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Things to do in the Bay of Islands

I love the Bay of Islands in New Zealand’s ‘winterless north’ and basing yourself in the quaint town of Russell makes for a wonderful break!

If you’re planning a long weekend, here is my quick 3 day itinerary to give you some ideas of great things to do in the Bay of Islands.

You might want to follow it exactly or just use it as an idea for a longer stay, but either way, I’m hoping it will give you a good place to start.

If you have more time and want to cover the Hokianga, Kerikeri and get right up to the top of the North Island and stand under the Cape Reinga lighthouse to see where the Tasman Sea meets the mighty Pacific Ocean, you will like my 7-day itinerary to Northland.

Northland map on New Zealand's North Island
Click this link to see driving instructions from Auckland to Russell via Matakana and the ferry from Opua across to the Russell.

Day 1 : Auckland to Russell

Driving distance: 235 km. If you don’t stop in Matakana, as I suggest below, it’d take you about 3.5 to 4 hours to drive from downtown Auckland to Russell via State Highway 1.

But I suggest breaking your trip for a lunch stop in Matakana…

1 Auckland to Matakana

Starting from Auckland, head north on SH1 and stop for lunch and a stroll through the gardens at the Sculptureum in Matakana. If today is a Saturday you might also like to spend a bit of time at the Matakana Weekend Market.

Megan at the Sculptureum
How about this for a garden sculpture!

But the Sculptureum is a bit of a hidden gem and those who love garden art will be enthralled. Not only outdoor sculptures though, you’ll also walk through the extensive art gallery of owner, Anthony Grant’s personal collection.

Plan to spend about two hours here – you’ll need it – especially if want to have lunch at the restaurant.

In fact you could even spend a night here as there are plenty of things to do within cooee of Matakana and that would break your long drive.

2 Matakana to Opua

This next stage is about 175km and will take approx 2 hours 40 minutes.

My suggestion is NOT to drive the Old Russell Road unless you a) don’t want to take the short ferry ride from Opua (you don’t need to pre book and it’s only a few dollars – $13.50 for a vehicle and $1 per foot passenger), or b) you like windy dirt roads through the bush.

To be honest you don’t save much time either way, but if you’re not a fan of the many corners and winding narrow road (half of it on dirt road), then take the main highway north to Opua.

3 Opua to Russell

The ferry from Opua runs back and forth all day leaving at about 10 minute intervals and from there you’re about a 10-minute drive to historic Russell.

Check into your hotel and enjoy a well deserved glass of wine!

Morning in Russell NZ
A peaceful morning in Russell

Where to stay in Russell

My top pick is the iconic Duke of Marlborough Hotel! I’ve stayed here three times and it’s right on the waterfront with beautifully decorated rooms of several sizes and configurations.

It has a small bar on the ground floor for a pre or post dinner libation, a large dining room with couches in front of a fireplace which spills out onto the veranda and also a function room for weddings, events, etc.

Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Russell
Sunset washes the Duke of Marlborough Hotel, Russell

Day 2 : Waitangi and Paihia

Visit Waitangi Treaty Ground

Take the ferry from Russell (a different one to the car ferry from Opua, and located just outside the Duke of Marlborough) to Paihia. This is about a 15 minute journey. Although, check the timetable as there are ferries that go directly from Russell to Waitangi.

From Paihia you can get a bus (or walk the 2.2km) to the impressive Waitangi Treaty grounds.

You should allow at least two hours here as the grounds as expansive and if you want to explore the two museums, the Treaty House (or Busby House, named after James Busby who drafted the Treaty on behalf of the British Crown), and enjoy a Maori cultural performance in the marae, you’ll need it. And that’s before you get to the gift shop and cafe!

Flag pole on Waitangi Treaty grounds
Take your time to stroll the Waitangi Treaty grounds
Being welcomed into the Waitangi marae for the Maori culturel show
Being welcomed into the Waitangi marae for the cultural show
Maori carving inside the Waitangi marae
Inside the marae on the Waitangi grounds
Maori cultural performance in the Waitangi marae
Enjoy a fun and fascinating Maori cultural performance in the Waitangi marae

Hang out in Paihia

Paihia is like Russell’s big city sister. She’s bigger with more shops and hotels and restaurants and bars, and she can be loud and busy in the holidays, but she’s still a small town compared to Auckland or Wellington with a population of only 1500.

Have fun browsing the boutiques and souvenir stores, grab an ice cream, sit on the beach or take one of the boat tours from the wharf.

Take a Bay of Islands cruise

There are several cruises that leave from Paihia (some come over to Russell to collect passengers, so check when you book to save you coming over to Paihia).

Depending on the season and any other restrictions, you can take several Fullers Greatsights cruises a Dolphin Cruise, a Hole in the Rock cruise, the Cream Trip cruise which hops around the islands delivering mail, or just go out to one of the 144 islands with a picnic and a book. I especially love the trip to Urupukapuka Island which has a cafe. (Check it’s open before you book).

Dinner in Paihia

As I mentioned, there are several restaurants in Paihia but I love Charlotte’s Kitchen on the wharf. It has sensational sunset views sitting literally over the water and a menu that will suit everyone.

Then just take the ferry back across to Russell when you’re ready. They leave about twice an hour.

Paihia Wharf
Paihia Wharf where you’ll find Charlotte’s Kitchen

Day 3 : Russell

Today is the day to hang out and explore Russell. This teeny town (population 750) was once the capital of New Zealand and was also known as the Hellhole of the Pacific!

It’s hard to imagine these days when you look out at the pristine bay with waves gently lapping the shoreline, that the Duke of Marlborough Hotel used to serve the whalers and sailors and the women who would ply their trade of an evening. In fact the Duke proudly use the tagline: Refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827 – nearly 200 years!

Russell NZ map
It’s about a 5 minute walk from the Duke to Pompallier Mission

Take yourself on a walking tour along the waterfront down to Pompallier Mission and Printery. It would pay to book ahead (or get the concierge to do it for you) so you can get onto a tour of the old printing press which printed the first leather bound, hand stitched translations of the Bible into Maori.

The gardens are lovely and they have a cafe too with homemade goodies. You can also buy a package that includes a tour and afternoon tea in the garden.

Pompallier Mission and Printery, Russell
Pompallier Mission and Printery, Russell

Then stroll back a block and pop into the Russell Museum (it’s closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and see and hear the stories of Kororāreka (the Maori name for Russell). Adults $10, children $5. You’ll learn a lot of interesting facts and tales to test each other out on over dinner!

Just over the road you’ll the iconic wooden Christ Church. The oldest church in New Zealand, built in 1835, and it still has musket holes in the walls. Services are at 10.30am Sundays, but it is open every day to pop in for a look and wander through the cemetery reading the names of the many who are buried here.

Christ Church and cemetery Russell
Christ Church, the oldest church in New Zealand

There is really only one main street, so after you’ve finished with the church and the museum, browse the shops on your way back to the hotel. You’ll find boutique clothing stores, art galleries and souvenir shops as well as cafes and restaurants.

Caravan boutique, Russell
I might have splashed some cash at Caravan, a sweet Russell boutique

If you’re feeling energetic, take a walk up Flagstaff Hill to see the outstanding views across the bay of islands back to Waitangi and Paihia. It’s up here that Hone Heke famously chopped down the flag pole

Dinner in Russell

There are plenty of places to choose from, including the restaurant at the Duke, but if it’s a lovely evening, head to Hone’s Garden. It’s an outdoor wood-fired pizza and fish n chip restaurant with tables under trees and on the veranda. It’s very casual, you order and pay at the counter, but I like the vibe.

Sitting outdoors at Hone's Garden Russell
Sitting outdoors at Hone’s Garden

For something a bit more fancy, try The Gables – New Zealand’s oldest restaurant. It’s been here on the waterfront, just along from the Duke, since 1847. It’s more of a fine dining experience and a real treat with beautiful sea views.

The Gables, Russell
The Gables is located on the Russell waterfront

Bay of Islands weather

When deciding when is the best time to visit the Bay of Islands, you’ll want to know the weather conditions. The good news is that this region isn’t called the ‘winterless north’ for nothing!

In fact the Bay of Islands is sub tropical. That means you can pretty much get out on the water year round. Ok, so you might not be swimming in the winter (June to September) but can you easily go fishing or exploring.

The peak time to visit the Bay of Islands is summer (January/February) where temperatures can be in the mid to high 20’s˚C (high 80’s˚F). But peak time means peak prices and peak number of tourists!

The winter lows are never too low. Think around 16˚C (60˚F) during the day down to about 7˚C overnight. Bring an umbrella though, it IS sub tropical up here.

My pick for the best time to visit the Bay of Islands is March/April or October to December. The weather is really pleasant (bar some rainy days I guess) and the numbers are less.

Sun setting over Paihia
Sun setting over Paihia

I’d love you to join one of my NZ tours! Check out these itineraries for 2021 with more being planned.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!