Amanda Jones
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Bay of Islands - New Zealand

Written by Amanda Jones for Conde Nast Traveller

Revisiting the Elysium fields one’s youth can be a terribly misguided idea. Invariably we are appalled by any modicum of change and spend the entire trip muttering darkly about the ruination of things past.

Happily, such is not the case with New Zealand’s splendid Bay of Islands. Things have not altered much in the twenty years since I last feasted my eyes on the studded sapphire waters and fern clad shores of Northland. The sole changes appear to be the addition of upmarket lodges, several fine restaurants, and the paving of formerly deplorable dirt roads. In my day, the finest meal up north was a hamburger avec serrated beetroot, and most accommodations were dreary cinder block motels. The curmudgeon in me finds these latter day embellishments highly acceptable.

The Bay of Islands is comprised of 144 islands, three main townships, dozens of peninsulas and a labyrinth of secluded bays. Russell is the place for water aficionados; Kerikeri is a haven for artsy sophisticates; and for party-hardys, Pahia is the piece de résistance of adolescent revelry. For backpackers and hikers, all areas outside the towns are Meccas of wholesome wilderness.

Personally, I prefer a base in Russell, given the proximity to the water and the fact it now teems with genteel lodges, all with staggering views and sybaritic solitude.

These new lodges have taken the New Zealand bach concept (unkempt holiday crash pad) and greatly enhanced it. Eagles Nest is located on thirty hectares of pristine bush with 300-degree views of the water. Guests can rent any one of four dwellings—from the cozy Cottage to two Zen-inspired villas titled Sacred Space and First Light Temple, complete with gourmet kitchens, disappearing walls, and a lap pool which dissolves into the blue beyond. For those with a large group and deep pockets, try Omata Estate. An entire beachfront compound is yours, sleeping up to 12 people with your very own rock-and-timber, four-bedroom house, “staff” flat, guesthouse, croquet lawn and tennis court. If you can’t afford the tariff, then at least eat at Omata’s outstanding vineyard restaurant.

Russell itself is abundantly quaint and touts several firsts in New Zealand history. The pretty clapboard Christ’s Church is the first church, (and still sports bullet holes from the Maori wars). The Duke of Marlborough, a hotel, pub and restaurant (with terrible food), was the country’s first licensed tavern, a place where whale hunters washed up in the 1800s. Visit the Russell museum to bone up on New Zealand’s rousing history, with tales of cannibalism and defiant Maori warriors.

For some of New Zealand’s most impressive scenery, head to the Rawhiti Peninsula. Although it’s a slow, snaking road (hey, in my day it wasn’t even paved), you pass through velvet farmland, mangrove estuaries, bush ablaze with scarlet pohutukawa trees and manuka scrub. There are walking tracks aplenty (some with overnight huts at the end), and golden beaches like Oke Bay to lie upon. There’s also a marae in Rawhiti which affords a glimpse at modern rural Maori life.

If you’ve ever longed to commune with our undersea brethren, here’s your chance. From Russell or Pahia you can catch the Dolphin Discoveries boat and swim with bottlenose dolphins. You can also take the breath-sucking Excitor speedboat in Pahia to the Hole in the Rock, a natural arch which boats pass through. If you’re not an adrenaline junkie, I suggest the Cream Trip, a gentler boating introduction to the Bay of Islands.

To explore further, take the car ferry to Opua and continue to Pahia. Dally here only long enough to stock up on supplies. The town is a classic example of over-development and (in my humble opinion) is quite charmless. Head towards Waitangi, the skilled tribute to the treaty between Maori’s and Pakehas (whites), signed in 1840.  Start early, to give full justice to Waitangi you’ll need several hours and you want to be in Kerikeri for lunch.

Home to painters, writers, affluent retirees and gentlemen farmers, Kerikeri is a lively place to eat, shop and take in history. Set on a river inlet, it’s hip and sunny. Lunch at Rockets, a casual-chic café set in an orange grove, then head down the road to Bishopswood Estate to sample their exotic liqueurs, (hint: macadamia liqueur). Follow that with a trip to Makana chocolates and you’ll waddle off a satisfied sybarite.

The Stone Store on the inlet is the oldest stone building in New Zealand, and Kemp House, a gracious mission home, is the oldest wooden building. Both are now museums. Rewa’s Maori Village across the river is a reproduction of a pre-European kainga, and is a quick-fix if you missed Waitangi.

There is, of course, another way to see the Bay of Islands, and that’s by yacht. The Bay has some of the best cruising on the planet. Imagine this: You catch and barbecue your fresh snapper in a sheltered cove, swim with your very own pod of dolphins, walk through giant fern trees throbbing with the sound of cicadas, then set sail and off to another remote island. Sunsail has a large fleet of yachts, either bareboat or skippered and it’s a great option for those wanting to see the area extensively.

So it is with great glee that I can say I will be back to the Bay of Islands. Just so long as they continue to stave off McDonalds.

Getting There:

Air New Zealand flies daily.
Drive from Auckland to Opua (three-and-a-half hours) where you catch the car ferry to Russell. Ferry requires no booking, one leaves every ten minutes.

When To Go:

During February and March. The tourists are gone and the weather is best.

Where To Stay:
(all rates in NZD, per night, double occupancy. Country code for NZ is +64)


Eagles Nest: (09) 403-8333
Nightly rates from NZD $600-$2,800

Omata Estate: (09) 403-8007
Fax (09) 403-8005
NZD $400-$3,500

Orongo Bay Homestead: (09) 403-7527
fax (09) 403 7675,
a gracious estate with all organic cooking.


Sommerfields: (09) ph/fax 407-9889
a sophisticated version of a farm lodge

Sunsail New Zealand (09) 378-7900
fax (09) 378-8363
Rates from NZD$300-$1,000 per day

Where to Eat:

Russell: Kamakura restaurant is world-class food in a graceful harbour location (quite a shock for Russell).(09)403-7733; Omata Estate. (09) 403-8007.

Kerikeri: Rocket Café (09) 407-3100; Marsden Estate Restaurant is on an award-winning winery (09) 407-9398.

Things To Do:

All activities and hotels can be booked through Bay of Islands Information Centre in Pahia 09-402-7345,

Dolphin Discoveries 09-402-8234;

Excitor and the Cream Trip call Fullers 09-402-7421;

There are dozens of adventures in the Bay of Islands , including tandem skydiving, guided cultural walks, coastal kayaking, and all manner fishing. The Bay of Islands is renown for it’s deep sea fishing, especially striped marlin. The visitors centre can recommend operators, but the best known is Prime Time Charters 09-407-1299

Shopping: Kerikeri really has the most sophisticated shopping. Origins has local pottery, painting and woodwork. Living Nature, the fabulously successful natural beauty line, is headquartered here and has a shop. The Kauri Workshop takes New Zealand’s most prized wood, some as old as 30,000 years, and turns it into glorious home accessories. And don’t forget Makana’s homemade chocolates and Bishopwood Estate for those liqueurs.

Destination Northland has a comprehensive website which supplies history, and local information and maps: