The Bay of Islands: An Overview

A few hours north of Auckland is the Bay of Islands. It’s a small area where people go to holiday, sail, swim, see dolphins, and relax. The main tourist town is Paihia, though a lot of people go to nearby Russell too. If you’ve ever been to the Cape, Martha’s Vineyard, Byron Bay, or any seaside town that relies solely on tourism and vacationers, then you’ll have a good idea as to what this area is like.

There’s not much going on in this area, so it’s an incredible place to go visit and relax. It can be very touristy, but the range of sea activities and the sense of peacefulness more than make up for it. You can spend your days lying on the beach, swimming, horseback riding, sailing, hiking, or taking a boat out to explore the bay and swim with dolphins, which seems to be the biggest draw here.

I did the Awesome NZ dolphin tour. The guides were friendly and informative, but we didn’t see a lot of dolphins, and the ones we did see were moving too fast to get any good pictures of them (like all my dolphin and whale tours). We spent a few hours trying to find bottlenose dolphins to no avail, and I tried to find something to kill my boredom. We took a break on this beautiful island where you could swim and relax, but the water here, while a beautiful turquoise green, was too cold for me. I’m spoiled by tropical water, and 20-Celsius water turns me into an icicle.

Bay of Islands NZ

Because of the lack of dolphins, there was no swimming with them. It didn’t bother me, but my friends were really keen to do it. The only thing I can’t figure out (and all the companies here seem to pull this move) is why it costs extra to swim with dolphins. These tours are about 90 NZD to start with, but dolphin swimming costs 30 NZD extra. Why? We’re all on the boat anyways, so there’s no extra work involved. Are the dolphins taking a cut? Doubt it. What if I just happen to fall in the water? Do I get charged 30 NZD too? I find no good reason to charge people to get on the boat and then extra just to go in the water with the dolphins. All the companies here pull this trick, and I think it’s just a way to get more money from tourists.

Bay of Islands New Zealand

That being said, the tour itself was cool, the staff knew their facts, and if dolphins are your thing, you’ll want to spend the money to go out and see them. Or if dolphins aren’t your thing, you can also sail, kayak, or take tours of the bay. Whatever you do, you have to get out into the bay. It’s where all the action is, even if the water is cold!

There’s not much else to say about the Bay of Islands. It’s one of those places you come to for a few days to relax. I couldn’t stay here for more than four or five days, though a lot of backpackers seem to spend weeks here. I think that has a lot to do with the available jobs here and the fact that the beer is pretty cheap. What little nightlife the town has revolves around two backpacker bars and one local bar. A lot of the locals come down to the backpacker bars because, as one said to me last night, “There’s no one anywhere else and the beer is cheaper.” (While backpacker bars can be an interesting and fun time, I would hate to know that they were my only option at night.)

Bay of Islands

The restaurants in town are pretty good, though. For the best food in paihia, I recommend four places. For good sandwiches (get the breakfast panini!), head to the Beach House. Everything is about 8 NZD, well portioned, and delicious. Plus, they have free Wi-Fi. Did I mention you should try the breakfast sandwich? For some of the best seafood in the area, go to Only Seafood. It’s located across the beach and is not a budget option. A meal here will set you back at least 50 NZD. However, it was worth every penny to go over my budget. The salmon and lightly seared tuna were mouth watering. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back there. Additionally. Jimmy Jacks has the best ribs and Charlotte’s Kitchen is an all around solid place for a casual meal. It has a fabulous view of the wharf.

The Bay of Islands is nice, and you could spend about three days here and tick off all the activities. Or you could stay longer and relax in one of the sunniest places in New Zealand.

Book Your Trip to the Bay of Islands: Logistical Tips and Tricks

Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight to the Bay of Islands by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines. Start with Momondo.

Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel in the Bay of Islands with Hostelworld. If you want to stay elsewhere, use as they consistently return the cheapest rates. (Here’s the proof.)

Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never ever go on a trip without it. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. You should too.

Need Some Gear?
Check out our resource page for the best companies to use!

Want More Information on the Bay of Islands?
Be sure to visit our robust destination guide on the Bay of Islands for even more planning tips!

Photo credits: 1, 3, 4