The Bay of Islands is one of the most popular destinations in all New Zealand with backpackers and locals alike. Mile after mile of beach and rocky coastline surround the bay, which is dotted with 144 islands. It’s hugely popular as a summer retreat and getaway for those around Auckland.
But the beauty and countless activities in the Bay of Islands draws tons of backpackers who want to enjoy the beaches, dolphin sightseeing, fishing trips, or sea kayaking.
I think this destination is one of the few great beach destinations in the country and a relaxing interlude before diving into all the adventurous activities the country has to offer as you make your way down south.
This travel guide to the Bay of Islands can help you plan your trip and will give you everything you need to know.
Table of Contents
Bay of Islands
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Bay of Islands
1. Lounge on the beach
2. Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
3. Make a day trip to Cape Reinga
4. See wild dolphins
5. Hit the trails
Other Things to See and Do in Bay of Islands
1. Sail the bay
Sailing is popular here due to the perfect weather, protected anchorages (the 144 islands keep the worst of the weather at bay), an abundance of wildlife, and beautiful vistas. There are tons of options for both day trips and multi-day excursions, most of which include snorkeling and swimming. Expect to spend 110 NZD for a day trip. You can also take sailing lessons at Yachting New Zealand and the Royal Yachting Association, ranging from two days to several weeks (prices vary).
2. Dive a shipwreck
There are two noteworthy wrecks in the region. The Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship that was bombed in 1985 by covert French agents, exists as an artificial reef and is the most popular site. The HMNZS Canterbury, a 113m frigate that was decommissioned in 2005, is another wreck and offers both beginner and advanced sections. Prices start at 180 NZD (plus equipment rental) for an open water dive.
3. Go fishing
This region is known for some great marlin, kingfish, and snappers. Charter excursions run out of Paihia and Russell and start at around 150 NZD for a half-day shared excursion (you’ll share the boat with other guests). Bait and tackle are included and they also fillet your fish for you as there are restaurants in Paihia that cook your catch (Vinnie’s Fish and Chip is a favorite). If you’re an experienced fisherman, try a Deep-Sea tour. These are usually private tours that last multiple days and provide an opportunity for you to go after marlin, swordfish, and other big game. Expect to pay upwards of 2,000 NZD for a tour.
4. Try parasailing
If you’re looking an adrenaline rush (and a stunning view of the region), try parasailing. Single, tandem, and triple-seat parasailing rides are plentiful here, most of which can be found in Paihia. Soar to heights of 1,300 feet above the water as you take in a birds-eye view of the bay and its islands. Children as young as 8 can ride, making this a fun family activity. Rides last 10 minutes and prices start at 129 NZD for a single ride and 99 NZD per person for tandem and triple-seat rides.
5. Visit Rainbow Falls
Rainbow Falls is a 27m waterfall located ten minutes from the town of Kerikeri (which itself is just 20 minutes north of Paihia). You can visit the falls by car and then a quick ten-minute hike or you can just walk there in under an hour from Kerikeri itself. The waterfall, known as Waianiwaniwa in Maori, gets its name from the rainbow you can usually see at the base of the falls. There are viewing platforms at the top of the falls and you can swim in the water below (bring a bathing suit). For a longer hike, start at the historic Stone Store and Mission House in the Kerikeri Basin and follow the Kerikeri River Track (this hike takes around 1.5 hours).
6. Tour Pompallier House
Built in 1841, Pompallier House is a 19th-century French Catholic Mission. Located in Russell, today it acts as a small museum. You can see the original printing press (which printed over 30,000 books), tannery, and factory that were originally operated by the mission. The main function of the mission was to translate religious texts into Maori. It’s one of the oldest industrial buildings in the country. Admission is 15 NZD and includes a guided tour.
7. Visit Parrot Place
The Parrot Place is an aviary in Kerikeri that is home to over 300 species of birds, including blue and gold macaws, kakarikis, and king parrots as well as tons of other species from all around the world. You can hold and feed some of the birds and there is even a dancing macaw named Elmo you can play with. It’s a entertaining place to visit if you’re traveling with kids. Admission is 12 NZD for adults and 6 NZD for kids.
8. Check out the Russell Museum
This museum has a host of information and exhibits all about the Bay of Islands and its history. The Bay of Islands, which got its English name from Captain James Cook when he “discovered” the region in 1769, has played a pivotal role in maritime history and exploration. Russell was once the jumping-off point of whalers and the museum is home to tons of information on whaling and its impact on New Zealand. The museum also contains Maori artifacts, a massive replica of Captain Cook’s ship, and historical photographs. It’s an informative local museum and one not to be missed if you’re visiting Russell. Admission is 10 NZD.
9. Cruise around Piercy Island
Piercy island (Motu Kokako) is a pristine island off the coast of Cape Brett. It’s known for a massive 60-foot (18m) arch in the rocks (similar to the Azure Window in Malta). The island itself is home to gannets and other seabirds and is unique in that it has no non-native wildlife. The island was named by Captain Cook in honor of one of the Lords of the Admiralty though most locals just call it the “Hole in the Rock.” In addition to jet boat tours, you can also pay for a helicopter ride over the island. Helicopter flights last 35 minutes and cost 400 NZD per person while a jet boat tour lasts two hours and costs 135 NZD.
10. Visit Tane Mahuta
This majestic tree, known as the Lord of the Forest, is a giant kauri tree that stands over 45m tall and over 4.4m wide. The tree is estimated to be 2,500 years old and is located in Waipoua Forest, 100km west of Paihia. Since the tree is fragile, you’ll need to clean your shoes before you visit as kauri trees are very susceptible to disease. It’s free to visit.
11. Waitangi Mountain Bike Park
The Waitangi Mountain Bike Park is home to over 40km of mountain bike trails. There are both kid-friendly trails as well as easy, moderate, and challenging trails for adults. The park is located just 5km north of Paihia. Your donation also gives you access to many local discounts, including restaurant discounts, discounts on parasailing and skydiving, and even discounts at the local gym (there are almost two dozen discounts offered to park users who donate). There is also a shuttle service at the park so when you finish a track you can get a ride back to the top of the course to continue. Mountain bikes can be rented in Paihia for 59 NZD (which includes a park donation).
12. Go skydiving
The Bay of Islands is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the country to skydive. The highest tandem jump in the country is here, offering a staggering jump from 20,000 feet (it’s a 90 seconds of free fall). You’ll not only be able to soak in the view of all 144 islands in the region but you’ll be high enough to see the curvature of the earth. Jumps start around 299 NZD and include free pick-up and drop-off from your accommodation.
Bay of Islands Travel Costs
Hostel prices – Eight-bed dorms cost between 26-31 NZD per night. In the low-season, you can find them for 25-28 NZD. Private rooms begin at 65 NZD (though 80-90 NZD is more common). Free Wi-Fi and self-catering facilities are common though no hostels in the region include free breakfast.
Budget hotel prices – Budget two-star hotels and motels in the region cost around 100 NZD per night. In the winter, you can find prices closer to 85 NZD per night. B&Bs are the most common option in the area, with prices starting around 115 NZD per night.
Airbnb is widely available in the region with private rooms start at 80 NZD per night. Entire homes/apartments cost around 150 NZD per night. There are virtually no shared accommodations available so you’ll need to choose a private room or entire apartment/home if you’re using Airbnb.
If you want to camp, prices start at 20 NZD per night for a basic plot (a flat space for a tent without electricity). If you’re driving a self-contained camper van (one with its own water supply and bathroom), there are plenty of free places to park overnight as well. Use the app “park4night” to find them.
Food – Eating out in this region of the country is very expensive. Since it’s a tourist-heavy region (with lots of upscale accommodation), restaurants often charge a premium. A cheap restaurant meal with a drink costs around 20-30 NZD. For something fancier, like a mid-range restaurant with table service, expect to pay around 50 NZD for a meal with a drink.
You can find sandwiches at cafes for 10 NZD. Fast food options here are rare. Pita Pit is the most common option with prices cost around 14 NZD. A beer at the bar costs around 10 NZD (though you can buy them for 5 NZD during happy hour, which is usually 4-6pm).
If you choose to cook your food, plan to spend between 60-80 NZD per week for basic staples like rice, pasta, vegetables, and some meat.
Backpacking Auckland Suggested Budgets
On a backpacker budget, you can visit the Bay of Islands for 95-115 NZD ($60-75 USD) per day. On this budget, you’ll stay in a dorm room or camp, cook all of your meals, do free outdoor activities, visit just a few paid attractions, and use rideshares to travel between towns. If you’re on a tighter budget, you can lower this by limiting your drinking, Couchsurfing, and visiting in the off-season.
On a mid-range budget of about 320-400 NZD ($205-255 USD), you’ll stay in a budget hotel or private hostel room, eat out at cheap local restaurants, rent a car to get around, enjoy some happy hours, and do more paid activities like snorkeling and kayaking. In short, you’ll have the flexibility to do what you want. You’re not going to live large but you’ll be able to get by without worrying too much about your spending.
On a luxury budget of 570+ NZD ($365+ USD), you can stay in a 4-star hotel or upscale B&B, eat out for every meal at mid-range restaurants, drink what you want, rent a car or RV, and do as many activities as you’d like (including skydiving and scuba diving). This is just the ground floor for luxury though — you can easily spend more if you really want to splash out!
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages — some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Bay of Islands Travel Guide: Money-Saving Tips
The Bay of Islands is a popular holiday region in the country so that means prices are high (especially in the summer). It’s a place meant for tourists and those places are never cheap! That said, if you stay at cheap accommodations, stick to drinking during happy hours, and avoid eating out, you’ll be able to cut your costs without limiting yourself too much. On top of that, here are some additional tips to help you save money:
- Cook your food – The Bay of Islands is an upscale beach area with many expensive homes and restaurants. Eating out really hurts your budget — more so than in other places. Cook your own meals to save your budget. When it comes to buying groceries, the cheaper supermarkets are Pakn’Save and Countdown.
- Stay with a local – While there are not many Couchsurfing hosts available in the area there are still some. Try staying with a local to cut down on your accommodation costs. You’ll also get some valuable insight into the area from a local — and that is priceless!
- Avoid the high season – Prices are higher during the summer months (and the beaches will be packed) so avoid peak tourist season if you can .
- Find deals at bookme.co.nz – If you’re looking for activities and are flexible with your dates, this website often has great deals. You can find tours and activities for up to 50% off!
- Hit happy hour – The backpacker bars have cheap happy hours offering 5 NZD drinks. Hit them up and drink for cheap. Otherwise, plan to spend around 10 NZD for a beer at the bar.
- WWOOF it – If you don’t mind staying outside of the main towns and cities in the area, WWOOFing is a great way to work for your accommodation and food. In return for working on a farm or B&B, you get free room and board. It’s a popular activity with travelers because it lets you stay in a place cheaper and longer. You can do it for a few days or a few months.
- Clean in exchange for your room – Some hostels in the region let you trade a few hours of cleaning and making beds for free accommodation.
- Car share – If you plan on exploring the region, consider a rideshare. Rideshares are a popular transportation option for travelers looking to lower costs — all you need to do is chip in for gas. You can find rides on websites like Gumtree or Craigslist. Apps like Carpool New Zealand and Thumbs Up NZ are also great resources. Additionally, you’ll see people asking for rides on hostel bulletin boards.
- Enjoy nature – Remember that nature is free! The Northland region is home to tons of free outdoor activities, hiking trails, and beaches. While the adventure sports and boat cruises can eat into your budget, there are plenty of trails and walks here to keep you busy.
Where To Stay in Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands region has a few hostels available and they’re all pretty comfortable and sociable. You’ll find them in Paihia, the main jumping-off point to the Bay of Islands. Here are my suggested and recommended places to stay in the Paihia and the Bay of Islands:
How to Get Around Bay of Islands
Public transportation – Since the Bay of Islands is a region and not a specific city or town, there is no public transportation to rely on. The main tourist hub Paihia is home to just 2,000 people so it’s easy to navigate on foot or bicycle.
To get between towns by bus, use InterCity (a bus company). They have routes between most towns in the region with prices starting at just 1 NZD.
Taxi – Taxis here are expensive (and not even available in all parts of the region). In general, they should be avoided. Rates generally start around 3.50 NZD and go up by 2.60 NZD per kilometer. Unless you have no other option or are splitting a ride with other travelers, I’d avoid using taxis. Car rentals, rideshares, and cycling are all cheaper.
Ridesharing – Rideshares here are only for long distances; there are no local single-city rideshare companies operating here (like Uber). If you’re looking to share a ride with a local or traveler, use Gumtree, Craigslist, or apps like Carpool New Zealand and Thumbs Up NZ. You can also ask around in your hostel. There are usually travelers who have space in exchange for gas money.
Car rental – Car rentals are the best way to explore this region. Your best bet is to rent a car in Auckland as you’ll have more options and cheaper prices. Expect to pay around 30 NZD per day or 130 NZD per week for a small car. If you want to rent a campervan or RV, expect to pay at least 350 NZD per week.
An International Driver’s Permit (IDP) is recommended for car rentals. You can get one before you leave your home country.
Bicycle – Bike rentals in Paihia start around 15 NZD per hour (50 NZD per day) for a basic bike that will get you around town. For a mountain bike, expect to pay around 25 NZD for 2 hours (70 NZD per day).
When to Go to Bay of Islands
Bay of Islands is located in the Northland region of the North Island. The climate here is sub-tropical and warm all year. Summer is from December-February and it’s the most popular time to visit the area. Precipitation during this time is limited and it can get quite humid. Kiwis also take their holidays during this time, so things get busy. The average daytime temperature in the summer in the Bay of Islands is around 24°C (75°F).
Fall is from March-May, and it’s a nice time to visit if you want to beat the crowds. The weather is still enjoyable, with daily averages around 20°C (68°F).
Winter is from June-August. This is the cheapest time to visit as accommodation is usually discounted. Temperatures hover around 16°C (61°F) so it’s still warm enough for many outdoor activities such as hiking and adventure activities.
There’s really no bad time to visit Bay of Islands. If you’re on a budget, the shoulder season is probably of the best times to visit. However, if you’re looking for hot weather and a lively atmosphere, visit during the summer (just be prepared for it to be busy).
How to Stay Safe in Bay of Islands
Like the rest of the country, Bay of Islands is a safe destination to backpack and travel. Even if you’re traveling solo (including as a solo female traveler), you won’t have anything to worry about here. There is a relatively low crime rate so just take the normal precautions as you would at home, such as carrying a cellphone and being aware of your personal belongings at all times. Don’t leave any valuables on the beach when you’re swimming (theft is rare but it’s better to be safe than sorry).
For additional security, download offline maps of the region in case you get lost. You can also make copies of your important documents (i.e. passport) and forward your itinerary to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
The biggest risk to travelers in the Bay of Islands region is natural disasters. Earthquakes are common and can happen at any time. These can be particularly challenging if you’re out visiting islands off the main island or if you’re at sea fishing, diving, or engaging in other water activities. For added security, download a local weather app (like MetService NZ Weather) to stay up to date.
The emergency number in New Zealand is 111.
Always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. If that driver picking you up seems weird, don’t get in the car. If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it when you’re in New Zealand. Follow that rule and you’ll be fine.
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance protects you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Bay of Islands Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to Bay of Islands. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engine which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments. (If you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay!)
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all-around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all bookers.
- Intrepid Travel – If you want to do a group tour around Sweden, go with Intrepid Travel. They offer small group tours that use local operators and leave a small environmental footprint. If you go on a tour with anyone, go with them. And, as a reader of this site, you’ll get exclusive discounts when you click the link!
- STA Travel – A good company for those under 30 or for students, STA Travel offers discounted airfare as well as travel passes that help you save on attractions.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It gives you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Bay of Islands Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading to Bay of Islands, here are my suggestions for the best travel backpack and tips on what to pack for your trip.
The Best Backpack for Bay of Islands
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Bay of Islands
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Bay of Islands Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World, by Joan Druett
Auckland Island, located 285 miles south of New Zealand, is a place with year-round freezing rain, wind, and little food (but apparently, a lot of seals). Simply put, it’s not a place you want to get shipwrecked on. Yet in 1864, Captain Thomas Musgrave and his crew did just that — and a few months later, on the opposite side of the island, so did the crew of the Scottish ship Invercauld. This well-written account of the how the two crews survived (and didn’t survive) was a wonderful juxtaposition on leadership, camaraderie, and coming together in crisis.
The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning book is a parody of the 19th-century novel is considered a modern classic. The year is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to New Zealand to get involved in the gold rush. When he arrives, he happens upon 12 men who have met in secret to talk about several mysterious events, including the disappearance of a wealthy man and a prostitute’s attempt to end her life. Moody is drawn into the circle, and the book soon turns into a thrilling page-turner that will keep you hooked the whole way through.
Squashed Possums: Off the Beaten Track in New Zealand, by Jonathan Tindale
This one is a fun, humorous travelogue that will get you super excited about your trip. In Squashed Possoms, Tindale talks about his adventures (and misadventures) from a year spent exploring the lesser-explored areas of New Zealand. He makes himself a home in an abandoned caravan, and then lives out four seasons getting acquainted with the terrain – including the coldest winter in decades.
A Land of Two Halves, by Joe Bennett
After having spent ten years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett decides to figure out why he’s still living there. A notorious restless traveler, Bennett finds himself examining all the reasons why these two islands have captivated him for a decade – so he packs his bags and heads out on a hitchhiking adventure around the North and South Islands. His encounters along the way are an enlightening look at life in New Zealand!
My Must Have Guides for Traveling to Bay of Islands
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Kristin Addis writes our solo female travel column and her detailed guide gives specific advice and tips for women travelers.
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My best-selling book will teach how to master the art of travel so that you’ll save money and have a more local, richer travel experience.
Bay of Islands Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling New Zealand and continue planning your trip: