Bay of Islands

With grassy walking trails buzzing with birdlife, wineries, beaches and even a dolphin or two, there is plenty to see in New Zealand’s charming Bay of Islands.

With grassy walking trails buzzing with birdlife, wineries, beaches and even a dolphin or two, there is plenty to see in New Zealand’s charming Bay of Islands.

In the 1830s, Russell, in far north New Zealand, was dubbed ‘the hellhole of the Pacific’ with Charles Darwin going so far as to describe the settlement’s inhabitants as the ‘refuse of society’. At that time, it was the Southern Hemisphere’s busiest whaling port - squalid and full of depravity. Even in his wildest dreams, Darwin could not have imagined how this godless town would evolve.

Today, instead of sailors and whalers misbehaving, this tiny town in the Bay of Islands region is a genteel treasure, where historic houses hold fast to hillsides that bow down to the sea. Not too far off, other quaint towns, including Paihia, Waitangi and Kerikeri are also worthy of a visit. These, as well as walking tours, flower shows and sailing regattas, draw crowds, as do the oysters, which you can buy fresh from the farmer for a steal.

From the waterfront’s lovingly restored Duke of Marlborough Hotel, formerly Johnny Johnston’s Grog Shop (established 1827), to the pretty little Christ Church, with its bullet wounds won in the wars of the 1840s, Russell’s past was a colourful parade of sinners and saints whose impact is still being felt today.

In 1819, it’s widely believed reverend Samuel Marsden planted the region’s first grapevines - for sacramental purposes, of course - and, thanks in part to his zeal for winemaking, the Bay of Islands is now well-known for its vineyards.

One of the best examples is Omata Estate, about five minutes’ drive from  Russell. Bruce Soland - a former golf pro turned viticulturalist - co-runs the winery and describes the region as the best place to grow grapes in the country thanks to the warm sun wafting over the vines from morning to night. Soland predicts the area’s syrah wine will become New Zealand’s finest. During summer, Omata’s cellar door is open seven days a week with discerning holidaymakers dropping in to admire the views and sample the wines. While Dean Martin croons in the background, it’s not uncommon for dolphins and whales to put on a show in the bay below.

And it’s not just people (and sea creatures) flocking here, Russell is also  home to one of New Zealand’s few urban kiwi populations, with the iconic birds thriving to such a point that complaints have been lodged with the Department of Conservation. The weka, another native bird, also flourishes in this neck of the woods.

The avian theme continues over the hill, about 1.5 kilometres away, towards picturesque Tapeka Bay. Here you’ll find Eagles Nest, an opulent lodge occupying more than 30 hectares of private coastal bush, with five sumptuous villas, three with their own helipads. The estate employs a full-time pool technician whose job is to care for the four pools and five spas. It’s the type of place Mick Jagger or Rihanna would stay, but assistant manager Kelly says, “If someone of note has stayed here and you don’t read about it in a magazine, our staff have done their job.”

For views across native bush and a handful of the bay’s 144 islands, book First Light Temple villa. There are more windows than walls and the kitchen is worthy of a celebrity chef, although you can engage one of Eagles Nest’s personal chefs if you prefer.

To counter all that luxury, the Cape Brett Track is a hearty 16-kilometre hike to a lighthouse that was first lit in 1910. The full walk takes about eight hours one way, or you can cheat and take a water taxi part of the way, making it a 2.5-hour trek. Either way, it’s a big effort, requiring more than a pair of thongs and a sarong.

If you choose the second option, take a boat to Deep Water Cove, home to some excellent diving sites. The ramble from there takes you across a pebbly beach to the start of the path, where the terrain is soft, grassy and steep. Then, within minutes, you’re drawn beneath a canopy of Manuka trees, their blossoms flying about like freshly fallen snow, while birds such as tui, kereru and fantails dart around. Take a tour to one of the many surrounding islands, such as Moturua, where you can visit archaeological sites, or the largest of all the islands, Urupukapuka, for great beaches and fishing.

Book end your exploration with a trip to Marsden Estate, about an hour’s drive west from Russell. It’s run by husband and wife team Rod and Cindy MacIvor, with Rod saying, “The best part of this job is you get to drink your mistakes.” He can’t be making too many of them, judging by the awards on the walls of the cellar door.

Order a glass of chambourcin, the perfect companion to a lunch of venison served on the terrace. You can even take a bottle home with you - a far more agreeable souvenir than aching muscles from a long walk. 

See and Do

Paihia. Fifteen minutes by ferry from Russell (or a 40-minute drive) is the town of Paihia, perfect for a day-trip as it offers waterfront dining, beautiful beaches and accommodation.

Flying Kiwi Parasail. Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of one of the world’s most beautiful bays.

Explore the islands. Camp on various islands, and enjoy snorkelling and dive trips with one of the region's many tour operators..

Paihia Farmers Market. Every Thursday afternoon on the Village Green, the Paihia Farmers Market sells outstanding produce and artisan food. 

Waitangi Treaty Grounds. New Zealand’s founding document, The Treaty of Waitangi, was signed here in 1840. Lavish grounds, views, historic buildings, an ornate carved meeting house and New Zealand’s largest ceremonial war canoe are all found here. 

Quick Facts 
Population 1.415 million
Area 1,086 km2
Time Zone GMT +12
Languages English (official)
Currency New Zealand dollar (NZD)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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