Everywhere I go in New Zealand, I feel like I’ve entered a completely different world. That’s how distinct and varied this country is. The Bay of Islands, a few hours north of Auckland, feels almost tropical. Its mild climate, sparkling waters and deluge of palm tree-strewn, golden-beached islands are a world apart from the sprawling city and domesticated fields to the south.
Paihia is the main tourist stop in the bay, understandably. This cute seaside town has a chilled-out feel to it, as well as boasting the famous Waitangi Treaty Grounds within walking distance. This pivotal part of New Zealand history is where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, integrating New Zealand into the sovereignty of the British Crown. Though I missed out on seeing the grounds, I did spend the afternoon walking to the Haruru Falls, a 10km return walk that passes through native bush, over rivers and through a wonderful mangrove forest, complete with crabs and the strange popping noises of shrimp hiding in the exposed mud. The falls themselves are probably more impressive after a heavy rainfall, but they were still lovely to sit next to and have a bite to eat.
To anyone who finds themselves in the Bay of Islands – DO A CRUISE. This is an order. You simply cannot come to this part of the world, and not get out on the water, somehow. Do whatever you must. I spent half a day out on the water, and loved every second of it. The four-hour cruise left Paihia and headed out between the islands, finding a pod of dolphins within 20 minutes. When it comes to wild animals, I’m like a little kid at the zoo. A few dark shadows in the water and I’m squealing. This wasn’t just a few dark shadows though, but a large creche pod, complete with several babies. They came right up to the boat, hopping out of the water, blowing mist, and riding in the swirling water right at the bow of the boat. We spent maybe 20 minutes with them before we had to press on to the next stop on the cruise – the Hole in the Rock – stopping briefly to see a couple of New Zealand fur seals on the way. This small island just off the Cape Brett lighthouse has a large natural archway eroded into the side, and on a good day, boats can drive right through (just about). It’s a very tight squeeze, so props to the driver!
The cruise continued with a stopover on a glorious island that, again, made me feel like I’d been transported to the Caribbean. On our way home, we paused at Cook Cove on Roberton Island, where Cook landed and traded with Maori locals who at first thought these newcomers were goblins with eyes on the back of their heads. I prefer the Maori name for the island – Motuarohia, meaning ‘island of desire’. With turquoise waters and green islands rimmed with sand stretching out around me, I had to take a moment to just breathe in the view from the top of the hill. The Bay of Islands is certainly true to its name.
Russell, a short ferry ride across the bay, is Paihia’s quieter counterpart. Stepping off the boat onto the wharf, you instantly feel transported back 150 years. Called Romantic Russell now, it was once the Hellhole of the South Pacific, a free-for-all, pirate-laden harbour village. Walking through the quiet, peaceful little town with its island feel, it’s strangely easy to imagine the place full of raucous cries and drunken stumblings, a la Tortuga from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, an image helped along by the sight of a tattoo parlour tucked away next to a cute little antique shop. Considering that Russell is full of day-trippers and retirees, I find it hard to believe they command enough business to stay open.
A short stroll up Flagstaff Hill gives some gorgeous panoramic views of the bay, as well as some interesting history about the troubled past relationships between Maoris and early settlers. Nearby is a beautiful mosaic sundial. Not exactly accurate, it tried to tell me it was 12.30. It was 2.00. At least it’s pretty to look at.
A slightly longer walk takes you out to the other side of the peninsula, to lovely Long Beach. Not exactly the longest beach I’ve ever seen, it was still a really nice walk along golden sand, rock pools full of hermit crabs and gentle waves rolling over your feet that, oddly, kept changing temperature from not-even-cold to actually-quite-warm. I waited until sunset to get the ferry back to Paihia, well worth the wait for a lovely golden sky reflected in the darkening waters of the Bay. A gorgeous way to end my short stay in the Bay of Islands.
Have you ever been to a place that made you feel as if you were somewhere completely different? Share your stories in the comments below!
When a love of travel meets a passion for wildlife…
I’m a zoologist who explores the world while working for conservation organisations. I write about my experiences in the hope of inspiring others to follow their dreams and see the beauty of this earth – in a responsible and ethical way.