The New Zealand Bay of Islands travel guide: 20 highlights

The New Zealand Bay of Islands travel guide: 20 highlights

1. EXPLORE: BAY OF ISLANDS Despite its enormous historical significance to both Maori and European New Zealanders, the Bay of Islands region is an under-visited one, even by Kiwis let alone foreigners. Located three hours by road or 45 minutes by air due north of Auckland, the Bay of Islands – all  50 or so of them – combines spectacular scenery with a rich Maori and European heritage. Truly, it’s unlike any other part of New Zealand. See newzealand.com; northlandnz.com

2. EXPERIENCE: MAORI CULTURE There are few better places in New Zealand to gain a sense of Maori culture than the Bay of Islands – and the broader Northland region of which it is effectively a part – with its large and proud indigenous population. The Bay of Islands is home to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds (see No. 5, below) as well as remnants of the Maori’s first significant contact with Europeans at the Kerikeri Mission Station (see No. 6, below), which also features a recreation of a traditional Maori fishing village. See newzealand.comnorthlandnz.com

3. VISIT: VILLAGE OF RUSSELL Once known as the “Hellhole of the Pacific”, largely due to its reputation as a haven for escaped convicts from 19th century Australia, Russell these days is a quaint bay-side village full of appealing weatherboard shops, restaurants, museums and houses, much favoured by visitors to the region. Take a stroll along the grandly-named beachside North and South Strands, which run the entire length of the village’s shoreline. See newzealand.com

4. EAT: THE DUKE OF MARLBOROUGH New Zealand’s first licensed hotel, the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, is located in the middle of Russell waterfront. Grab a table at its popular and well-regarded restaurant – the only one in the Bay of Islands to get a mention in the Kiwi Good Food Guide. If the weather’s agreeable sit outside and sample some of the region’s fine seafood over a New Zealand sauvignon blanc. The Duke of Marlborough also includes 25 attractive rooms, some with water views across to the Bay of Islands towns of Paihia and Waitangi. See theduke.co.nz

5. SEE: WAITANGI TREATY GROUNDS New Zealand’s most historic and sacred site, the must-visit Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the location for the signing of the nation’s founding documents.  This year a new museum detailing the history of Maori-European relations opened on the site (see below). The best way to experience Waitangi is by joining one of the regular guided tours of the grounds, while at night traditional hangi dinners and concerts are conducted. See waitangi.org.nz

6. VISIT: KERIKERI MISSION STATION: Established in 1819, the underrated Kerikeri Mission Station was one of the first places where Maori invited European people to live among them. This scenic and historic riverside spot features the country’s oldest European building, the lovely Mission House (also known as Kemp House), built by Maori and missionary carpenters. Nearby is the pretty Stone Store, New Zealand’s oldest stone building, from where tickets can be purchased for tours of Kemp House. See heritage.org.nz

7. EAT: OLD PACKHOUSE MARKETS A fine way to meet and mingle with the Bay of Islands locals en masse (not that there are  huge number of them) is at the Old Packhouse Markets at the township of Kerikeri, it also provides the opportunity to sample local delicacies, such as freshly-cooked whitebait fritters, sold at a range of food stalls. The markets, centred around and inside rustic fruit packing sheds, are open each Saturday from 8am to 1.30pm. See theoldpackhousemarket.co.nz

8.VISIT: FLAGSTAFF HILL Not only are the views from this lookout above the town of Russell compelling so too is the rollicking story behind the flagpole attached to it. Following the brewing anger that developed after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the flagpole, from which the Union Jack flew, atop this commanding hill was chopped down on four occasions by a defiant local Maori chief. The incident led to the first of the bloody wars in New Zealand between the Maori and the British. See newzealand.comnorthlandnz.com

9. SEE: MUSEUM OF WAITANGI Entry to this excellent new museum, which was opened this year, is included in the day pass admission charge for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds (see No. 5, above). The museum traces the sometimes tumultuous and violent relationship between Maori and the British with a documents room allowing visitors to discover the Treaty of Waitangi itself as well as the people who signed it. The colonisation, wars, peace-making and protests that followed in the wake of the Treaty are also explained. See waitangi.org.nz

10. EAT: CHARLOTTE’S KITCHEN In a country that has embraced food and wine with the unbridled passion and enthusiasm of big brother across the ditch, one of the Bay of Islands’ few deficiencies is its lack of top-notch restaurants and cafes. A notable exception is this cool art-filled cafe-cum-restaurant located on a ferry jetty at the bay-side resort town of Paihia. With connections to the savvy operators of the Duke of Marlborough at Russell (see above), the cafe’s name was inspired by Charlotte Badger, Australia’s first female pirate and one of the first female settlers in New Zealand. See charlotteskitchen.co.nz

11. VISIT: TREATY HOUSE Between 1833 and 1840 this attractive house, built of Australian hardwood, on the Waitangi Treaty Ground was known as “the Residency”. It served as the official home of James Busby, the British government’s first representative in New Zealand. The Treaty of Waitangi was drawn up here in 1840 with the building becoming known as “Treaty House” following a restoration in the 1930s after which it was rescued by dereliction. See waitangi.org.nz

12. SEE: WAR CANOE A must-see at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is the open-sided “waka house” where Ngatokimatawhaorua, an extraordinary ceremonial war canoe, is stored and on display to visitors. The canoe – the world’s largest – is 35-metres long and weighs six tonnes and double that weight when saturated by the waters of the adjacent Bay of Islands. The waka is launched every year on February 6 as part of New Zealand’s solemn Waitangi Day celebrations. When fully-manned the canoe has been recorded reaching speeds of 50 kilometres an hour. See waitangi.org.nz

13. CRUISE: HOLE IN THE ROCK One of the most popular Bay of Islands excursions is a cruise to and through this natural cave-like arch carved by nature from a massive rockface protruding over the sea. Maori legend has it that local warriors would paddle their canoes through the Hole in the Rock – also known as Piercy Island and Motu Kokako in Maori – in the hope of acquiring good fortune in battle. See newzealand.com; northlandnz.com

14. RIDE: FERRIES There are few bridges in the Bay of Islands but there is no shortage of passenger and car ferries to transport locals and visitors alike between the region’s charming towns and villages. You can take regular passenger or car ferries, for instance, from Paihia to Russell, savouring the superb scenery and the abundant fresh air along the way. See newzealand.comnorthlandnz.com

15. SEE: WATERFALLS In and around the township of Kerikeri is a series of beautiful waterfalls, some of which can be viewed from the easy seven-kilometres-long (round-trip) Kerikeri River Track. Wharepuke and Rainbow Falls can be reached by passing through kauri and totara native forest with the track sticking close to the river. The walk also features a historic hydro-electric powerhouse, which operated from the early 1930s until the late 1960s, and which can still be visited by walkers. See doc.govt.nz

16. RIDE: GABRIEL, THE STEAM TRAIN The town of Kawakawa is most well-known, would you believe, for its avant-garde public toilets designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an eccentric expatriate Austrian artist. But it’s most endearing feature is Gabriel, a 1927 steam train operated by the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust, which runs tourist rides straight down the middle of Kawakawa’s main street, which is actually a State Highway. Four trips aboard Gabriel operate each week and every day during school holidays. See bayofislandsvintagerailway.org.nz

17. EAT: FOOD AT WHAREPUKE Aside from the decent European and Thai food and espresso coffee served here day and night, the best feature of this Kerikeri cafe, set in a former US Army barracks, is its location in a sculpture-filled subtropical garden. There are also five cottages available for accommodation and an art gallery, which stages regular exhibitions. See foodatwharepuke.co.nz

18. VISIT: ST JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH Up the hill from Kerikeri Mission Station (see above) is this church, built in 1829 on the site of what’s thought to be the location of New Zealand’s first European place of worship. A modest yet charming affair, the existing whitewashed timber and red-roofed church dates to 1878. One of its most appealing features is its stained glass windows depicting unusual scenes such as ANZAC soldiers standing to attention. Near to the church is a historical walk that includes a site from which Maori war parties once departed. See stjameskk.org.nz

19.  STAY: THE LODGE AT KAURI CLIFFS The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs is the Bay of Islands most exclusive and by far most expensive accommodation. One of New Zealand’s famed luxury lodges, Kauri Cliffs features an 18-hole championship golf course that was once a 2500-hectare sheep and cattle property. The main house, featuring what is probably the best restaurant (sorry, house-guests only), delivers unrivalled views of the Bay of Islands. See kauriclifffs.com

20. EAT: HONEY HOUSE CAFE If there weren’t enough reasons to visit the aforementioned Kerikeri Mission Station then this delightful cafe offers yet another. Named after an actual honey house and beehives at the stations, you can tuck into breakfast or lunch, or just nurse a caffe latte, from both in- and outdoor tables with views of the lush green lawns, the river and resident ducks and geese. See heritage.org.nz

*Traveller top choices

Anthony Dennis travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand (newzealand.com), Air New Zealand (airnewzealand.com.au) and the Lodge at Kauri Cliffs (kauricliffs.com).

The story The New Zealand Bay of Islands travel guide: 20 highlights first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.