48 Hours in the Bay of Islands
When English missionary Henry Williams first arrived at Marsden’s Vale in the Bay of Islands he was said to have told his Maori guide, in broken Maori, “pai here” – ‘pai’ being ‘good’ in Maori, ‘here’ being ‘here’ in English. The name stuck and the town was called Paihia, which is a pretty damn accurate description of the entire Bay of Islands region — things are good here.
Dolphins, cruises, kayaking, waterfalls and ridiculous views — the Bay of Islands has everything the North Island boasts about it, but in a concentrated 260 kilometre-squared harbour. The Bay of Islands also hosts New Zealand’s first colonial capital and is littered with historical artefacts and stories as well as 144 subtropical islands and plenty of undeveloped beaches.
We’ve teamed up with Converse to hit the Bay of Islands just as the weather starts to heat up, as part of our all-weather travel guide series, showcasing Australia and New Zealand’s next-level destinations which are more beautiful — and more adventure-packed — in extreme weather conditions, whether that be coastal rain, desert dryness, or fresh powder snow. We’ve mapped out 48 hours of outdoor activities for you. So pack your Chuck Taylor All Star II Spacer Mesh (they’re made for heat and humidity, and they’ll keep your feet cool) and hit the road for the Bay of Islands.
Leave Auckland in the early afternoon, before traffic starts to congest, and you’ll find yourself in the Bay of Islands in time for a late afternoon cruise on the R.Tucker. It’s a historic rebuild of a 1800s American fishing boat and has gallantly travelled across the globe back in its day – although it nowadays spends its retirement taking folk on pretty cruises around the Bay of Islands.
After a nice misty cruise around the harbour, head over to Bay of Islands cornerstone eatery The Duke of Marlborough for dinner. The boutique hotel and restaurant The Duke began its existence in 1827 as the less glamorously named Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop, its namesake and owner an ex-convict. It was also during this time that Russell had the nickname “the hell hole of the Pacific” due to the crude and criminal Pakeha all making themselves at home in the area (one of the reasons the local Maori wanted to sign the Treaty of Waitangi so badly was to give the Crown enough authority to be able to police their own people). After some time operating his grog shop, Johnston felt he needed to divorce his hotel from Russell’s lurid reputation by renaming his establishment The Duke of Marlborough — who was at that time was the world’s richest man. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, Russell’s dregs were cleared out and The Duke became as respectable as the name it promised to live up to.
The Duke is a stunning little spot, the décor is a treat in itself — portraits of important Maori chiefs hang along the chandelier-lit and Victorian paisley wallpaper-lined hallways. However, the hotel’s main calling card is its location, the premises skirting the perimeter of the harbour. While you’re there you’ll want to try the kumara bread, a couple of Waikere Inlet oysters and definitely a few mojitos.
Don’t overdo it on the mojitos, because you’ll want to get an early start to dive New Zealand’s most infamous wreck, the Rainbow Warrior. The wreck was a Greenpeace vessel anchored in Auckland harbour (en route to protesting a French nuclear test in Moruroa), which was blown up by two French spies in 1985. International scandal ensued. She now lies 26 metres deep in the Cavalli Islands with a new role as an artificial reef.
Then again, if you’d rather have a little sleep in, have a dolphin encounter in the afternoon instead. Depending on the time of year you’ll either get to do a little dolphin watching as well as swim with the creatures, or dolphin and whale watching and a journey to the end of the Cape Brett Peninsula where the relatively famous in New Zealand ‘Hole in the Rock’ is on Motukokako Island.
Top off the day with a twilight kayak safari. The safari will take you along a river for a 40-minute cruise, after which you’ll settle into your kayak and go paddling through mangroves and through to where the Haruru Falls drop into the sea. Here you’ll also get to feel what paddling white water’s like and be able to dip under the waterfall itself and get soaked. The twilight trips leave at different times during the year, so call ahead to make sure you arrive early enough for the safari.
In the Bay of Islands, million dollar views are almost an afterthought — any and almost every restaurant or bar’s windows lay claim to decent clump of ocean for you to admire. However, a particular standout in the area is the dockside bar Alongside. This much-celebrated spot has very simple décor following a blue and white theme: white wicker chairs with blue cushions, glass top tables, and the ocean view acting as the walls of the outdoor restaurant. Views here are not sparse.
Food-wise you’ll find a menu heavily infused with Americana grub. Go for the potato skins and the fish tacos. The fish is fresh, it’s crunchy, it’s beautiful. You’d almost like to imagine the fish as having been caught just off to the side of the dock and then quickly prepared out back. Also, the drinks menu is a glorious set of puns which should not be left unappreciated.
The Rainbow Falls walk is a beautiful hazy morning filler. The 27-metre curtain waterfall is a ten-minute walk from the Rainbow Falls Road carpark. From here, take the the three-hour return Kerikeri River Track which will lead you past the Wharepuke Falls, a popular swimming hole, and along to the Fairy Pools, which makes for quite a nice place to picnic.
Opened in 2015, Charlotte’s Kitchen is a tribute to British convict Charlotte Badger who escaped a penal transfer boat to Tasmania and then sailed to the Bay of Islands to become one of the first Pakeha women settlers in New Zealand. The view-saturated restaurant serves Napoli-style pizzas and a sharing menu with highlights like the free range pork knuckle to a slow roasted lamb shoulder.
While on your drive back (*sigh*), take a short tour of the Kawiti Glow Worm Caves, which is a compact walk through damp stalactite and stalagmite limestone formations under a beautiful constellation of glow worms.
The Kawiti Caves were originally discovered in the 17th century by Roku, who ran away from her husband and used the caves as her campsite. Here she stayed undisturbed until Hineamaru, a chieftainess of the Ngāti Hine tribe saw smoke come out of a nearby hill. There she found Roku sitting by a fire. Their tribe took her in, but after a while they sent Roku back to her husband. The Kawiti Caves stayed in the care of Hineamaru’s family line ever — the tour guides are direct descendants of the chieftainess.
The Caves are in Waiomio, which is just off State Highway 1 on the road back to Auckland. A visit to the Kawiti Caves are nice way to slowly coax yourself out of the Bay of Islands and back to the real world.
Words: Laetitia Laubscher. Images: Lim Ashley, Cole Bennetts, Jocelyn Kinghorn, Jennifer Whiting, Russell Street, Matthias Gudath, Toni Almodóvar Escuder.
Ready to tackle the elements? Pack your gear and hit the road for to explore this New Zealand gem in all its glory. We spent all weekend in Converse’s new Chuck Taylor All Star II Spacer Mesh — and can highly recommend when you need to keep your cool in the heat and humidity.