Must do's in the Bay of Islands
The road wound endlessly through thick bush and farmland, making my big Ford work hard climbing incline after incline. I could physically feel my pocket emptying - she's not easy on the gas! However once we popped over the crest of the last hill it was all worth it, seeing the sun set in brilliant orange over the thousands of islands which give the Bay its unoriginal name.
Why had we travelled 7 hours from the little seaside town we call home, to visit another smaller seaside town? The islands, of course! The vivid blue water with colourful boats big and small bobbing on the flat surface, the picturesque views on and off the water. The small town which could be walked from end to end in minutes, boasting large ice creams, local art galleries and gift shops that all catered to the hordes of cruise ships and tourists that come in the summer months.
The locals call it their "very own slice of paradise", and it is easy to agree with them. The weather is great most of the time, the shore is sheltered from rough surf (surfers have to go hours up shore for any decent waves) and the ban on buildings over two storeys high make it a beautiful setting. Add in the happiness of the locals, the chilled vibe, and a few great food joints and they really have hit the jackpot!
So what is there to do in this little town? Well, its up to your tastes! The local tourism body have catered for everybody - ensuring that young, old, adventurers and beach bums will all be happy. Visit the local i-site and you will be so overwhelmed with brochures that you'll need a whole day just to plan your next few days activities!
But if you are after a slightly shorter list of must do's, here you go!
1. Hit the local market
The Paihia Farmers market showcases only local produce and arts and craft - but don't be fooled into thinking it will be trinkety. The stalls include a wide range of fashion and home products, crafts and artworks of a very high quality and a range of prices. It unfortunately only operates when the cruise ships are coming in, so you will want to head along in the summer months and ask the locals for the operating days. We were in Paihia for a week, and it was on for about 3 of those days. The market isn't huge so if you have longer than half an hour to burn, keep walking around into town and check out the few shops there. There's the usual souvenir shops, but if you go a little further there are some real one-off gifts and art galleries to be seen - and the killer ice cream I mentioned earlier! (The scoops were bigger than my fists).
2. The 'Discover the Bay' cruise
This cruise is one of many operated here, we chose it since it came in a deal with another adventure we wanted to do. It is also a bit more relaxed, if you want a quicker journey then book on the 'Mack Attack'. The giant catamaran named the "Dolphin Discoverer" stops off in Russell to pick up more passengers, then takes you on a very interesting and informative trip around the numerous DoC and privately owned islands. We took a top seat to ensure some good snaps (note: if it's sunny, wear more than a cardigan. The wind is still very chilly!). The tour includes dolphin viewing (if there is a pod in the bay - and if you don't see any then you will be given a free ticket to return anytime!), sailing into Jurassic-looking Cathedral Cove and through the Hole in the Rock (weather permitting), and a stop off on 'Urupukapuka Island'. This part alone was my favourite - the shell filled beach is stunning, and the 10 minute walk up a nearby hill offers 360 degree views. You can also take part in a Maori 'powhiri', a welcoming onto the nearby marae to do flax weaving and learn about maori medicine - but being a New Zealander, I've done enough of this so we chose to be beach bums instead :)
3. Take a ferry to Russell
I adore Russell. It is literally a one street town, with a lot of history and character. It was New Zealands' first port and capital, and the first European settlement. It earned the nickname "The Hell-hole of the Pacific" during the whaling era, due to the hordes of unsavoury sailors and traders running riot with little restraint. The village is largely the same as it was in the 1800s (layout and building-wise I mean - it is a lovely town now!) with many original buildings still in use. Looking further beyond the 1800's homesteads you will see the posh, million-dollar homes of the new townspeople.
What to do, what to do..? Check out our countries' first church, the intriguing 'Pompalliers House' and the original pub which is still open and doing well. The museum is small but fascinating, definitely worth half an hour to an hour of your time. Many of the buildings still have bullet and cannonball holes from its dodgy past, and if you do the 'Discover the Bay' tour before you visit then you get a really fascinating commentary about the picturesque town and all its bullet holes.
If you are an artist, you will be in high heaven in Russell. The town seems to be a magnet for artists - we visited three different galleries showcasing local and foreign work - simply amazing. Everything from predictable but still stunning beach scenes, to really unusual sculptures and jewellery. The crafts market in the old town hall is also a great stop - watch an elderly man whittle away bone and greenstone to create delicate feathers, hearts and seahorses for necklaces, and look at sea treasures encased in silver. Not a huge market, but the skills here were so different to stuff back home!
Got more time to burn? Get trussed up in vintage Victorian costumes and have a photo session - it costs between $70-$90, but the photographs on show in the little store by the docks were top quality and looked like a hell of a lot of fun to do! Or, visit a couple of the delightful waterside cafes. But beware: the prices are sky high, so if you are on a budget, eat in Paihia before ferrying across. The ferries leave every 5 minutes from the docks, and it only takes 5-10 minutes depending on which company you go with :)
3. Go for an early morning swim or kayak
If you get up early enough you can enjoy the shores by yourself or with a buddy, before holiday-goers start trying to walk off last nights' over-indulgence. We visited the Bay in March, which is getting towards the end of summer in New Zealand. The water was still plenty warm enough for swimming (don't listen to my boyfriend - he's English so isn't quite used to water that isn't lukewarm and located in the Mediterranean!). There are kayaks for hire on the beachfront, you can get great guided tours too. Check out Bay of Islands Kayaking or Coastal Kayaking for more info. A great way of starting your day fresh!
4. Visit Waitangi
This little place in the Bay of Islands has had a resounding effect on New Zealand. The treaty that was signed here in 1840 has changed and is still changing the future of our country. The agreement was between the British Crown and many Maori Chiefs, over land possession and use. Unfortunately, there was some discrepancies between the Maori and English translations, and problems are still arising from it nowadays. However, it really is fascinating how everything went down back then and the views from the grounds here look over the bay - a photographers paradise.
5. Eat, Drink & Stay
We stayed at 'Base Backpackers - The Pipi Patch' in Paihia, and I would highly recommend them. We turned up really late on our arrival date but found the receptionist behind the bar, which was in full swing. Yup, our backpackers had a bar parked right in the middle! So, if you or your travel buddies are bunker-down-at-8:30 kinda people, then this isn't the place for you. If you're up for meeting a few new people, having a communal Barbie every night (a barbeque - not the blonde plastic doll!) and really cheerful traveller staff, then stay here. Clean and tidy, plus a great info booklet filled with vouchers and other cool stuff. We loved it! (An added bonus as well - they have bases in many places throughout NZ and Australia. Check it out!
Did someone mention food? An absolute MUST is dinner at Tito's, another small bar and restaurant directly next to Base. Three words: BEST BURGER EVER. I'm a big burger fan and oh, my, gosh, it was the best darn burger I've ever eaten in my life! If you aren't into burgers, they have a great range of other delicious food for cheap, cheap, cheap! The ice-cream parlour in the middle of town has nearly every flavour under the sun - liquorice and Ferrero Rocher anybody? Mmmm.... In a waffle cone..... Mmmmm...
Spend an hour or so sitting over the water at 'Alongside Bar', which has a seating area that stretches right over the waterfront. Sit your butt down on the comfiest seats you'll have ever sat on, and enjoy an Export Citrus, I say! You might even get an impromptu performance from a couple of singers with a guitar while you relax, like we did! The worst part? Having to leave of course...