The Bay of Islands

View of The Bay of Islands from afarA few hours north of Auckland is the Bay of Islands. It’s a small area where people go to holiday, sail, swim, see dolphins, and relax. The main tourist town is Paihia, though a lot of people go to nearby Russßell too. If you’ve ever been to the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, Byron Bay, or any seaside town that relies solely on tourism, then you’ll have a good idea as to what this area is like.

There’s not much going on in this area, so it’s a great place to go visit and relax. It can be very touristy, but the range of sea activities and the sense of peacefulness more than make up for it. You can spend your days lying on the beach, swimming, horseback riding, sailing, hiking, or taking a boat out to explore the bay and swim with dolphins, which seems to be the biggest draw here.

I did the Awesome NZ dolphin tour. The guides were friendly and informative, but we didn’t see a lot of dolphins, and the ones we did see were moving too fast to get any good pictures of them (like all my dolphin and whale tours). We spent a few hours trying to find bottlenose dolphins to no avail, and I tried to find something to kill my boredom. We took a break on this beautiful island where you could swim and relax, but the water here, while a beautiful turquoise green, was too cold for me. I’m spoiled by tropical water, and 20-Celsius water turns me into an icicle.

The Bay of Islands pier in New ZealandBecause of the lack of dolphins, there was no swimming with them. It didn’t bother me, but my friends were really keen to do it. The only thing I can’t figure out (and all the companies here seem to pull this move) is why it costs extra to swim with dolphins. These tours are about 90 NZD to start with, but dolphin swimming costs 30 NZD extra. Why? We’re all on the boat anyways, so there’s no extra work involved. Are the dolphins taking a cut? Doubt it. What if I just happen to fall in the water? Do I get charged 30 NZD too? I find no good reason to charge people to get on the boat and then extra just to go in the water with the dolphins. All the companies here pull this trick, and I think it’s just a way to get more money from tourists.

That being said, the tour itself was cool, the staff knew their facts, and if dolphins are your thing, you’ll want to spend the money to go out and see them. Or if dolphins aren’t your thing, you can also sail, kayak, or take tours of the bay. Whatever you do, you have to get out into the bay. It’s where all the action is, even if the water is cold!

There’s not much else to say about the Bay of Islands. It’s one of those places you come to for a few days to relax. I couldn’t stay here for more than four or five days, though a lot of backpackers seem to spend weeks here. I think that has a lot to do with the available jobs here and the fact that the beer is pretty cheap. What little nightlife the town has revolves around two backpacker bars and one local bar. A lot of the locals come down to the backpacker bars because, as one said to me last night, “There’s no one anywhere else and the beer is cheaper.” And while backpacker bars can be an interesting and fun time, I would hate to know that they were my only option at night. After two nights, I’m already sick of them.

Beaches on The Bay of Islands in New Zealand are beautifulThe restaurants in town are pretty good, though. I recommend two. For good sandwiches (get the breakfast panini!), head to the Beach House. Everything is about 8 NZD, well portioned, and delicious. Plus, they have free Wi-Fi. Did I mention you should try the breakfast sandwich? For some great seafood, go to Only Seafood. It’s located across the beach and is not a budget option. A meal here will set you back at least 50 NZD. However, it was worth every penny to go over my budget. The salmon and lightly seared tuna were mouth watering. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back there.

The Bay of Islands is nice, and you could spend about three days here and tick off all the activities. Or you could stay longer and relax in one of the sunniest places in New Zealand. It’s also a great place to work because there isn’t much to distract you. I’ve enjoyed my time here, but three days has been enough.

For more information, visit my guide to New Zealand travel.

  1. Nice to hear your take on the Bay of Islands. I didn’t venture north of Auckland. Interested to see how you’re finding Kiwi Experience – I’ve always shied away from bus tours. Hopefully it’s sunnier up north than it is on the West Coast!

  2. Thanks for the tips and lowdown on The Bay of Islands. I’ll be in Auckland in Feb, spending a few days there with my aunt & uncle and am looking into trips I can do from my “home” base.
    I’m still laughing at the idea of the dolphins getting some of the extra money. It does seem rather ridiculous to tack the additional fee on.

  3. I posted an album of photos from Bay of Islands on my Loyalty Traveler Facebook page a few weeks ago. Several pictures from Paihia and Russell.
    I was there in August 2005.

    I could have stayed there for weeks. Then again, the stars were enough nightlife for me.

    Bay of Islands is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed.

  4. Swimming with the dolphins is showcased as one of the to-dos..many times tourists come to Indian beaches and ask specifically for dolphins…been to NZ many many years ago..was literally counting sheep then

  5. Akaroa, Banks Peninsula “Swimming With Dolphins”. Go there, the litttel Hector’s dolphins: endangered, smallest dolphins in the world, very accessible and curious, like smoke in the water and they smile right at you. Get out of the NI and head south, better island, more beautiful place, fewer people. Try Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki if you like Taupo so much. They will utterly blow your mind.

    Genevieve, in Auckland right now.

  6. Steph

    I spent nearly three months living and working in Paihia a few years back, over the holidays and high tourist season. The lack of options does get old–especially since the nearest bookstores and movie theaters are in Whangarei!–but still a phenomenal place to spend some time, working and chilling. The joke during holiday time is that you’ll never be waited on by a kiwi, but by one of the plethora of Argentinians, Canadians, Germans or one of the very few Americans (like me). Is it a international experience? Definitely. Will you feel like you’ve “seen” New Zealand? Not necesarily.
    It’s a great place where you can have a New Years Eve you won’t remember, or take an hour’s walk that runs you through the sea shore, farmland, a wooded hike, and a brilliant waterfall.
    I wouldn’t say it’s an essential stop if your time in NZ is limited, but if time is on your side, definitely head up for a spell.

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