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The Bay of Islands is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations, famous for its glorious bays and beaches.
Two of its best-known settlements – Paihia and Russell – face each other across the water and make great bases for exploration on both land and sea.
No trip to the area is complete without an adventure out on the waves. At the top of the must-do list are dolphin watching (or even swimming) and a visit to the Hole in the Rock.
The last time we were in the Bay we went on a cruise with Dolphin Discoveries. Despite being late winter we lucked into some spectacularly good weather, with the harbour as flat as a pancake.
This made the dolphins very easy to spot as they swam alongside the boat and broke through the glassy surface with graceful dives and the occasional splashy frolic.
They obviously delighted in having an audience and couldn’t help but show off, to the delight and amazement of all on board.
Our cruise took us out beyond the Bay of Islands’ most easterly point, Cape Brett, where lies the rocky mass of Piercy Island, complete with a hole through its core.
A powerful swell meant we couldn’t pass though on this day, but it didn’t matter. There was plenty to see on the way there and back, and the boat crew were brilliant.
We couldn’t recommend this trip highly enough, but with 150 mainly undeveloped islands within the designated maritime park, and innumerable options and operators on hand, you could go on a different trip every day of the week.
Bookings can easily be made at Paihia, Russell and Opua.
The other must-do in the area is to visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the birthplace of New Zealand’s founding document. Highlights include the colonial-era Treaty House, the former home of James Busby where the Treaty was drafted which is now a museum.
You can also see the fabulous carvings inside the whare runanga (meeting house), and Ngatokimatawhaorua: one of the world’s largest ceremonial waka (canoe). The gardens are beautiful, too.
Local Maori guides host excellent one-hour guided tours on the hour in summer, and the on-site Waikokopu Café does a lovely lunch.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the area’s attractions, which explains the significant influx of visitors all year round.
Summer, unsurprisingly, is particularly busy, with the tourist hubs of Kerikeri, Paihia and Russell bustling and vibrant. Catering to the roving masses are numerous campsites: only Rotorua boasts more per square kilometre.
They run the gamut from back-to-basics conservation camps in bushy corners to fully serviced holiday parks with a full range of facilities.
The standard is high across the board, but at the serviced end of the spectrum it is the Bay of Islands Holiday Park where we choose to park our van.
And here’s a surprise: it’s not on the beach, but rather on the Waitangi River, which flows over the Haruru Falls a little further downstream. Paihia is just seven kilometres away.
Putting the ‘park’ into holiday park, the spacious grounds boast a veritable arboretum of tall trees, forming a sheltering canopy.
Mature and mostly exotic – such as gum and magnolia – these handsome specimens are the park’s defining feature, although the ground-level gardening is also impressive.
Thoughtfully landscaped with lovely lawns, there are interesting beds of flowers and foliage, alive with the twitter of birds.
Sites are generously sized and well arranged, so there’s barely a bad spot. The riverside terrace with a gently sloping hill behind make for particularly pleasant camping, the river babbling by in a soothing fashion.
It’s an extremely mellow spot in the late afternoon sun.
Picnic tables are dotted around, and the facilities blocks are ship shape, including the bathrooms which are amongst the most cheerful we’ve ever clapped eyes on.
The lounge/games room is tidy and comfortable, sporting a pool table, television and internet kiosk. There’s also a new barbecue area coming soon, we’re told. For outside fun, there’s a playground and trampoline, a small swimming pool, and hire-kayaks for paddling the river.
Should it rain, a couple of tourist flats and some very cute cabins are available.
The park is run by a friendly and hardworking team who keep everything ship-shape throughout the year.
Nothing is too much trouble and they’re happy to help with booking local attractions from the office shop, that also sells newspapers, ice and a few edibles.
If you want to see what happens to the Waitangi River once it passes the holiday park, don’t miss the dramatic Haruru Falls.
Only a couple of minutes’ drive away, they are clearly signposted and an easy detour off the main road. Sometimes a gentle cascade and at others a thunderous torrent, they are a mesmerising sight.
From the falls you can walk to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds (four to five hours return) on a well-graded track that snakes along the riverbank before crossing the estuary on a boardwalk, cutting through dense mangrove swamp.
These hardy plants play host to a wide variety of estuarine life including several species of wading bird, so keep your eyes peeled and ears open.
New Zealand is blessed with many wonderful seaside holiday spots, but few boast the sheer beauty, rich history, and array of attractions as the Bay of Islands.
Bay of Islands Holiday Park, 678 Puketona Park, Paihia
Destination Northland official tourism website – www.northlandnz.com
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