About 3-4 hours north of Auckland on the very top of the North Island of New Zealand you will find the Bay of Islands. The Bay of Islands is comprised of 144 subtropical islands. The scenery is stunning, but completely different than the more frequently photographed South Island landscapes. While my husband and I lived in New Zealand on working holiday visas, we made Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands home. We have since been back to visit twice, and took our 18 month old daughter last November. The Bay of Islands holds sentimental value for us, and in our minds a trip to New Zealand would not be complete without visiting this beautiful section of the country. Below are our favorite towns, sites, and foods to experience in the northland.
Travel: The Bay of Islands is accessible from Auckland via car hire, plane, public bus transport, or full day tours with companies like intercity and greatsites. By car, the trip will take appx 3-4 hours if you choose the shorter route via Highway 1, but you will be required to pay a toll. The toll is $2.30 for cars, and can be paid online or on the phone as the toll is electronic. However, we always choose to pay our toll at the gas stations near the toll so we are done with it. They charge a fee of $1.20. Or you can choose to travel via the Twin Coast Discovery Route which is a longer drive, but more scenic. We personally always choose to travel via Highway 1 as the drive is still beautiful, and we are eager to make it to the Bay of Islands. If you choose to fly then the flight is a short 35 minute flight to the Kerikeri airport.
Hotel: We have always chosen to make our base in Kerikeri which is the largest town in the Northland; however, the town of Paihia would also be a lovely setting. There are many lovely hotels and bed & breakfast options in Kerikeri which you should explore. We love Wharepuke Subtropical Gardens which is 5 acres of award winning gardens with small little cottages scattered throughout, an art gallery and sculpture park, and an award winning restaurant on site. (More on this later). http://www.accommodation-bay-of-islands.co.nz/
Logistics: A bit of driving over a couple of days is needed to explore The Bay of Islands so we recommend hiring a car.
Kerikeri: As mentioned, Kerikeri is the largest town in the Northland. Kerikeri was the site of the first mission settlement in New Zealand, and has some of the oldest buildings in the country. Kerikeri has been previously voted as New Zealand’s top small town, and you often hear the tourist slogan “Its so nice, they named it twice” This town is full of charm and is the perfect gateway for exploring The Bay of Islands. Must sees in Kerikeri:
Stone Store & Kemp House: Located at the end of the main street in town on the inlet you will find 2 of the most historic buildings in NZ. The Stone house is the oldest stone structure in NZ, and the Kemp House or Mission House is the oldest wooden structure in NZ. The stone store now houses a gift shop which is full of old treasures and unique items. This is a great place to visit for kids as there is lots of outdoor space to run around, and there are tons of ducks on the property/inlet.
Rainbow Falls: A favorite of our daughters. There is a lovely hike from the base of the Stone Store you can choose to hike to Rainbow Falls which we have done, but with kiddies in tow I suggest going to the car park which is located right next to the falls. You can view the falls from the upper decking, but I also recommend making the 10 minute hike down to the base. This is an easy hike for children as long as they are supervised and very enjoyable. You can choose to swim if the weather permits and hike around the back of the falls.
Rewa’s Village: A replica of a Maori fishing village. http://rewasvillage.co.nz/ Also located near the Stone Store on the basin/inlet.
Bay of Island’s Farmer’s Market: Every Sunday in Kerikeri from 8:30 am – noon you can visit this amazing farmer’s market. There are stalls of wonderful food, crafts, produce, music, etc. The market is a must visit if you are in town on Sunday, and located at the Hobson car park across from Makana Confections which is a must visit as well for their amazing treats!
Bay of Islands Honey Shop: Home of NZ’s biggest bee hive. This place is really cool. The store has amazing honey related items, and I highly suggest buying NZ famed Manuka honey. I am a big fan. Also, the kids can see the iconic buzzy bee (one of the most famous NZ toys)A as they sell these in store, and have a huge replica outside. http://www.boihoneyshop.co.nz/
Restaurants Around Town: This is my no means a comprehensive list as there are really SO many good places to eat in Kerikeri. However, these are just a few recommendations, and some of our favorites:
Food @ Wharepuke: Located at The Wharepuke Subtropical Gardens in an old American Army barracks is the café/ restaurant owned by chef Colin Ashton, Food. I had the privilege of working at this café when we lived in New Zealand, and I visit every time we are in New Zealand. I actually dream of Colin’s award winning kaffir lime panna cotta. Colin has won accolades in New Zealand, and also used to be the personal chef for some pretty big celebrities back in the day. His food is amazing! His dishes are European thai inspired, and the setting is gorgeous.
Marsden Estate: Kerikeri was the first place in New Zealand where grape vines were planted by Samuel Marsden. There are several local vineyards you can visit in Kerikeri, but our favorite is Marsden. This is a lovely place to visit for lunch, and sit on the patio. They also offer tastings. http://www.marsdenestate.co.nz/
Café Jerusalem: Hands down one of my favorite gyros. Its a small place located in the center of town, but fast and great for kids!
Rusty Tractor Café & Trading Store: A cute little café with a playground for kids!
Kerikeri Bakehouse: You must stop here for breakfast, and they have a play area for kids!
Fishbone Café: We love the coffees here! They also make great waffles!
Paihia: Located about 30 minutes from Kerikeri is coastal town of Paihia. This town is beautiful, and would also make a great base for your stay in the Bay of Islands. I also love shopping in Paihia, and find the best souvenirs in this town! Here are our top recommendations for adventures in Paihia:
Hole in the Rock Cruise: The Hole in the Rock or as the Maori call it Motu Kōkako is a 60 foot hole in the island at sea level that you can boat thru if the waters are calm enough to allow. There are many companies to choose from for your hole in the rock cruise, and you will find huts in town with all of the booking information and schedules. If you choose to book ahead of time via the internet, all of the tours have websites. We have only done The Fullers GreatSights Tour, and it was fantastic. We recommend the Hole in the Rock Cruise appx 3 hours (and you can add an island stop over) or the full day cream trip. We saw tons of dolphins on our cruise! https://www.dolphincruises.co.nz/bay-of-islands-cruises
Waitangi Treaty Grounds: Located in Paihia are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the Waitangi Treaty was signed making this site one of huge historical significance. The Waitangi Treaty established British rule in New Zealand, and was signed by Maori chiefs and the British Crown. The treaty gave Maori people the ownership of their lands, and provided British rights to the Maori people. You can visit the grounds during the day for tours, etc and for part of the year you can also visit for a Maori Hangi & concert. http://www.waitangi.org.nz/
Beach: The kids will love the beach in Paihia, and you should enjoy all of the activities beach side. We recommend a fish & chips picnic. We love Tai Bay Takeaways which is beach side. They wrap your order up in paper, and you can head to the beach!
Paihia Farmer’s Market: Paihia also hosts a weekly farmer’s market every Thursday from 2 pm until dusk at the village green.
Russell: Russell was the first European settlement in New Zealand, and is now a cute seaside town full of cafes, shops, and strolling seaside walks. A passenger ferry runs daily from Pahia to Russell or there is also a car ferry from Opua. We took the ferry over to Russell for lunch, and then did the Flagstaff Hill Hike. The hike is uphill and can be a bit much with tots so recommend stroller or baby carrier, but the view at the top is 360 degrees of the Bay of Islands and well worth the effort. You can also drive, but we did not have a car since we took the passenger ferry across.
90 Mile Beach & Cape Reinga: We visited these attractions independently via car hire, but I recommend going via an operated tour from Paihia. Appx 3 hours away from Paihia. Cape Reinga is where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, and it makes quite a crash. This is the end of the road in the Northland, and the most northern accessible point of NZ. The views are beautiful. We sand boarded the dunes of 90 mile beach, and it was alot of fun. It is a hike up the dunes for a ride down. If you book thru an organized tour, they will supply the sand boards. Also, on your organized tour they should supply lunch, and a stop off at the Kauri Museum to see the iconic NZ Kauri trees! Older kids would love this adventure! https://www.newzealand.com/int/cape-reinga/
Matauri Bay: Some of the best landscapes of the Northland can be seen from driving to Matauri Bay in my opinion. The drive is appx 35 minutes from Kerikeri around winding roads, and you will take in stunning views. You can drive to the Matauri Bay Holiday Park for swimming, surfing, and camping. This is a beautiful beach to spend time at and picnic. http://www.matauribayholidaypark.co.nz/ Kauri Cliffs Golf Resort is also located in Matauri Bay, and is a fantastic property if you have the chance to visit. You can golf, visit the spa, or enjoy lunch on site. https://www.robertsonlodges.com/the-lodges/kauri-cliffs
Ngawha Springs: Located appx 40 mins from Kerikeri are the Ngawha Springs near Kaikohe. These are geothermal springs that are built into the ground. This is not a fancy spa establishment, but if it is hot mud pools you are after then this is a great place to visit. As you drive closer to the hot pools, you will start to smell the aroma immediately. I think it smells much like rotten eggs. My advice would be to not wear your best swimsuit as it is hard to get the odor out following your dip, but these pools are all natural and highly therapeutic. The entry fee is $4NZD and kids are free. http://www.ngawhasprings.co.nz
Enjoy the Bay of Islands!