Bay of Islands (Photo:DmitrySerbin/Shutterstock)
4.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Bay of Islands

Bay of Islands: Blame 18th-century explorer James Cook for the understated name. He stumbled into this little piece of heaven in 1769, but perhaps his choice wasn't such a no-brainer, after all.

The bay has an astonishing 144 islands that pop up like welcoming party favours as you pass through the channel to reach the tendering spot off Waitangi.

Their profusion is more understandable when you learn that these bays and inlets are actually 'drowned' valleys, and the islands are peaks of what were the highest 'hills.'

On shore, it's hard not to feel like you're eavesdropping on what it is like to actually live here. Everything from the locals lined up at the wharf, eager to answer questions, to the free shuttle bus into town (driven by another local) and the genuine helpfulness in shops and cafes, makes you want to stay -- or come back and move in. Visitors say, 'I want to buy that island', or 'what's it like in winter here?'(Answer to the second one: They call this place the 'winterless north', where it can sometimes reach 25 Celsius, or 77 Fahrenheit, in July!)

The Bay of Islands' three main towns are not large, yet quite different. Village-like Paihia is the one most people reach first and has all the accoutrements needed: banks, shops, cafes and information centre. It's the jumping-off point for Russell, a 15-minute ferry ride away.

Historic Russell was once the bad 'un of the area, Long ago it was called the 'hell-hole of the Pacific'. Ask a local, they'll love to tell you about it. Today it's hard to imagine that early era, because now it is sleepy, relaxing, with a stay-forever feel. Kerikeri, further north, is the largest town, but has a rich cultural vein of arts and crafts (come here for pottery, art and sculptures) artisan food producers and a vineyard trail.

With so much on offer, it is hard to believe that the Bay of Islands is still relatively undiscovered. Prepare yourself for a walk-on part in paradise.

About Bay of Islands


Pro

The historical landmarks can be visited to learn about the Maori culture

Con

Secluded beaches will have to be shared with your fellow passengers

Bottom Line

A wonderful day out exploring islands or the indigenous history


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Where You're Docked

Ships moor off Waitangi and there is an approximately 20-minute tender trip to Waitangi Wharf. There are no facilities there, but arrivals receive a friendly welcome from local volunteers who can answer questions about what there is to see and do and pass out maps and other information. These 'cruise ship ambassadors', fairly rare anywhere, are part of a Paihia business initiative.

Port Facilities

From Waitangi Wharf, you can stroll to the town centre of Paihia along the scenic waterfront Paihia Walk in about 25 minutes. In relatively easy walking distance in the other direction (around 15 minutes, with a few steps to climb) you can visit the Waitangi Treaty House (see below).

Good to Know

If you choose to self-drive in the area (vehicles available from Crazy Car Hire, Paihia) those drivers used to right-hand drive should take extra care driving on the left-hand side of the road; there are a few tight and twisting turns and several one-lane bridges in the area.

Getting Around

If you don't choose to walk to Paihia, there is a complimentary local shuttle bus, with cheery commentary, which will deliver you there in a few minutes. The Waitangi Treaty House is also included on its return loop. Taxis are rare, but there is a commercial bus to Kerikeri, the area's largest town, about 30 minutes north of Paihia.

Three different passenger ferries service the area and crossings between Paihia to Russell are every 20 minutes. First ferry leaves Russell at 7 a.m. (Paihia 7.20 a.m.) and last one, October to May, is 10 p.m. (Paihia 10.30 p.m.); June to September, the last one from Russell is 7 p.m. (Paihia 7.30 p.m.). Tickets are purchased onboard, cash only (no cards).

Cruises of the bay leave from Paihia. Details from Bay of Islands i-site, Paihia (0800 363 663) or Fuller's (0800-653-339).

For those who want the best views in the area, a helicopter is the way to go. Salt Air (0800 472 582) takes off and lands next to the Paihia Information Centre at the wharf.

The Paihia Information Centre is open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Seasonal hours apply for extended closing times up to 6 p.m. /7 p.m. Public holidays vary, ring the centre (0800-363-663) for time.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The local currency is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD), which has 10, 20 and 50 cent coins, and gold one- and two-dollar coins. Banknotes are coloured and come as $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. Take time to look at the beautiful artwork on them, featuring important New Zealanders as well as local birds, flowers and scenes.

ATMs can be found in Paihia and Russell, and there's a Bureau de Change at the ASB Bank in Paihia. For current currency conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.

Language

English is the main language, although the Kiwi accent may take some getting used to. There is a vowel-shift going on, so that 'ham' becomes 'hem' and 'best' sounds more like 'bist.' Fish and chips is hugely popular in this country of pristine waters richly endowed with seafood. Just be prepared to hear it pronounced like the 'u' in 'push' -- Fush'n'Chups.

Just so you know, many New Zealanders (who don't at all mind being called Kiwis, even though it is their national bird) think the accents of other English-speakers are pretty hilarious too. Be prepared for some gentle ribbing and invitations to say 'six', which sounds (to them) like ... well, you can guess!

Food and Drink

Dining in New Zealand is wonderful. Not only is the produce fresh and abundant, and the wine of the highest quality, but the chefs are switched-on and inventive.

If you see the local Orongo Bay oysters on a menu in season, do try them as they are superb. There are several oyster farmers in the area. At the Kerikeri farmers' market on Sunday morning, make sure you sample the mussel fritters, which may also turn up at some cafe or restaurant menus around the place.

There are so many places to try, and such a short visit, but you could choose from these:

Russell: There is a range of dining options along the main waterfront street, The Strand, ranging from cafes and fish and chip shops to the stylish Duke of Marlborough Hotel, established in 1827, near the ferry wharf. If the weather is chilly, there is a roaring fire inside. On warmer days, the sunny terrace overlooking the bay is ideal. Here, you'll find comfort food at its best (think slow-cooked lamb or seafood chowder), with service to match. Try the kingfish tartare for a special treat. (09-403-7831)

Paihia: Overwater 35 degrees South, stands out at the jetty with its circular shape and long dining deck with stupendous views. Those who dine here remark on the unbelievably fresh seafood. Little wonder as the aquarium is refreshed daily from local boats. Do try the shared fish platter. (09-402-6220)

If time doesn't allow, there are other cafes and takeaway shops in the main street. If you order fish and chips make sure you ask for some kumara chips, a NZ specialty.

Waitangi: The Waitangi Restaurant at Copthorne Hotel, adjacent to where the tenders come in at the wharf, has views across pools to the bay. Open for breakfast and dinner daily, you can expect to find local oysters and seafood and other fresh produce on the menu with a la carte and buffet options. (09-402-7411)

Kerikeri: In the Far North, the word is that Marsden Estate restaurant and winery is the best. If you want to try several dishes, the shared plates will work well for you. Expect to see unfamiliar ingredients as the chef loves to show off the local produce, such as 'tuatua and kumara fritter with Kaitaia fire mayo watercress and kawakawa dressing.' The winery is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. August through May and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June through July. The restaurant serves lunch daily. (09-407-9398)

Shopping

Overall, New Zealand souvenirs are innovative and stylish -- the 'Scandinavia of the Pacific' -- with clean economical lines and skilled craftsmanship.

You'll find souvenir shops in Paihia and Kerikeri, as well as local markets. Watch out for wood carvings, often with traditional Maori motifs as well as articles made from the local iridescent mother-of-pearl paua shell. It is equally beautiful in pendants or earrings as it is for a key fob or cutlery handles. If your home country allows its import, why not buy some locally made New Zealand cheese and pair it with a paui shell-handled cheese knife and a cheeseboard made from kauri, a beautiful and highly regarded local timber?