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Bay of Islands Cruises

About the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Once the capital of New Zealand, the charming port town of Russell, hugging the azure waters of the Bay of Islands, was the first European settlement in the country. Today, this former whaling port boasts a scenic waterfront framed by low-hanging trees and quaint colonial-era timber houses. On the shores of this seemingly remote corner of the North Island, the foundations of modern-day New Zealand were laid as the indigenous Māori and the British first agreed to documents here that would become the Treaty of Waitangi, which made the local tribes subjects of Queen Victoria. But one disgruntled Māori chief wasn’t happy with the arrangement and attacked the British fortress, burning Russell to the ground. Soon after, the capital was moved to Auckland, then to Wellington.

Today, Russell is a gateway to the magnificent Bay of Islands, encompassing more than 150 islands strewn across deep-blue waters and home to secret coves, glorious beaches, Norfolk pines and subtropical splendor.

Bay of Islands Lifestyle and Culture

Kiwis, as the people of New Zealand are known, are famously friendly and welcoming. Among them, two distinct cultures have been shaped by history: Māori and Pakeha. The Māori were the first to arrive in New Zealand around the year 1280. Wood carving, weaving and poi (a form of performance art) are central to their artistic lives; they value communal living and reliance of the land and the sea. The Pakeha people are descendants of the British who settled in New Zealand. Less community-focused than the Māori, the Pakeha hold individualism as a high standard. These Kiwis embrace both their British heritage and the cultural characteristics that make them New Zealanders, openness, warmth and love of the outdoors among them.

Bay of Islands Sights and Landmarks

Any exploration of the gracious towns surrounding the Bay of Islands begins in the elegant township of Russell. Strolling “The Strand,” its picturesque waterfront promenade, is pure pleasure for its marina views and pathways shaded by large overhanging trees. The town is also home to the oldest industrial building in New Zealand, the printhouse and tannery known as Pompallier Mission, and the nation’s oldest Anglican church, Christ Church.

Nearby, the town of Waitangi holds great historic significance for Kiwis as the nation’s birthplace. Here, Māori and British officials signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, making the Māori subjects of the Crown. After the first Māori signature was complete at the Treaty House, the document was circulated around the country for other chiefs to sign.

Inland, the largest town in Northland New Zealand, Kerikeri, is known as the “Cradle of the Nation.” Here, the first permanent mission station, well preserved to this day, was established by Samuel Marsden in 1814. Marsden purchased the land from a Māori chief in exchange for 48 axes. He later planted the nation’s first grapevines on his land.

Bay of Islands Entertainment and Activities

Head to Kerikeri to immerse yourself in its cultural, historic and natural wonders. Orchards of oranges, kiwis and avocados line the streets, and art galleries invite endless browsing. It’s an idyllic corner of the North Island for winery visits, a leisurely lunch and locally made chocolates and macadamia liqueur. Nearby, the Puketi Forest offers hiking among kauri trees along a well-marked boardwalk.

In Waitangi, visit the Treaty House where New Zealand was born. The enormous, tranquil estate on which it rests also features a large Māori war canoe and an art gallery. If you wish, continue to one of Waitangi’s most scenic coastal and mangrove vistas at Haruru Falls, a spectacular horseshoe-shaped cascade.

One of New Zealand’s most unusual attractions is in Kawakawa, once a boomtown driven by coal mining and today known for the vintage railway that runs down the main street. But the real point of interest is the Hundertwasser toilet building. This public facility, adorned in vividly hued ceramic tiles, colorful glass and vase-like columns, was designed by a local reclusive Austrian artist. A bit farther afield, the Kawati glowworm caves at Waiomio display a subterranean constellation of luminescent insects.

Bay of Islands Restaurants and Shopping

Fresh and bright, Kiwi menus take full advantage of fruits and vegetables that are in season. The British-based cuisine has been influenced by Māori, Mediterranean and Asian ingredients and techniques.

Russell’s Duke of Marlborough Hotel is the ideal spot to enjoy an upmarket meal and the outstanding vistas of Kororareka Bay from an outdoor deck. Gables Restaurant was built in 1847 upon a foundation of whale bones. Enjoy unique interpretations of Kiwi classics with sea views. If you crave pizza, head to Hone’s Garden, a lovely pebbled courtyard where wood-fired pies are the specialty.

The local marae society runs Haratu, a gallery and shop of Māori arts and crafts. Or browse the collection of jewelry, paintings and other art at South Sea Art. If your visit takes you to Paihia, stop by Enz of the Earth for all manner of curios in a peaceful garden setting.