Bay of Islands, the Dolphins' Paradise.
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Schedule of the Visit.
- 1A Day at the Bay of Islands.
- 2Russell, from Hell to Heaven.
- 3A Paradisiac Cruise to Cap Brett.
- 4Dive on the Canterbury's Wreck.
- 5Paihia, the Heart of the Bay of Islands.
- 6Waitangi Celebrates the National Day.
- 7Have You Ever Been Swimming with Dolphins?
- 8The North Without Winter
A Day at the Bay of Islands.
A turquoise-blue sea star-studded with islands, coves with sandy beaches, and 800 km of coastline lined with forests. If some have been converted into private property, most of the 144 islands remain uninhabited and are just waiting for you. A real paradise, far from the sadness of modern cities.
You can expect to have good weather. Northland is the sunniest and most pleasant region of the country (followed closely by the Abel Tasman National Park).
New Zealanders speak of the “North without winter”. The climate is subtropical during summer (december to february) and mild the rest of the year.
Having said that, Bay of Islands is far from being a simple postcard. A thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Maoris landed on these shores for the first time.
Centuries later, the arrival of Western settlers engendered terrible conflicts that gave birth to New Zealand.
Despite its incredible popularity and historical interest, the region remains wild. There are only a few villages which serve as base camp to go on an adventure. Being a true paradise for both sailors and fishermen, Bay of Islands would deserve a stay of several weeks. As most of you are just planning a road trip across the country, I will go straight to the point.
We will concentrate on the best activities in the bay. On our way, I'll tell you some legends about the region. Apart from the discovery of the cities, I have also planned some diving and a nice surprise ... We will also swim with dolphins, explore idyllic islands and enjoy sunbathing on white-sand beaches.
Russell, from Hell to Heaven.
I suggest you begin by visiting Russell, a small coastal village with a clear view on the Bay of Islands. Beautiful houses whitewashed, delicious gardens and white fences. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful villages of New Zealand.
When you stroll through the streets, you could believe that the village has not changed since its founding during the 1800s. This is a romantic place with a pleasant sweet life. One cannot imagine for a second that the destiny of New Zealand was born in these streets.
Turn the clock back to the 19th century. At that time, the city is still called Kororareka (its old Maori name).
Charles Darwin, who made a stopover here during a scientific exploration in 1835 described the city as the worst place he ever saw in his life and called it “a real refuge for the dregs of humanity”.
Russell is so infamous, it is even nicknamed the “Hell Hole of the Pacific” (and a deadly place where you could be killed any time).
The British and the French has not yet claimed the sovereignty of the country. There is absolutely no government, no one in charge and no laws!
Kororareka is a den of thieves, one where you stop only after many months at sea, and if it's impossible to do otherwise.
The waterfront is occupied by about thirty gambling dens plunged in total anarchy. In this sordid place you meet any kind of adventurers, deserters and escaped prisoners from Australian jails.
Kororareka is somehow the Turtle Island of New Zealand, without the Caribbean pirates.
Yet it is in this dangerous place that Christian missionaries try to introduce the holy bible. I let you imagine the difficulty of the enterprise...
Especially when the intentions of the Maori population are not crystal clear and you can hear persistent rumors of cannibalism.
But some missionaries have their own lecture of the bible... and they do not hesitate to marry Maori women while selling weapons to their brothers.
The city of Russell, formerly named Kororareka, was a dangerous haunt of smugglers.
Obviously, such a situation could not last forever. Two Maori chief's daughters are in love with a British captain, and the situation soon escalates into a violent dispute between tribes. .
A hundred deaths later, the missionaries realize that they can't do anything to restore peace, and decide to send an emissary to seek help from the British crown.
Today's Russell share nothing with the old Kororareka but there remain some marks of the past.
The Anglican Church of 1836 is one of the rare buildings having survived though the centuries. By visiting the old cemetery, you'll notice the bullet impacts on the tombstones.
So much for the history of the region. I suppose you are like me impatient to discover the Bay of Islands. Make sure that you have taken your camera then meet me on the jetty for the beginning of our visit.
A Paradisiac Cruise to Cap Brett.
We will explore the bay through a half-day cruise to the Cape Brett. During the journey, the captain gives extensive information on the islands, and shows the ancient Maori fortified villages.
First stop to Urupukapuka, one of the largest islands in the bay, with a great sandy beach.
Many dolphins escort the boat on several occasions. Do not be impatient, we will soon have the opportunity to spend more time with them.
An easy fifteen minutes hike leads to the highest point of the island that provides a stunning view of the many other islands of the bay.
If you are already planning to come back one day, I recommend the guided archaeological tour. A trail runs through the forest and climbs on the back of the hills where you explore the ruins of ancient Maoris villages.
This being said, if you do not like walking, Urupukapuka is also regarded as the best fishing spot of the Bay of Islands.
The program of the cruise that includes swimming with dolphins.A promotional video of FullersGreatSights.
Back on the cruise, we sail to the Brett Cape on the cutting edge of the peninsula. The first encounter between the Maori and the Westerners happened here, and by a strange coincidence, this is also the very same place where first Maoris arrived centuries ago.
I challenge you to pronounce the original name of the Cape Brett: “Rakaumangamanga Mai Hawaiki Herenga Waka o Nga Tupuna”. It means “The branches of the many tribes of Hawaiki, the gathering of the canoes of our ancestors”.
According to the legend, the seven peaks beyond the cliffs represent the seven canoes that crossed the seas during the great migration.
Next stop will allow us to reach the Cape Brett's lighthouse built in 1908. From that height, you can see the island of Piercy.
This huge rock partly covered by forest is inaccessible to man. Part of the base has been carved by erosion and the passage formed is called “Hole in the Rock”. It looks like the ark of Cathedral Cove..
We will have the opportunity to approach the island. And if the sea is not too rough, our ship can cross the hole in the rock. Then, I promised you a surprise, and I'll keep my promise...
Dive on the Canterbury's Wreck.
Diving on the wreck of the Canterbury, a military frigate.
On our way back, we'll anchor at Deep Water Cove. In 2007, the New Zealand government disarmed the Canterbury (a frigate of the Royal Navy) and sunk it to create an artificial reef.
This is one of the most beautiful diving spots in the world. Of course, this activity requires a minimum of experience. I know that many of you dream of living such a great experience. This is not the best place to learn (diving on a wreck is far too dangerous for beginners), but there are many other diving spots available all over the bay.
The marine fauna and flora took possession of the wreck 113 meters long. The cabins, the corridors and the control station, are all accessible and filled where thousands of fish live. This is not as if you were diving the Titanic and there is no risk to get lost or to be trapped somewhere. You'll be anyway under the supervision of a team of expert divers.
Another famous wreck is located in the region. The Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior rests in Mataury Bay and several tour operators organize diving sessions on site. Nearby, a monument on the Cavalli Island commemorates the terrorist attack that has long poisoned diplomatic relations between France and New Zealand.
Both dives justify investing in a new camera or a waterproof GoPro to film your experience. The colors and the lights are just amazing!!
At the return, we will dock in Paihia on the opposite side of the bay, just in front of Russell.
Paihia, the Heart of the Bay of Islands.
Built on a hill, Paihia is built along the coast and welcomes most visitors of the Bay of Islands. Compared to the charm of Russell, there are chances for you to be a bit disappointed by this very touristic city. Paihia has the advantage of being quite lively during the summer evenings and you'll find a lot of high-quality restaurants.
The city is mainly the point of departure of most activities of the region. Just have a walk on the pier or Marsden Road to register for countless tours on the sea, with or without guiding.
If I had to recommend only one activity, I'll suggest a kayak tour on the Waitangi River. It runs through the mangrove forests to reach the Haruru Falls.
This experience can even be done under the stars! I let you imagine the sight of the falls in the moonlight!
On my last visit I tried the parasailing.
If you want to see the bay from the sky, it is much cheaper than booking an helicopter guided tour. You will go up to nearly 300 meters above sea level to enjoy breathtaking views.
I have just one regret: the time spent in the air is quite short and lasts 8 to 12 minutes.
If you just want to enjoy “farniente”, you can rest on one of the many beaches.
So, if you just prefer to relax a little, Paihia has three long sandy beaches, Horotutu, Main Beach and Te Ti. Large lawns are also available and allow to rest even if you came without a beach towel.
When you have sufficiently enjoyed the beach, enjoyed ice cream or a drink at a café's terrace, please take the bridge over the Waitangi River. I'll be on the other side to continue the visit.
Waitangi Celebrates the National Day.
The little town of Waitangi has 800 inhabitants, but hosts every year a vast crowd during celebrations of the National Day. This is where the Waitangi treaty was signed, considered as the founding act of New Zealand, February 6, 1840.
The treaty intended to give equal rights for all citizens of the island, but was not respected in many ways. Very controversial in its interpretation (English and Maori translations differ on some crucial points), it has since been reconsidered.
Even today, a special court investigates complaints and grant compensation or give back properties occupied by the state in violation of the Treaty.
There are still some tensions between communities, but the overwhelming majority of the Kiwis now have the feeling of belonging to the same nation.
The Waitangi Treaty Ground visit is the best way to understand the origin of the Treaty. The tour begins with a portrait gallery of the signatories. You will remove your shoes to enter the impressive Whare Runanga marae. Each carved pillars represents a tribe(including the one from Rotorua) who signed the original statement.
The visit then continues through a forest and ends when you reach a shelter on the beach where Matawhaorua, the largest war canoe in the world, is located.
Remarkably decorated, it bears its name in homage to the canoe of Kupe, the first explorer of New Zealand. Each year during Waitangi Day, the canoe requires no less than a hundred strong rowers to navigate in the bay.
I hope we will not need so many people to pilot the ship that will lead us to meet the dolphins of the bay!
Have You Ever Been Swimming with Dolphins?
Bay of Islands has no monopoly on this activity that has been developed all over the world since the 80s, but it is a very popular one in New Zealand thanks to the different species of dolphins that inhabit its coasts.
Most Kiwis could tell you the story of Pelorus Jack. Between 1888 and 1912, this faithful dolphin accompanied the ships making the crossing between Wellington and Nelson.
Pelorus devint si populaire qu'une loi fut même votée pour assurer sa protection.
We will book one of the many excursions departing from Paihia. The dolphin encounter is not 100% guaranteed, but it does happen 9 times out of 10. Regarding the specie itself, it's basically Grand dolphins between 2 and 4 meters long and an average weight of 250 kg! They are fairly easy to spot in the bay.
Observation and swimming with dolphins, equipped with mask and snorkel.A promotional video of FullersGreatSights.
Although they are naturally curious, dolphins do not always seek contact with humans. This wild creature, however, needs to live peacefully. Some rules were introduced to ensure the protection of the species.
We are on time and luck is with us! Dolphins are reported at starboard. The suits, masks and snorkels are provided by the tour operator. Before entering the water, I remind you that only dolphins can decide if they want to establish contact with you.
Swimming with dolphins is a beautiful experience, but you must respect some basic rules.
It is important to provide a period of adaptation to the dolphins, as we are entering their world and not the opposite.
Another important rule to remember is that a dolphin must be approached only by the sides. These rules are not difficult to follow because the dolphin usually do the same with humans.
I have noticed that one of the best ways to get them interested is to swim under water rather than staying on the surface. Naturally curious, dolphins love to come to play with swimmers.
You may be a little bit impressed at first when dolphins leap out of the water. They can also stand still while staring at you.
An eye contact with a dolphin is such a magical moment!
Just observe their behavior and recognize when playtime is over. If theyaccelerate or dive deep, it's time to get back on board. We'll get dry in the sun on the deck during the return trip. But keep an eye open, because the dolphins often decide to do a race with the boat.
The North Without Winter
Bay of Islands justify by itself a trip to New Zealand. Some people could argue that the bay is too crowded... And it is true that during summer, the sea is covered by so many ships because New Zealanders are great navigators. But in my opinion, the presence of so many sails brings a touch of charm.
About accommodation, I recommend staying in Russell which has more charm. But there are nearly 50 different hotels in Paihia and therefore more choices. In all cases, it is imperative to book in advance, including some very popular activities (especially the swimming with dolphins). If the climate is still pleasant, you may be disappointed when the sun is hiding behind clouds... one may regret not to find the postcard landscapes expected. But, with the sun or not, dolphins expect you all the year.
The ideal solution is to rent your own boat to explore the islands. An activity that you may not consider if you travel in New Zealand for the first time. But you still have the possibility to hire the services of different water taxis companies that will drop you on an island and take you back later.
The best solution would be to rent a boat to reach the islands, but even a short stay in Russell or Paihai would be great.
I have not addressed the question of cruises over several days. You can always consider this option if you do not get seasick easily and if you still have enough cash to spend.
But if you don't mind spending even more money, you could also consider flying over the bay by plane or helicopter (quite expensive but absolutely unforgettable!).
If you stay in the Bay of Islands, remember that Cape Reinga is only a few hours away. I bet you have never driven a car on a beach or surfed on giant sand dunes ... The Northlandcontinues to surprise us anytime!
Unless you go to Cape Reinga, you can make a detour to Kerikeri 25 km from Paihia. Less crowded than the other cities in the region, the city is however much more dynamic. Located inland Kerikeri benefits from a subtropical climate that favors plantations and vineyards.
The shops and restaurants of Kerikeri serve fresh regional products. One more reason to stop here before hitting the road again. A quick stroll through the streets allows you to admire Kemp House, the oldest building in the country, miraculously spared during the Muskets War.
And now (drum roll) please welcome the true king of the Bay of Islands, our great Ben the Kiwi. Voted Kiwipal's best guide, he has traveled these shores during his childhood. He is well placed to give you some practical advice and recommend some additional visits. Feel free to ask him any questions to prepare your tailor-made trip.
If you enjoyed this article and want to visit the Bay of Islands, please send us some pictures on location. This is a great opportunity for us to meet our readers and it encourages us to write new useful guides about New Zealand!
Questions & Answers.
What can I do for you? I realize that even if they want to try it, some people fear the dolphins. After all, this is a new experience, but you won’t be alone (some guides will join you), and dolphins never attack humans.
- All topics ... 40 answers in total
- History and Geography 7 answers
- Practical Information 6 answers
- Beaches and Activities 6 answers
- How to Reach the Bay 5 answers
- Tours and Cruises 5 answers
- Culture, Museums and Festivals 4 answers
- Swimming with Dolphins 4 answers
- Accommodation 1 answer
- Weather 1 answer
- Gastronomy 1 answer
History and Geography
- Why are there so many islands in the bay?
Millions of years ago, it was a valley. This same valley has been submerged by the sea, leaving only the summits of the mountains which are islands nowadays.
- Is the sky of the bay one of the bluest of the world?
It is not your imagination! According to a recent study, the bluest sky in the world is in Rio de Janeiro, followed closely by the one over of Bay of Islands.
- What is the size of the islands?
The bay has 8 large islands, but the average of the other 138 is around 22 hectares. They are often simple islets covered with vegetation.
- Who discovered Bay of Islands?
The legend says that it was the Polynesian navigator Kupe in 900 AD. The Maori settled around the year 1000. Captain Cook mapped this earthly paradise during his 1769 expedition. Further exploration would have revealed to him that there was not just one, but several bays in this part of the Northland.
- Did the French arrived in the country before the British?
Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne accosted here in May 1772. Following a religious misunderstanding, he and 26 of his men were killed and devoured by a Maori tribe. In retaliation, the French survivors massacred 250 Maori, but of an innocent tribe! For years, the British have exploited the memory of this massacre to stir up the hatred of the French settlers among Maoris.
- Could New Zealand have belonged to France?
Before leaving Bay of Islands on July 12, 1772, the French left a bottle and a parchment claiming the land in the name of King Louis XV, of course, without even seeking Maoris opinion. If these wishes had been respected, New Zealand would have been called "Southern France".
- What does Kororareka, the original Russell name, means?
According to legend, a wounded Maori chief whispered "Kororareka" while savoring his broth. The expression means "sweet penguin". Rather ironic when one considers that the city became highly dangerous afterwards.
- Where to find the iSite at Bay of Islands?
Go to Marsden Road in Paihia. The information center is open from 8 am to 5 pm from March to mid-December and until 8 pm the rest of the year.Bay of Islands iSite
- How can I find more information about Paihia?
You can consult the official website of the city.Paihia Official Website
- Where can I find more information about Russell?
You can consult the official website.Russell Official website
- Where is Russell's iSite?
It is on the pier. Its opening hours are from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, from April to September and from 8 am to 7 pm from October to March.
- Where can I find more information about Kerikeri?
Just check the official website of the city.Kerikeri Official Website
- Where to find seasonal jobs in Kerikeri?
One can get hired mostly during the months of January to April, but it is possible to plan far in advance. Check out these two sites that list job offers:Jobs for seasonal
Beaches and Activities
- Where can I book kayka tours?
- Where can we rent kayaks?
Go to Bay Beach Hire on Marsden Road in Paihia. They are open from 9 am to 5:30 pm and they also rent bicycles.Bay Beach Hire
- What are the best beaches to go swimming?
One must look for the beaches which are in creeks. Those for example between Paihia and Waitangi at half an hour's walk.
- Where can I go for parascending?
Departures all day on the Paihia's pier. If you want to make yourself an idea, watch the video on the site of Flying Kiwi Parasail.Flying Kiwi Parasail
- Can we rent boats?
It is an expensive activity but which does not necessarily require a permit if you can justify past experience (with an invoice for example). Expect to pay at least $385 a day.Boat rental
- Can we fish in the bay?
The fishing season is from December to June. You can practice big-game fishing. Record catches of marlins, tunas, grouper and even sharks are not uncommon. You will have the opportunity to participate in many fishing competitions if you feel like it. But if you prefer tranquility, rent a boat, with or without skipper, and indulge yourself. Finally, if your budget is tight, join the fishermen on the quays of Paihia or Russel, you will still make some beautiful catches.
How to Reach the Bay
- Can we come by bus?
- Can we come by plane?
Yes, there is a small airport 6 km from Kerikeri. Air New Zealand operates 3 to 5 flights per day except on Sundays.
- Is this far from Auckland?
No, it is just 230 km and the trip is magnificent.
- How to get to Russell?
By car, one could follow the road along the coastal road from Whakapara. But the simplest is to take the ferry from Opua. There is a departure every quarter of an hour from 6:30 am to 10 pm. The rate is $10 per car + driver and $16 per motorhome + driver. Then add one dollar per additional passenger and 50 cents per child. If you do not drive with your vehicle, take the ferry to Paihia on the pier. Departure every 30 minutes from 7:20 AM to 7:30 PM in winter and until 10:30 PM in summer. One way costs $6 per adult and $3 per child.
- Can we dock at the port of Opua?
Yes, this port welcomes both boaters and ferries.
Tours and Cruises
- Where is the cruise departure?
The departure point is at Paihia, but most cruises have a stopover at Russell.
- Which company to visit Cape Brett?
Without hesitation, I would recommend Fullers. This company offers half-day excursions with stopovers. Departs twice a day from Paihia and Russell. You can also take an option to swim with dolphins. Consult the website for rates and timetables:Dolphin Cruises
- Does water taxis exist?
Yes, including the Paihia Island Shuttle. This shuttle can drop you on the island of your choice. An ideal solution if you take the hike to Cape Brett and you want to be picked up on your return journey.Paihia Island ShuttleWater Taxis
- Can Cape Brett be reached on foot?
Yes, by following the Cape Brett Track, a magnificent hike through the forests along the cliffs. The whole route from Rawhiti lasts 8 hours on 16 km. For more details, consult the Department of Conservation (DOC) website. Plan a shuttle to pick you up at the end of the day.Water Taxis
- Can we sign up for a helicopter trip?
It's expensive, but it's worth it. Saltair proposes to deposit you on a platform at sea from where a boat will lead you on a deserted beach. Watch the promotional video to get an idea of the journey. Perfect for honeymoon trips.Saltair
Culture, Museums and Festivals
- Is it possible to visit the house of Pompallier?
The Anglican church of the Christ and the house of Pompallier survived the wars between Pahekas and Maoris. The house of Pompallier was the property of a French priest who was the first to print Bibles in the Maori language. If the subject interests you, you should consult the museum's official website:Pompallier House museum
- What is « Russell to Paihia Swim » ?
It is a swim race that takes place in December of each year and involves swimming from Paihia to Russell. If you want to participate, please visit this page:Ocean Swim Event
- What can be admired at the Russell Museum?
The main attraction is a large-scale reproduction of the Endeavor (Captain Cook's ship). A ten-minute video also traces the history of the city and explain the Maori culture. The museum is located at 2 York Street in Russell.Russel Museum
- What should-I visit in Kerikeri?
You can visit two old period buildings, Mission House (the oldest wooden building in the country) and Te Waimate Mission. But if the weather is fine, I recommend you to go and explore the Kauri Forest, one of the few to survive the slaughter. You can then drive up to Kororipo Pa, the ancient fortified village of Hongi Hika, the legendary Maori warrior, former master of the region.
Swimming with Dolphins
- What company to swim with dolphins?
- How to approach dolphins with my own boat?
It is mandatory to respect a maximum speed of 5 knots and to remain behind or on the side of a dolphin shoal. Never come in the middle of a shoal and keep a safe distance of 300 meters. When the time comes, cut the engines and drop the anchor. Do not stay more than 10 minutes unless you are alone on the spot. If not, and if more than three ships are already present, wait your turn.
- What is the best time to seedolphins?
Approaching dolphins is prohibited between 11:30 am and 1:00 pm. This interval allows them to rest or teach hunting to their babies. The presence of babies less than one meter long also requires that you keep an increased distance.
- What sort of dolphins swim in the bay?
There are two species, the Great Dolphins which are the most famous and the common dolphins which despite their name are undoubtedly the most beautiful and the most playful ones (in my humble opinion).
- When should you arrive at the hotel?
That's a very good question ! Always before 8 pm because past this time, the receptions are deserted!
- What is the best season?
Plan your trip in summer, from December to February.
- Which wines are produced in the region?
Vineyards mainly produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot.
On the Country Map
The Bay of Islands is a part of the the sunny Northland on the North Island.
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