Bay of Islands Maritime Park
North Island, New Zealand
Hours: Open year round
Location: Near the tip of North Island, a few hours north of Auckland. The main towns in the area are Paihia, Russell and Kerikeri
Activities: Sailing, cruising, swimming with dolphins, scuba-diving, deep-sea fishing, kayaking, paragliding, horse trekking
Contact: Bay of Islands Visitor Centre, The Wharf, Marsden Road Paihia; phone +649 402 7345
Website: Bay of Islands
With almost one hundred and fifty islands dotting the bright blue waters of the bay and major competition among tour operators to provide fantastic experiences, there will be something to see or do for everyone in the Bay of Islands area. While the Maritime Park itself is free, this can be an expensive place to visit as the fun water activities start straining the credit cards. But who could resist warm water, sand beaches and green islets rising sharply from the sea – and a chance to explore in grand style?
For the best taste of the Bay, book onto a boat, whether it’s an overnight cruise or just a day sail. Many tourists opt for the simple cruise out and through Hole in the Rock, an archway at the tip of an island, but it’s worth it to take a longer trip.
What type of boat deck you admire the views from depends on how much adventure you’re looking for – and how much energy you want to expend. Leisurely sail cruise with on-board feast or high-speed jet boat zipping and plunging over the waves? Getting a few pointers as a “crewmember” on an old-fashioned tall ship, or wave-level view on a guided kayak tour? Then again, if all that makes you feel a bit queasy, or you like to see the big picture, there are scenic flights and paragliding trips that soar over the bay. There are ways to explore the Bay of Islands by land, too – hiking trails, bicycling, horse trekking (although even those have an option where you swim with the horses).
Getting cozy with the marine life means a choice between two polar opposites. Swimming with the dolphins is an attractive proposition. You may spot whales or penguins, too, but if you’re unlucky enough to miss the dolphins, most operators will offer you a chance to go out again for free. But if you like your marine life at the end of a line, sign on for a fishing charter. The Bay of Islands is home to champion-sized bluefish, marlin and swordfish; sometimes the catch is taller than the fisherman reeling it in. Charters include accommodation on board, food, tackle and bait; there’s no license required for fishing.
Staying in the park itself is a possibility, but as the islands are undeveloped, you’ll need to be well prepared to camp out. Urupukapuka Island has a Department of Conservation campsite; pay in Russell at the Visitors Centre. There are plenty of available rooms in all the nearby towns; Paihia is the larger and more touristy while Russell, a short ferry ride away, is quieter and retains its local charm. Many local hostels can get you a deal on tours, so ask at the front desk before you book anything.