The Bay of Islands is one of the most popular destinations in all of New Zealand with both backpackers and locals visiting the region. Mile after mile of beach and rocky coastline surround the bay, which is dotted with 144 islands. It is extremely popular as a summer residence and getaway for people in Auckland. Because there is so much to see and do, a little planning comes in handy, so use the must-sees and travel tips from this article to make a choice about what you do or don't want to do in the Bay of Islands area.
Also read: Round trip New Zealand | All the beauty of the world in one country
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Why Bay of Islands?
The beauty and countless activities in the Bay of Islands attract many backpackers who want to enjoy the beaches, dolphins and sea fishing trips. I think this destination is a great and relaxing stopover before diving further into all the adventure activities the country has to offer.
Top 5 | Must sees and dos in Bay of Islands
1. Spotting wild dolphins
Hundreds of wild dolphins live in the waters here. Boat trips last approximately 4 hours and cost NZD 120 per person. In addition to dolphins, which are regularly seen throughout the year, killer whales can be seen regularly from April to October and even whales from May to July.
2. Relaxing on the beach
The Bay of Islands is home to some of the best beaches in the country. Head to Paihia Beach for a place to swim, kayak, sail, and snorkel. Long Beach is the best choice for something quieter, while Elliot Bay is a good choice for surfers. For a more romantic choice, head to secluded Oke Bay.
3. Visit the Treaty of Waitangi
The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840, was a document between the British and the Maori. More than 500 Maori leaders have signed the original treaty. This is one of the most important historical sites in the country. If you want to understand modern New Zealand, visit the complex. Admission is NZD 50.
4. Day Trip to Cape Reinga
Cape Reinga is the northernmost point of New Zealand. Witness the Tasman Sea meeting the Pacific Ocean, visit the picturesque coastal lighthouse, and see the gnarled 800-year-old pohutukawa tree that represents the gateway to the afterlife. There are also great hiking opportunities in the area.
5. Go hiking and walking
This entire region of the Bay of Islands is full of amazing hiking trails. A popular and easy route is the Paihia to Opua Coastal Walk which is 5,5 km long and takes 2,5 hours. Follow the Full Circle Trail for a longer hike. It covers 14 km of coastline and takes 5-6 hours.
Tip:: Did you know that we sell cool world maps in our webshop, for example with all the beautiful hikes and hiking trails all over the world? Below is a cut-out piece of the world map with the most beautiful hikes and trails in the world.
Other Things to See and Do in Bay of Islands
1. Go diving at a shipwreck
There are two notable wrecks in the region. The Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship that was bombed by secret French agents in 1985, exists as an artificial reef and is the most popular dive spot. The HMNZS Canterbury, a 113m frigate that was decommissioned in 2005, is another wreck and offers both beginner and advanced sections. Prices start at 180 NZD (plus equipment hire) for an open water dive.
2. Go parasailing
If you're looking for an adrenaline rush (and stunning views of the region), try parasailing. Parasailing with one, tandem, or even three seats abounds, most of which can be found in Paihia. Fly to a height of 130 meters above the water as you get a bird's-eye view of the bay and islands. Children from 8 years old can join, making this a fun family activity. Rides last 10 minutes and prices start at NZD 129 for a single ride and NZD 99 per person for tandem and three-seat rides.
3. Visit Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is a 27-meter waterfall ten minutes from the town of Kerikeri (which itself is only 20 minutes north of Paihia). You can visit the falls by car and then take a short ten minute walk. You can also just walk there in less than an hour from Kerikeri itself. Known as Waianiwaniwa in Maori, the waterfall gets its name from the rainbow you can usually see at the base of the falls. There are viewing platforms at the top of the falls and you can swim in the water below. For a longer walk, start at the historic Stone Store and Mission House in the Kerikeri Basin and follow the Kerikeri River Track (this walk takes approximately 1,5 hours).
4. Cruise the Bay
Sailing is popular here due to the perfect weather, naturally protected anchorages (the 144 islands keep the worst of the weather at bay), abundant wildlife and beautiful views. There are plenty of options for both day trips and multi-day excursions, most of which include snorkeling and swimming. Expect to spend 110 NZD for a day trip. You can also take sailing lessons at Yachting New Zealand and the Royal Yachting Association, ranging from two days to several weeks (prices vary).
5. Go fishing
This region is known for some big fish species such as marlin, kingfish and snappers. Charter excursions run from Paihia and Russell and start at around NZD 150 for a half-day shared excursion (you'll be sharing the boat with other guests). Bait and accessories are included and they will fillet your fish for you too as there are restaurants in Paihia that will cook your catch! Vinnie's Fish and Chip is a favorite, so stock it up. If you are an experienced fisherman, try a deep sea tour. These are usually private tours that last several days and give you the opportunity to hunt for marlin, swordfish and other big fish. Expect to pay over NZD 2.000 for this unique tour.
6. Visit Pompallier House
Built in 1841, Pompallier House is a 19th-century French Catholic structure. Located in Russell, today it functions as a small museum. You can see the original printing press (which printed more than 30.000 books), tannery and factory originally operated by the French. The main function of the building was to translate religious texts into Maori. It is one of the oldest industrial buildings in the country. Admission is NZD 15 and includes a guided tour.
7. Visit Parrot Place
The Parrot Place is a large bird house in Kerikeri that is home to over 300 species of birds, including blue and gold macaws, kakariki and king parrots. Numerous other species from all over the world can also be found here. It is a nice place to visit if you are traveling with kids. Admission is NZD 12 for adults and NZD 6 for children.
8. Check out the Russell Museum
This museum offers a range of information and exhibits all about the Bay of Islands and its history. The Bay of Islands, which got its English name from Captain James Cook when he 'discovered' the region in 1769. Russell was once the launching point for whalers and the museum is home to tons of information about whaling and its impact on New Zealand. The museum also contains Maori artifacts, a huge replica of Captain Cook's ship, and historic photographs. It is an informative local museum not to be missed when visiting Russell. Admission is 10 NZD.
9. Waitangi Mountain Bike Park
The Waitangi Mountain Bike Park is home to over 40km of mountain bike trails† There are both kid-friendly routes as well as easy, moderate and challenging routes for adults. The park is only 5 km north of Paihia. Your entrance fee also gives you access to many local discounts, including discounts on restaurants, discounts on parasailing and skydiving, and even discounts at the local gym. There is also a shuttle service at the park, so once you complete a track you can get a ride back to the top of the track to continue. Mountain bikes can be rented in Paihia for NZD 59.
10. Go skydiving
The Bay of Islands is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the country to skydive. The country's highest tandem jump is here, offering a dizzying jump from 6.000 feet (it's a 90-second free fall). Not only will you be able to enjoy the view of all 144 islands in the region, but you will also be high enough to see the curvature of the earth. Jumps start around NZD 299 and include free pick-up and drop-off from your accommodation.
Also read: Bungee jumping | 10 spots to fall down at
11. Cruise around Piercy Island
Piercy Island (Motu Kokako) is a pristine island off the coast of Cape Brett. It is known for a huge 18-meter arch in the rocks (similar to the Azure Window in Malta). The island itself is home to gannets and other seabirds and is unique in that it has no non-native wildlife. The island was named by Captain Cook in honor of one of the Lords of the Admiralty, although most locals simply refer to it as the "Hole in the Rock". In addition to jet boat rides, you can also pay for a helicopter ride over the island. Helicopter flights take 35 minutes and cost NZD 400 per person, while a jet boat ride takes two hours and costs NZD 135.
12. Visit Tane Mahuta
Known as the Lord of the Forest, this majestic tree is a giant kauri tree that stands over 45 meters high and over 4,4 meters wide. The tree is estimated to be 2500 years old and is located in Waipoua Forest, 100 km west of Paihia. Since the tree is fragile, be sure to clean your shoes before visiting as kauri trees are very susceptible to disease. It is free to visit.
Travel costs Bay of Islands
Hostel prices – Eight-bed dorms cost between NZD 26-31 per night. In low season they are available for NZD 25-28. Private rooms start at 65 NZD (although 80-90 NZD is more common). Free Wi-Fi and self-catering facilities are common, but no hostel in the region offers a free breakfast.
Prices of budget hotels – Budget two-star hotels and motels in the region cost around NZD 100 per night. In winter you can find prices closer to 85 NZD per night. B&Bs are the most common option in the area, with prices starting at around NZD 115 per night.
Airbnb – is available all over the region with private rooms starting at NZD 80 per night. Entire houses/apartments cost around NZD 150 per night. There are virtually no shared accommodations available, so you have to choose a private room or an entire apartment/house if you use Airbnb.
Camping – If you want to camp, prices start at 20 NZD per night for a basic pitch (a flat spot for a tent without electricity). If you drive an off-grid motorhome (one with its own water supply and bathroom), there are also plenty of free places to park overnight. Use the “park4night” app to find them.
Food – Eating out in this region of the country is very expensive. Because it is a region where many tourists come (with many luxurious accommodations), restaurants often charge a considerable amount. A cheap restaurant meal with a drink will cost around 20-30 NZD. For a mid range restaurant with table service expect to pay around NZD 50 for a meal with a drink.
You can buy sandwiches in cafes for 10 NZD. Fast food options are rare here. Pita Pit is the most common option with prices costing around NZD 14. A beer at the bar costs about 10 NZD (although you can buy them for 5 NZD during happy hour, usually from 16.00-18.00pm).
Your best option in all of New Zealand is to buy as much food and drink as possible from local supermarkets.
Daily Budget for Bay of Islands
With a low backpacker budget you can visit the Bay of Islands for 95-115 NZD (60-75 euros) per day. On this budget, you'll stay in a dorm or camp, cook all your meals, do outdoor activities for free, visit only a few paid attractions, and use rides to travel between cities.
With an average budget of around 320-400 NZD (200-230 Euros), you'll stay in a budget hotel or private hostel room, eat out at cheap local restaurants, rent a car or campervan to get around and enjoy some happy hours. You do more paid activities like snorkeling and kayaking. In short, you have the flexibility to do what you want. You will be able to get by without worrying too much about your expenses.
With a luxury budget of 570+ NZD (350+ euros), you can stay in a 4-star hotel or luxury B&Bs. You can eat out at mid-range restaurants for every meal, drink whatever you want, rent a car or luxury RV, and do as many activities as you want (including skydiving and scuba diving). However, this is just the bare minimum budget for the luxury – you can easily spend more if you really want to splash out!
Tips to save costs
The Bay of Islands is a popular holiday region in the country, so prices are high (especially in the summer). It's a place meant for tourists and those places are never cheap! That said, if you stay in cheap accommodations, drink during happy hours, and don't eat out too much, you can cut your costs considerably without limiting yourself too much. Here are some additional tips to help you save money:
- cook your food – The Bay of Islands is a luxurious beach with many expensive houses and restaurants. Eating out really hurts your budget, more so than other places. Cook your own meals to save your budget. When it comes to grocery shopping, the cheaper supermarkets are Pack n' Save and Countdown.
- Stay with a local – While there aren't many Couchsurfing hosts available in the area, there are still some. Try to stay with a local to save on lodging costs. You'll also get some valuable insight into the area from a local resident - and that's priceless!
- Avoid the high season – Prices are higher during the summer months (and the beaches will be packed), so avoid peak season if you can.
- Find deals on bookme.co.nz – If you are looking for activities and are flexible with your dates, this website often has great deals. You can find tours and activities up to 50% off!
- Hit happy hour – The backpackers bars have cheap happy hours with 5 NZD drinks. Drink cheap! Otherwise, plan to spend about 10 NZD for a beer at the bar.
- WWOOF it – If you don't mind staying outside of the big cities in the area, WWOOFing is a great way to work for your lodging and food. In exchange for working on a farm or B&B you get free board and lodging. It is a popular activity with travelers because it allows you to stay in one place cheaper and longer. You can do it for a few days or a few months.
- Cleaning in exchange for your room – At some hostels in the region you can exchange a few hours of cleaning and bed making for free accommodation.
- Carsharing – If you are planning to explore the region, consider taking a shared ride. Rideshares are a popular transportation option for travelers looking for lower costs – all you have to do is pay for gas. You can find rides on websites like Gumtree or Craigslist. Apps like Carpool New Zealand en Thumbs Up NZ are also very useful. You will also see people asking for rides on hostel bulletin boards, check out the boards and meet up!
- Enjoy nature – Remember nature is free! The Northland region is home to plenty of free outdoor activities, hiking trails and beaches. Although the adventure sports and boat cruises wrecking your budget, there are plenty of free trails and hikes here to keep you busy.
Transportation in Bay of Islands
- Public Tansport – Since the Bay of Islands is a region and not a specific city or municipality, there is no public transportation to rely on. Paihia's main tourist center is home to only 2000 people, so it's easy to navigate on foot or by bike. Use InterCity – (a bus company) to get between cities by bus. They have routes between most cities in the region with prices starting as low as 1 NZD.
- Taxi – Taxis are expensive here (and not even available everywhere in the region). In general, they should be avoided. Fares generally start around NZD 3,50 and go up at NZD 2,60 per kilometer. Unless you have no other option or are sharing a ride with other travelers I would avoid using taxis. Car rental, rides and bikes are all cheaper.
- ridesharing – Ridesharing here is only for long distances; there are no local carpool companies in one city that operate here (like Uber). If you want to share a ride with a local or traveler, use Gumtree, Craigslist or apps like Carpool New Zealand and Thumbs Up NZ. You can also ask around your hostel. There are usually travelers who have space in exchange for gas money.
- Car rental or motorhome rental - Car Rental or motorhome rental is the best way to explore this region. It is best to rent a car or motorhome in Auckland, because then you have more options and cheaper prices. Expect to pay around NZD 30 per day or NZD 130 per week for a small car. If you want to rent a campervan or motorhome, expect to pay a minimum of NZD 350 per week. An International Driving Permit (IDP) is recommended for car rental† You can buy these in the Netherlands at the ANWB shops.
- Bike – Bike rental in Paihia starts around NZD 15 per hour (NZD 50 per day) for a basic bike that will get you around the city. For a mountain bike you pay about 25 NZD for 2 hours (70 NZD per day).
Best time to visit Bay of Islands
Bay of Islands is located in the Northland region of the North Island. The climate here is subtropical and warm all year round. Summer is from December to February and it is the most popular time to visit the area. Precipitation during this time is limited and it can get quite humid. Kiwis also take vacation during this time, so it gets busy. The average daytime temperature in the summer in the Bay of Islands is around 24°C.
Fall is from March-May, and it's a fun time to visit if you want to beat the crowds. The weather is still pleasant, with daily averages around 20°C.
Winter is from June-August. This is the cheapest time to visit as accommodation is usually offered at a discount. Temperatures hover around 16°C, so it's still warm enough for many outdoor activities such as hiking and adventure activities.
There really isn't a bad time to visit Bay of Islands. If you're on a budget, the low season is probably the best time to visit. However, if you're looking for warm weather and a lively atmosphere, visit during the summer (be prepared for it to be crowded).
Bay of Islands Safety
Like the rest of the country, Bay of Islands is a safe destination for backpacking and travel. Even if you're traveling alone (including as a solo female traveler), you don't have to worry about this here. Crime is relatively low, so just take normal precautions as you would at home. Do not leave valuables on the beach while swimming (theft is rare, but prevention is better than cure).
For added security, download offline maps of the region in case you get lost. You can also make copies of your important documents (eg passport) and forward your itinerary to loved ones so they know where you are.
The biggest risk to travelers in the Bay of Islands region is natural disasters. Earthquakes are common and can happen at any time. These can be especially challenging if you're visiting islands off the main island or if you're fishing or diving. Finally, download a local weather app (such as MetService NZ Weather) to stay up-to-date on the weather.
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