) See Giant Kauri Trees in Puketi Forest

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