Luxury Escapes Guide to the Bay of Islands

History, New Zealand's natural heritage, and oceangoing adventures combine with great local produce and cuisine in an always-popular holiday hotspot.

The Bay of Islands is a perennial holiday destination for Aucklanders, and to many New Zealanders the phrase 'let's go up north' conjures up family memories of arcing beaches warmed by the region's uniquely sub-tropical climate.

With around 150 islands scattered around the bay known to Māori as Pēwhairangi, the area is also perfect for marine adventures. During spring and summer, the wharf at Paihia is busy with boats and helicopters departing to popular destinations including historic Urupukapuka Island and the spectacular 'Hole in the Rock' at Cape Brett. Dolphins, penguins and seals are often seen, and the bay is world-renowned for big-game fishing.

The echoes of Māori and colonial migration linger in this historically significant area. The Bay was first settled by Māori during their trans-Pacific journeys around 900 years ago, and British and French arrivals in the 19th century also left their mark. The sleepy waterfront village of Okiato (or Old Russell) was New Zealand's first capital from 1840 to 1841, and across the bay at Waitangi the treaty that still underpins New Zealand law was signed in 1840. Waitangi's innovative Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi is an essential destination to understand both the past and future of Aotearoa.

Modern New Zealand is also well-represented in the Bay of Islands, especially by its diverse eating and drinking scene harnessing produce from the region's warm and sunny climate. Vineyards cooled by ocean breezes produce excellent vintages, while one of the country's best under-the-radar craft breweries is worth seeking out in Kerikeri. More recent arrivals from Israel, Japan and South America bring their own flavours to cosmopolitan cafés and restaurants, and there's also innovative fine dining with stellar ocean views.

Please note that due to current restrictions some operators may be temporarily closed. Check their websites for the most up-to-date information

Featured escape

Discover the Bay of Islands

Things to see and do

Weekend farmers' market in Kerikeri

Vendors from around Northland convene in Kerikeri for this excellent farmers' market held every Saturday and Sunday morning. Get there around 8.30am for coffee and to browse the stalls selling wine, olive oil, fruit and still-warm baking. There are usually a few food vendors offering everything from Māori-style hāngi (food cooked in an earth oven), to tasty bacon and egg sourdough sandwiches. Arts and crafts stalls are a good option for gifts, and there's always a busker singing songs you'll probably know all the words to. The market's held in a rustic former fruit-packing shed.

Wine-tasting at Omata Estate

Omata Estate's reputation is reinforced by old-growth vines used to craft highly-regarded syrah (shiraz). Pinot gris and chardonnay grapes are also harvested from Omata's hillside slopes, all with a long and even growing season courtesy of the area's gentle sea breezes. To complement tastings, the onsite Omata Kitchen serves up wood-fired pizza and platters of anti pasti and local Northland cheeses. Partner the smoked salmon, cream cheese and caper pizza with a crisp and refreshing pinot gris. Note the cellar door and restaurant are only open from late September to May.

Craft beers at Kainui Brew Co

Compared to New Zealand's bigger breweries, their output is tiny, but Kerikeri-based Kainui Brew Co have built a stellar reputation with savvy New Zealand craft beer fans. The best place to try their beers is at the Plough & Feather pub at Kerikeri Basin, or at their farmhouse brewery adjacent to the Kainui Road Vineyard. Refreshing options for a New Zealand spring or summer include the 90 Mile IPA or the Kainui Road Munich lager. Kainui's innovative brewers are also keen on crafting traditional Belgian-style and barrel-aged beers.

Discover local birdlife in Russell

Russell Nature Walks' privately owned stand of forest is a good place to see native New Zealand birdlife including the tui, a mellifluous songbird, and the flightless weka. Daytime Forest Ecology Walks usually also seek out the skittish piwakawaka (fantail) and the cave weta, the country's biggest insect. The forest is also a Kiwi Conservation Area and Night Walks combine the subtle illumination of glowworms with the opportunity to hear – and sometimes see – New Zealand's shy national bird.

Understand New Zealand history at Waitangi

Signed between 542 Māori chiefs and the British Crown in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi is modern New Zealand's founding document. Explore the expansive Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the original signing location, including Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi which showcases the historic impact of the Treaty and how it continues to inform the country's future. See the spectacular 35m waka taua (war canoe) and the detailed Māori carvings of Te Whare Rūnanga, a meeting house completed in 1940 for the Treaty's centenary. Guided tours at Waitangi Treaty Grounds leave on the hour from 10am to 4pm, and there is an onsite gift shop selling the creations of New Zealand artists.

New Zealand's oldest buildings at Kerikeri

Beside the sheltered and shaded waters of Kerikeri Basin, the Kerikeri Mission Station is an important reminder of New Zealand's 19th-century colonial history. Built in 1836, the Stone Store is the country's oldest surviving stone building. Check out the interesting museum upstairs before stocking up on quirky Kiwiana gifts and souvenirs downstairs. A short walk away, Georgian-style Kemp House was built by Anglican missionaries in 1822 and is New Zealand's oldest building. Guided tours of Kemp House depart from the Stone Store.

History and faith at Pompallier Mission

Proof it wasn't just the British seeking to influence New Zealand in the first half of the 19th-century is this historic mission established by French Catholics in 1842. Set in lovely gardens just metres from the water, the rammed-earth building is regarded as New Zealand's oldest industrial building, and more than 40,000 books were printed here over a period of seven years. Church texts were translated from Latin into Māori, then printed, bound and distributed around New Zealand. Informative guided tours take visitors through the building's interesting history and the mission's bookmaking process.

Sailing and snorkelling on the Gungha II

An alternative to the powered vessels exploring the Bay of Islands, exciting experiences on the Gungha II also offer the (entirely optional) opportunity to help sail the boat. A comfortable 65 foot sloop, the Gungha II is a purpose-built oceangoing yacht with many South Pacific adventures to Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia on her sailing CV. Look forward to a fun day combining snacking, swimming and snorkelling, with plenty of time under sail in the Bay's ocean breezes. Dolphins, penguins and plenty of pelagic birds are also regularly seen. The Gungha II operates out of Paihia from October to May.

Discover spectacular island scenery by boat

On the far eastern edge of the Bay of Islands, the spectacular cliffs of Cape Brett are a favourite destination for boat trips leaving from Paihia. Marine experiences on Explore's bright yellow vessels include commentary by onboard nature guides – dolphins, seals and occasional whales all join regular sightings of the Bay's seabirds – and if sea conditions are favourable, the boats also travel through the Hole in the Rock, a natural formation just 16m-high. Journeying back to Paihia, boats stop at historic Urupukapuka Island for lunch, sea kayaking and the chance of a swim at sheltered Otehei Bay.

Top places to eat and drink

Newport Chocolates

A short walk from the waterfront in historic Russell, Kiwi-Argentinean chocolatier Leonora Marzullo crafts artisan treats from local ingredients and sustainable fair-trade cocoa. Sophisticated flavours include fig and orange, Guinness and cranberry, and the perennially popular caramel and sea salt. Everything is made onsite, and it's also a top spot for hot chocolate during cooler months and refreshing frappes during summer. Selection boxes of up to 18 chocolates make a good gift for friends and family. Good luck not devouring them before you get home.

Māha at Wharepuke

Kerikeri's sub-tropical climate makes it easier for local farmers and orchardists to grow herbs, fruits and vegetables from warmer countries, and occasional surprises like starfruit feature on Māha's East meets West fusion menu. Popular dishes include a Thai-style warm salad of squid and spicy Isaan sausage, and grilled fish with a citrus and forest herbs risotto. The restaurant is framed by the lush vegetation of the Wharepuke Subtropical Gardens, and it's also possible to visit the adjacent Wharepuke Print Studio featuring work from New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Europe and the US.

Cafe Jerusalem

In a courtyard off Kerikeri's main street, longstanding Cafe Jerusalem is a real surprise in this quiet Bay of Islands town. Opened by Asher Danin when he moved to New Zealand from Israel in 1999, two decades later it's still one of the country's best places for Middle Eastern food. Creamy dips are piled onto warm pita bread, meze platters are ideal for sharing, and the shakshuka (baked eggs in spicy tomato sauce) is perfect for either a late breakfast or an early lunch. Israeli beer and wine are sometimes available.

Plough & Feather

Located adjacent to the historic precinct around Kerikeri Basin, the Plough & Feather enlivens a gracious colonial homestead with the easy-going vibe of a British pub. Culinary classics with a twist include seafood chowder with local mussels, free-range pork belly with kumara (sweet potato) mash, and good old fish and chips. The drinks list features Northland wines and local craft beer from Kainui Brewing. Kainui's Belgian-style saison farmhouse ales are highly regarded by New Zealand beer fans. Call ahead to book a table on the expansive wraparound veranda.

Charlotte's Kitchen

With expansive windows on three sides, Charlotte's Kitchen is the Bay of Islands’ most spectacular dining destination. A combination of bar and bistro dining, highlights of the menu include whole flounder with southeast Asian herbs, wood-fired pizza, and squid ink pasta. Views extend across the bay to Russell, and it's a good place for afternoon drinks and shared plates of steamed bao buns or pork and prawn dumplings. The eponymous Charlotte Badger was an English convict who helped pirate a transport ship off the coast of Australia and crossed the Tasman Sea to become New Zealand's first female settler in 1806.

El Cafe

South American flavours come to the Bay of Islands at this relaxed café in Paihia. The best coffee in town partners with brunch options including breakfast burritos crammed with chorizo, bacon and egg, while the huevos rancheros scrambled eggs are served with a punchy jalapeno-laced salsa. Tacos and quesadillas are recommended for a quick lunch, and fruit smoothies are refreshing during a Kiwi summer. For an on-the-go snack, order the Cuban pork sandwich and adjourn to the nearby beach.

Duke of Marlborough

The venerable 'Duke' is one of New Zealand's oldest pubs, with a sign above the door proclaiming 'refreshing rascals and reprobates since 1827'. Now the clientele is more likely to be travellers and tourists than sailors and whalers, and the eating and drinking menus are definitely more sophisticated. Secure a spot with ocean views on the outside deck and partner local oysters with a Marsden Estate chardonnay from Kerikeri, or order the slow-roasted Northland lamb and a peppery syrah (shiraz) from nearby Omata Estate.