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Last Updated on 11/04/2021
Located in Northland at the top of New Zealand’s North Island, the Bay of Islands is an enchanting stretch of coastline characterised by 144 islands, beautiful beaches and history. In the summer, it’s a popular destination for those in Auckland wanting to escape the city.
Dolphin spotting, historic towns, parasailing and sea kayaking are just some of the many thrilling activities you can do here. To help you plan it all, I’ve put together an epic three day Bay of Islands itinerary so you can make the most of your time.
Many travellers arrive in Auckland and make their way down the country, missing the Bay of Islands altogether. I’m here to tell you why you should allow an extra few days to head north instead.
Whether you’re visiting for three days or less or you have an entire week to enjoy, here is everything you need to know when planning your Bay of Islands itinerary. Feel free to mix and match activities to make it your own.
When’s the Best Time to Visit the Bay of Islands?
Located in Northland at the top of New Zealand’s North Island, the Bay of Islands has a subtropical climate which means it rarely drops below 16℃ even in the deepest winter. This makes it an easy destination to visit all year round.
There are still some things you’ll want to take into account. Although fairly hot (24℃), the summer months between December and February see this part of New Zealand get busy as many people leave the city for the summer holidays. You’ll also have plenty of other travellers there too – and the Bay of Islands is not a big place!
If you want to escape the crowds, the shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are perfect. Winter is also great for budget travellers as there are plenty of off-season discounts to make the most of.
How to Get to the Bay of Islands from Auckland?
The journey to the Bay of Islands from the city is a pretty three hours by car via the east coast highway. There are also options to visit with a tour bus or travel up by the InterCity. More info on that here.
How Many Days to Spend in the Bay of Islands?
The Bay of Islands is a stunning corner of New Zealand with plenty of picturesque natural sights and historic towns to explore.
If you’re doing a road trip you can absolutely see some of the top highlights in a flying 24-hour pitstop. However, you’re going to want more time to get a real feel for the place.
Once you arrive, you’ll realise that the Bay of Islands is not for rushing. About three days is the perfect amount of time to see the best of it. And if you fancy staying an extra day or two longer then I honestly wouldn’t blame you.
The Perfect Three Day Bay of Islands Itinerary
If you’re planning to add the Bay of Islands to your New Zealand trip, you’re in luck because I’ve put together the ultimate itinerary to make the most of your time.
Whether you’re staying for a day or a little while longer, here are my top suggestions for your Bay of Islands itinerary. Hint: there’s plenty of nature involved!
Bay of Islands Itinerary Day 1: Historic Towns and Famous Pubs
Kick-off your itinerary with a wander around the neighbourhood, great food and a historic town with original streets dating back to 1843.
Stop for a pint at one of the most famous pubs in New Zealand and see the beauty of the Bay of Islands emerge by ferry.
Start your day nice and early with a morning stroll around Paihia (sunrises across the Bay are really quite magical). Paihia is known as the gateway to the Bay of Islands.
From there you can book ferries to the islands and book a range of activities including kayaking – and skydiving if you’re brave enough. It’s as good a place as any of you want to tick that hair-raising activity off your bucket list!
Wander along the sandy beach or make your way to the wharf where you’ll find a choice of eateries such as Charlotte’s Kitchen. Arriving at the wharf is perfect for your next activity, catching the ferry to Russell.
Board the passenger ferry and take the 15-minute ride across the harbour to the historic town of Russell. Just strolling around it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Much of its original street plans and names from as far back as 1843 remain perfectly intact.
Although small, Russell plays an important part in New Zealand history. In fact, it was the very first European settlement and seaport in New Zealand. When wandering around its 19th-century streets, it’s not hard to imagine what it was like back then. All you’re missing are a few unruly sailors.
Before the Europeans arrived, the area was inhabited by Maori and was then known as Kororareka (which interestingly translates to ‘how sweet is the penguin’). Once European and American ships started to frequent the Bay in the 1800s, Kororareka became a prime trading spot between them and the Maori.
The one big problem was that it grew to be a lawless place. New Zealand’s Wild West if you will. The rowdy port, nicknamed ‘the Hell Hole of the Pacific’, became a hub for prostitution, criminals and all-round bad eggs. There were plenty of wars between Western settlers and Maori too.
You’ll be pleased to know that nowadays the town is much more charming and a must-visit for your Bay of Islands trip. Make sure you stop for a snack and a drink at the iconic Duke of Marlborough, a pub that once served all manner of whalers and sailors!
Bay of Islands Itinerary Day 2: Dolphins, Hole in the Rock and an Important Treaty
One word – dolphins! You can take a catamaran out and see them up close, stopping off at the unmissable Hole in the Rock.
Then it’s back to shore to discover the birthplace of the New Zealand we know today.
No trip to the Bay of Islands is complete without meeting the resident wildlife and observing the natural beauty of the harbour in full.
There are a number of cruise options available to book from the wharf at Paihia. I recommend Fullers Great Sights or this excellent Eco-Certified tour for dolphin watching, seal spotting and a chance to see the formidable Hole in the Rock. If you’re really lucky, you might see a blue penguin or a whale or two too!
The Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise is a half-day excursion lasting about 4 hours. Passengers can sit or stand on deck as the catamaran makes its way to the end of Cape Brett Peninsula and the famous Hole in the Rock on Motukōkako Island. Weather permitting, your skipper may even steer the catamaran through the Hole in the Rock itself.
In case you’re wondering, the Fullers catamaran is fully licensed by the Department of Conservation for dolphin viewing so it’s all perfectly safe and ethical.
Top Tip: Cruises depart daily from Paihia at 9am. They run afternoon trips at the weekend. This is why I recommend the cruise for the second day so you’re not rushing. If you’re there on the weekend, you can absolutely do the cruise on the first day and save Waitangi and Russell for day two.
Waitangi Treaty Grounds
After a thrilling morning on the water, it’s time for some more history and culture. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds mark the site of the Waitangi Treaty, an important document signed by British representatives of the Crown and 500 Maori chiefs in 1840. This event played a vital role in shaping the New Zealand we see today.
Entrance to Waitangi costs 50 NZD and includes access to two contemporary museums, a guided tour around the treaty grounds and heritage buildings.
You’ll also get the chance to see the world’s largest war canoe and cultural performances like the spine-tingling haka (it really is an incredible sight to see live).
The site also has a carving studio, cafe and a gift shop for all your souvenir needs.
Bay of Islands Itinerary day 3: Stunning Hikes and Pretty Beaches
After spending the last few days learning about the important history and exploring some of the famous landmarks, you’ve earned some well-deserved rest on day three.
Go for a walk to Rainbow Falls (you can simply drive up and take a ten-minute stroll to the Falls if you really want to take things slow). Finish off with a relaxing afternoon in the sunshine.
Hike to Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls (Waianiwaniwa in Maori) is a beautiful 27m waterfall about an hour and a half’s walk from the town of Kerikeri depending on the route you take.
Kerikeri is only 20 minutes north of Paihia (by car, and 35 minutes by bus). You can follow the Kerikeri River Track from the historic Stone Store and Mission House.
The hike is arguably one of the best short day tracks in New Zealand which is quite a statement if you’ve seen even a fraction of the landscape the country has to offer!
As you walk, you’ll pass through stunning native bush and basalt lava fields. Nature here gives off a Jurassic vibe and it really feels like you’ve stepped into another place and time.
Once you reach Rainbow Falls (so named for the rainbow you can usually see at the base of the falls), there are several viewing platforms to make the most of. You can also swim in the water below so bring swimmers if it’s warm enough!
Lounge on the Beach
It’s time for some relaxation before you get ready to move on – you’ve earned it! If you want a rest, the Bay of Islands and its laid back way of life is the perfect place. With plenty of amazing beaches to choose from, you can snorkel, parasail, fish or simply sunbathe to your heart’s content.
Possibly the easiest beach to get to is Paihia Town Beach. Accessible from the town centre, this beach is a popular spot for picnics as it’s so close to the shops.
Another favourite is Te Tii Bay, a beautiful sandy beach framed with native pohutukawa trees. It’s an ideal spot for sunset viewing on your last evening.
For somewhere a little sheltered and secret, head to Sullivan’s Bay. The only way to get to it is through the southern end of Paihia Town Beach at low tide. It’s a quiet beach and popular with families.
Bay of Islands Itinerary Bonus: Day Trip to Cape Reinga
Have a little more time in the Bay of Islands?
You’ll be missing out if you head straight back to Auckland without exploring more of the Northland. My top pick is a day trip to Cape Reinga, the northernmost tip of New Zealand.
How to Get to Cape Reinga from the Bay of Islands
Cape Reinga is about three hours from Paihia. The easiest way to get there is by car or coach if you’re not driving.
If you’re doing the latter, I recommend you do this full-day guided tour which picks you up from Paihia. The Eco-Certified tour includes sand-boarding, stunning beaches, the very top of New Zealand and world-famous fish ‘n’ chips for lunch!
Cape Reinga Activities
The activities below are all featured on the tour but you can just as easily plan your own mini self-guided itinerary too.
Giant Sand Dunes
The Giant Sand Dunes or Te Paki Sand Dunes are a remarkable sight to see and it feels like being in a desert. Honestly, you’ll be wondering if you’ve stumbled across a portal to the Sahara.
All jokes aside, it’s essentially a 10km long coastal strip of 150m high sand dunes – and the best thing to do here? Sandboard, of course!
Your tour guide will give you the equipment you need or you can pick up a sandboard for about 10 NZD in the nearby town of Te Kao. Then simply kick off your shoes and climb up the dunes for epic scenery and an adrenaline rush on the way down – just keep your mouth closed unless you want to eat sand.
Cape Reinga Lighthouse
Located in Cape Reinga is a lighthouse. Once you see it, you’ll know you’ve reached the northern tip of New Zealand and although it’s no longer in use, it’s a beacon for visitors from all over the world. It also marks the spot where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea.
Cape Reinga is an important part of Maori culture. Maori people believe that the souls of the dead travel up here to embark on their final journey into the afterlife. Together with the dramatic scenery and colliding oceans, it certainly has a powerful energy.
Ninety Mile Beach
On your way back from Cape Reinga, you can stop off at Ninety Mile Beach. It’s an actual highway but you’ll need to be with a tour to drive it. If you’re lucky you might even spot wild horses among the bushes!
Ninety Mile Beach is renowned for its spectacular sunsets and surfing. Although it seems to stretch on forever, it’s actually only 88km along. On a clear day, the shimmering wet sand at low tide reflects like a mirror.
More Fun Things to See and Do in the Bay of Islands
While three days in the Bay of Islands is a good amount of time, there are still plenty more activities to make the most of. Whether you have more time to spend or you’re looking for alternative attractions, here are some more fun things to do in the Bay of Islands.
Kayaking is a fun way to explore what the Bay of Islands has to offer. You can hire a kayak and island-hop across some of the islands in the bay. Or you can walk from Waitangi to Haruru Falls and go kayaking right underneath the waterfall.
If you’re seeking more of an adrenaline rush, parasailing is always a good option to try. You can ride single, tandem or triple seat at heights of 1,300 feet and get an absolutely stunning bird’s-eye view of the Bay of Islands below. You can find parasailing in Paihia.
Sail the Bay
The 144 islands in the bay keep most of the bad weather out, making this area a fantastic spot for sailing. You can join one day or multi-day sailing excursions involving plenty of island-hopping, swimming and snorkelling. Or, you can try your hand at sailing lessons with the Royal Yachting Association.
Dive a Shipwreck
Ever wanted to scuba dive to a shipwreck? In the Bay of Islands, you can do just that. There are two ships you can see in particular – The Rainbow Warrior, a surprising Greenpeace ship that was bombed in 1985 by covert French agents (now there’s a story!). It’s now become an artificial reef. The second is the HMNZS Canterbury, a frigate that was decommissioned in 2005.
Stop By Tane Mahuta
Known as ‘the lord of the forest’, Tane Mahuta is a majestic kauri tree over 45m tall and over 4.4m wide. Located in the Waipoua Forest, the tree is believed to be about 2,500 years old.
On the western side of the North Island, you do have a bit of a drive to go at about an hour and a half. However, if you do make the journey, it’s a spectacular sight. Head’s up you’ll need to clean your shoes before you visit as kauri trees are highly susceptible to disease.
Top Tips for Visiting the Bay of Islands
Now that you know exactly what the Bay of Islands has to offer, here are some more top tips to make the most of your time there.
Wear Sturdy Footwear
There are many stunning walking trails around the Bay of Islands. If you want to get active, I recommend bringing along a good pair of sturdy footwear that you don’t mind getting muddy and wet. You’ll also want something that will keep you steady on a catamaran while dolphin spotting!
Pack a Water Bottle
Reusable water bottles are the way forward. To make sure you stay hydrated on all of your many excursions, I have a complete guide to the best water filter bottles for travel which you can read here.
Always Be Prepared
Like travelling anywhere in the world, it’s always best to be prepared for anything life throws at you.
Always purchase insurance before all your adventures. It’s an extra piece of protection even if hopefully, you never end up needing it. There are hundreds of insurance providers out there but my favourite is World First. They cover a lot and their prices are so affordable!
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