The Bay of Islands

Rich In History and a must see when visiting New Zealand


Bay of Islands New Zealand

Swim with the dolphins, fish, dive, golf or just take in the unspoilt scenery of New Zealand's famous Bay of Islands. A great holiday destination all the year round. The 144 islands are a haven for holiday makers who enjoy sea activities and the beauty of the un crowded sub-tropical sandy beaches and native forests. It is also an area of considerable historical significance and is popular with craftspeople. It is the cradle of European civilisation in New Zealand and has fine examples of Maori culture for you to experience.


Wherever you are in the Bay of Islands, it’s impossible to escape the lure of the sea. There are almost endless opportunities for immersing yourself in the blue-green world of island and beach. Charter a yacht or launch. Dive or snorkel. Paddle a sea kayak in and out of the islands’ nooks and crannies. Swim with dolphins.

Many people come to the Bay of Islands with marlin in mind. Zane Grey, the great American western writer and big game fisherman, pitched a tent and caught his first marlin here in 1926. He made sure the world heard about it! Today enthusiasts come from all over the globe in pursuit of marlin, broad bills and game sharks. You can take part in keenly contested tournaments or hire a boat and fight your own private battles with the denizens of the deep. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular and can only be fully appreciated by cruising through the area.

The Maritime Park is a natural wonderland with an abundance of wildlife including marlin, whales, penguins, dolphins, gannets and many other species.



Average daily temperatures range from 26.8 C/80 F in summer to 16 C/61 F in winter.

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Historical Background

In 1769, the English explorer Captain James Cook dropped anchor in the Bay of Islands and set the wheels in motion for its settlement by the English. It was Cook who named the place Bay of Islands and it was here that English settlers first set up home in the Land of the Long White Cloud. The birth of New Zealand nationhood is traced back to 1840 Waitangi when Maori tribal leaders and the English colonisers forged a treaty which despite some flaws remains a watershed document for uniting New Zealand's various peoples into one common nation. After the Treaty, the British established Russell as the nation's capital, which later moved south to Auckland, then farther south to Wellington.

A Maori settlement
Russell was an established settlement of the Maori people long before the arrival of Captain Cook and the sailing ship 'Endeavour' in 1769. Its Maori name was Kororareka which comes from a legend about a wounded Maori chief who asked for penguin and on tasting the broth said, 'Ka reka ko korora' (how sweet is the penguin).

The Whalers
From the early 1800s South Sea Whalers found Kororareka an ideal port to collect provisions, The town grew as more and more ships landed there but soon it gained a reputation as a lawless and bawdy port, earning the nickname 'Hellhole of the Pacific'. Deserting seamen, runaway convicts, grog sellers and prostitutes all made their homes there. The whalers bartered muskets for food and this encouraged the local Maori Chief Hongi Hika and the northern Maori to instigate local inter-tribal warfare.

The Missionaries
After the whalers the missionaries arrived. The first mission station was set up by the Reverend Samuel Marsden in 1815. In 1819, at the invitation of the Maori Chief Hongi Hika, he established the second mission station at Kerikeri. The first Roman Catholic mission was set up by Bishop Pompallier in Russell in 1839.

First British Official Resident
James Busby arrived in Paihia in 1833 as the official British Resident sent out from England. He was expected to protect the traders and settlers, prevent outrages against Maori, capture convicts, and encourage the Maori chiefs to keep order.

Busby settled with his wife and children in a house built at Waitangi from a wooden frame shipped over from Sydney. At this time there were around 1000 settlers in the Bay.

First British Governor
On 29 January 1840 Captain William Hobson arrived having been appointed the Lt Governor of New Zealand. His job was to make a treaty with the Maori chiefs. Busby's position as British Resident ceased, but he continued to assist Hobson and he also prepared the English draft of the Treaty of Waitangi for Hobson's consideration.

The Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty was signed on February 6, 1840, outside the home of James Busby by forty six Maori chiefs and later over 450 Maori leaders around the country added their mark to the agreement.

The Treaty House

Maori Treaty House at Waitangi, Bay of Islands, New Zealand




Busby's house, now known as the Treaty House is open to the public daily. In 1844, only four years later, Hone Heke, together with another chief Kawiti, showed their displeasure by chopping down the British flagstaff at Maiki Hill in Russell. Skirmishes between the Maori and Europeans have continued in various forms. Today the Government is currently working on the settlement of land claims and fishing rights which have been disputed since the original Treaty.

Exploring places full of history

Waitangi National Reserve
Just a few kilometres north of the town is the historic Waitangi National Reserve. If you are interested in history, this is the ideal place to visit. Start your tour at the Visitor Centre where you can view a video outlining the events surrounding the Treaty of Waitangi.


You can then walk around the extensive grounds visiting the Treaty House, the Maori Meeting House and the Maori War Canoe.

The Treaty House, one of New Zealand's oldest surviving buildings, fell into disrepair after the Busby family left in the 1870s. It was not until 1932, when Lord Bledisloe bought the house and grounds and gifted it to the nation, that it was restored and rebuilt to its present standard.

If you have time you can take a stroll around the reserve which includes recreational areas, tidal estuary, mangrove forest, open coastline and native bush. It's a most enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

If you are not keen on walking why not take the Russell Mini Tours boutique bus tour which departs next to Russell Wharf. The trip includes Tapeka Beach, Long Beach, Maiki Hill where the famous flagstaff was cut down four times by Honi Heke and many of the historical places in Russell. The museum and many of the historical highlights are within a short level walk from the wharf.

Russell New Zealand







For those who like to do their own thing first visit the Visitor and Cultural Centre along the waterfront. The building was previously the site of Russell's post office and courthouse from 1875-1969. At the centre pick up a leaflet on local heritage trails and then you can work out what you want to visit and how to get there. For more details visit our Russell page

Don't forget to see Christ Church - the oldest existing church in New Zealand, built in 1836 and still showing some of the old musket ball holes from the early wars. The grave stones dating back to the first settlers and whalers make interesting reading. Russell also boasts New Zealand's first police station and first liquor license (The Duke of Marlborough hotel)

Pompallier House is just further along from the information centre. Built in 1942, it was used as a printery of the Roman Catholic Mission and later a tannery and private home.

Pompallier House





For lunch, try the Duke of Marlborough also on the waterfront. This is the fourth hotel on the same site (earlier ones were burnt down) It holds New Zealand's number 1 licence dated August 1827. They serve wonderful fish meals so fresh and tasty - it just melts in your mouth

Kemp House and Maori village
Next door to the store is Kemp House built for the Rev. John Butler in 1822 after the Rev. Samuel Marsden established his second mission station in Kerikeri in 1819. The tour also takes you to a reconstructed Maori village and the Waitangi Treaty House. In the afternoon you are taken to many of the craft workshops in the area - lots of good ideas for presents and souvenirs of good quality.

Outdoor Activities
The Bay of Islands is the finest Maritime Park in New Zealand with 144 islands, secluded bays and an abundance of marine life. There is much to offer visitors all the year round. From sailing, fishing, snorkeling, swimming to golfing walking, eating out - it's all there. 
These islands comprise the archipelago of small islands in the Bay of Islands. Most of them are uninhabited by man, many are still unexplored.  About the only island which has some facilities is Urupukapuka Island lying northeast of Russell. There are some 40 sites on the islands which are part of the Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park. Its visitor information centre is at Russell. These islands may have marked walks, Maori pas and other historical sites, as well as recreation reserves.

Swim with the dolphins
Why not take a swim with the dolphins ? This is the ultimate marine mammal experience. You are taken out by fast catamaran which has been purpose built for dolphin and whale watching.

Swim with then dolphins

Underwater cameras provide unique viewing of the marine life which is displayed on a large TV monitor. Wet suits, snorkels and fins are supplied when and if you are ready to get into the water - and when you return you can hop into a hot shower !! The trip takes around four hours and leaves twice daily in summer and morning only in winter. It could be your experience of a lifetime!!

The Cream Trip
For those of us who are not so adventurous a leisurely cruise could be a good alternative. The Cream Trip meanders in and out of many of the smaller bays, calling on locals and delivering their stores and Royal Mail as it has done for over 100 years. The trip passes many different points of historical interest relating to both early European and Maori settlement. You may also see seals, dolphins and sometimes whales, as well as bird and fish life. The trip takes about five hours and I can personally recommend it, especially as this is one of the few official Royal Mail runs by boat left in New Zealand.

A choice of ways to get there
Air New Zealand operates flights to Bay of Islands airport (Kerikeri) daily with connecting flights from all other major centres. If you prefer to take a coach tour many operators have tours of different lengths to many different places - just make sure you choose one that includes the Bay of Islands. Some operators have one, two or three day tours from Auckland just to the area. You can also take an express coach from Auckland - the Northliner or Intercity and do your own thing when you arrive. If you don't mind driving why not hire a car or campervan? The Bay of Islands is only three hours drive north from Auckland and then you will have your own transport for getting around. How to get there


Other Major Towns in the Bay of Islands Region

Paihia - Tourist centre for the Bay's activities, tours, cruises, motels, souvenir shops, restaurants, etc. all centrally located. Paihia is the main visitor centre for the Bay of Islands and is the starting point for many sightseeing cruises including the Cape Brett Hole-in-the-Rock cruise, boat hires, diving and swimming with the dolphins excursions. A popular day excursion is the Cape Reinga trip to the northernmost point of New Zealand and features an exhilarating drive along Ninety Mile Beach.  Paihia remained isolated until the second world war. A road via Opua opened Paihia to people who didn't have boats. It quickly established itself as the most popular seaside resort in the north. From it's hard earned beginning, Paihia is now the main centre for the Bay of Islands. Adventure activities, sightseeing, cafes, bars and accommodation are all here. Whether you want to jump out of the sky, dive under the ocean or explore the shore, Paihia can point you in the right direction.

Waitangi - Where the British and Maori signed the 1840 Treaty. Waitangi is within walking distance of Paihia, and it is here that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, joining the Maori and British peoples together as a nation. The Treaty House is now a museum and is part of the Waitangi Reserve, along with a Maori meeting house and an impressive 120 feet (37 metre) 150-man canoe launched each Waitangi Day (February 6) - New Zealand's national day.
Gifted to the Nation by Lord and Lady Bledisloe in 1932, The Waitangi National Trust Treaty Grounds is a unique and fascinating insight into New Zealand's historic past. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed here in 1840 between the Maori Chiefs and British Crown, became the basis for life in New Zealand as we know it today. Visit the historic Treaty House, fully carved Maori Meeting House, Maori War Canoe and Exhibition. Experience the award winning Sound/Light display in the Meeting House, enjoy the magnificent park like grounds with their abundant native bird life, heritage trees and wonderful Bay views. Learn all about the signing of the Treaty and select from our range of quality souvenirs.

Kerikeri - Largest town commercial and business centre, Fruits & produce, arts and crafts, historic basin. A charming place to live. Kerikeri is a picturesque inlet on the northern extremity of the Bay, set amidst citrus and kiwifruit orchards. The district also bears some important historical buildings and has several craft galleries. Kerikeri is noted for its arts and crafts and has an Art &Craft Trail to add further interest to your stay. The town has excellent sporting facilities, a championship golf course, all-weather tennis court, a yacht club and numerous intimate restaurants and cafes. A wide variety of accommodation styles ensure your stay is comfortable and today's Kerikeri is the bustling business and commerce centre of the Bay of Islands. An extensive array of shops and services, including the only cinema in the area, will cater for all your requirements. Kerikeri is where New Zealand bicultural society began and its beautiful scenery, charm and historic basin will entice you.

Opua - Recreational port and gateway to the Bay of Islands. Where two rivers meet and the bay stretches northward to the sea. What a view! The gateway to the Bay of Islands. Located where the Kawakawa River and Waikeri River meet with the Bay stretching out Northward to the sea. You can see the passenger ferry 5 km down the bay going between Paihia and Russell.Waitangi is just beyond Paihia and the entrance to the Kerikeri River is viewed near the North end of the bay. Here is where the overseas yachts first arrive in New Zealand after making their South Pacific Ocean crossing. The charter sailboats are based here that cruise through the bay. The Tucker Thompson a top sail schooner and other cruise boats start out on there daily excursions from the Opua Port. During the Year a few cruise ships visit this hide away port. The car ferry takes vehicles across the port to Okiato and the road to Russell.







The Coastal Walking Path starts in Opua the Harrison Scenic Reserve (rain forest) is a twenty minute walk and the scenic trip to Paihia takes three Hours. (a 5 km trip by road, 10 minutes by car) The community of Opua is small and centered around its international recreational Port, Marina and the Wharf (fishing is permitted). There are three charter boat companies and several independent operators. There is a good restaurant and take-a-way, small convenience store , Port operations office and the Post Office is small, friendly and efficient. There is a small boat launching ramp and a dingy dock. There are two boat yards, sail repair, engine shop and other supporting services making Opua a surprisingly good place to work on your boat. Yacht moorings are available for short or long term rental. The Opua Cruising Club is a local center of social activity in this provincial community. A new 240 berth marina provides dockage for local and overseas vessels.


Haruru Falls










Haruru means “big noise”, which is a good indication that these falls are worth seeing. The water falls in a horseshoe shape – very rare and quite spectacular – and Maori legend states that a taniwha (water monster) lives in the lagoon below. You can walk to Haruru Falls along the Waitangi walking track, or drive to Haruru Falls township – which is only 3 kilometres from Paihia. In the 1800s, there were over 100 Maori villages along the Haruru Falls river.


Gateway to the Bay of Islands, Kawakawa is marked by its unique entrance sign, an arch constructed in the style of Frederick Hundertwasser. Kawakawa is home to the famous Hundertwasser designed public toilets - a definite must on your itinerary. This is the only building in the Southern Hemisphere designed by Austrian artist Hundertwasser and is the last building he designed before he died in 1999. Also visit the Museum in the old Memorial Library (open Thursdays & Fridays) for a glimpse of Kawakawa's coal mining history.








The railway line running through the centre of town to Opua is a remnant of those times. Unfortunately major maintenance requirements mean that regular trips by Gabriel, the renowned steam train, may not be taking place, however the station is open and welcomes visitors. Also visit the Kawiti Glow-worm Caves at Waiomio which boast a galaxy of glow-worm lights, pure white limestone formations and 12 generations of history.


For a comprehensive list of attractions, boat trips, local history and day trip destinations whilst staying in the Bay of Islands visit our Attractions and Activities page

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The are many cruise options to seek Dolphins and even swim with them

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