Things to do in Paihia | The gateway to the Bay of Islands

The Bay of Islands, located about 200km north of Auckland in the Far North District is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful spots. No wonder many locals venture here every year as their summer holiday destination! But surprisingly, even though it gets some of the best weather in all of New Zealand, overseas travellers will tend to venture south from Auckland rather than north. We get it – a 3 hour trip seems a long way to head but we think the Bay of Islands needs to firmly be near the top of your New Zealand North Island itinerary! Why? Well, we’ll try to convince you by looking at the crown of the Bay of Islands, Paihia, with our top 10 things to do in Paihia itinerary!

How to get to Paihia

By car

Head out of Auckland northwards on State Highway 1, and the drive should take you around 3 hours non-stop. It’s worth noting that there is a toll to pay on the drive, the Northern Gateway Toll Road, which will cost you $2.40 NZD (1.50 USD/1.20 GBP). Ensure that you pay the toll within 5 days so you don’t end up with a fine!

If you’re looking for a good place to take a break (although a very slight detour) check out Langs Beach. It’s around a 10 minute drive from Waipu – which handily is halfway on the drive to Paihia – and we had such delicious fruit ice-cream on the beach there.

Ice cream at Langs Beach

Don’t forget to check out the best car rental rates with RentalCars if you need to hire a car.

By bus

Intercity have several coach trips each day heading from Auckland to Paihia, the journey takes around 4 hours – check out the prices and options here.

Top 10 things to do in Paihia

  1. Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds
  2. Explore the beautiful Haruru Falls
  3. Visit the famous Hole in the Rock
  4. Hike across Urupukapuka Island
  5. Take the ferry over to Russel
  6. A day trip to Cape Reinga
  7. Get lost in the Waipoua Forest
  8. Relax at Paihia Wharf
  9. Check out the Rainbow Falls
  10. Take a scenic helicopter flight

Where to stay in Paihia

There are some really wonderful holiday rentals, hotels and hostels to check out in Paihia – although make sure that you book early if you are planning to visit Paihia in the busy summer period over late December or early January. Here are some of our top recommendations of accommodation:

Budget: There are a few good hostels in town but our vote goes to the Mousetrap Backpackers. A family-run affair there is a tennis court, free bicycles, free wifi and even a weekly free barbeque session!

Mid-range: While it’s called a backpackers, Seabeds Backpackers is not really that. If anything, we’d call it a great premium apartment complex, with a wonderfully kind owner! Offering a mix of rooms – from a basic ‘dorm’ to a fully-equipped apartment, the property is literally a stone’s throw from the water and conveniently located near a supermarket, the wharf and heaps of restaurants. We particularly loved the large communal kitchen which almost looks like it belongs in a high-end décor magazine!

Luxury: With sweeping views of the Paihia beach and ocean, and a gorgeous pool (and hot pools), the Paihia Beach Resort and Spa is a wonderful choice for your stay in Paihia. Super comfy beds and great breakfast round out this ideal property.

Visit the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

Its been named the birthplace of New Zealand, and so a particularly historic landmark that you definitely should visit if you want to understand what has shaped the history of Aotearoa a little better.

Essentially Waitangi is where the British and the Maori chiefs signed a treaty (Te Tiriti o Waitangi) to make New Zealand a British colony in 1840. The treaty is seen as the founding document of New Zealand as it’s currently known and is actually celebrated each year with an ‘Independence Day’ type celebration, called Waitangi Day.

The grounds are massive – 1000 acres – and has quite a lot to see. You can visit the historic Treaty House, check out the intricately carved Maori meeting house, the Museum of Waitingi Te Kongahu and see the ‘waka’, the world’s largest single-hulled canoe. There is also a flagstaff that marks the exact signing spot, plus a carving studio and of course a gift shop and café, if you’re in the mood for a coffee after all that walking.

You’ll need to get a Day Pass (which is actually valid for two consecutive days) which includes an amazing guided tour of about an hour, a Maori performance and entry into all the attractions as well as the bush walks available on the estate. The pass costs 50 NZD (33 USD / 25.40 GBP) for adults, 25 NZD (16.50 USD / 12.70 GBP) for New Zealand residents. And as it’s free for children (as long as accompanied by an adult) we think it’s one of the best things to do in Northland with kids.

Location: Tau Henare Drive, Waitangi 0293, New Zealand

Open: 9.00am – 5.00pm daily

Explore the beautiful Haruru Falls

Only a ten minute drive from the Treaty Grounds is the amazing Haruru Falls. Actually, if you’re feeling pretty fit, you could do a walking trail from the grounds to the waterfall taking about 90 minutes (6km) which runs through native bush and has a lovely boardwalk through mangroves as part of it.

Either way, Haruru Falls is worth a stop. Meaning ‘big noise’ in Maori, the waterfall might not be the most impressive we have ever seen but it is still pretty cool. It also boasts a lot of history as the lagoon was New Zealand’s first river port!

Photo courtesy of Peter Harrison / Flickr

Our suggestion for visiting, however, is to kayak it! You can book a two hour kayaking trip which leads you right underneath the falls itself, for a quick shower to cool off after exerting yourself! Check it out here.

Visit the famous Hole in the Rock

We’ll talk about other cruise options in our next recommendation but, for now, you just have to consider doing the 3 hour cruise to see the renowned Hole in the Rock.

The best way to do it is by booking a dolphin watching cruise, which not only takes you past some of the key sights in the Bay of Islands but also gives you the chance to see these playful porpoises in action.

The journey usually includes a trip along the Rakaumangamanga peninsula to Cape Brett, where you’ll see the famous lighthouse towering over you, and then to Motukokako (Piercy Island) which is more popularly known as ‘The Hole in the Rock’.

According to Maori culture, warriors used to paddle through the hole on their way to battle, hoping for a droplet of water to fall upon them, as a good omen for their impending skirmish. If the waters are calm enough, the boat might even be able to sail through and you can jockey for your chance to get dripped on!

Insider tip: It’s very important that if you want to see the dolphins up close, you book a dolphin-friendly tour like the Fullers Great Sights Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise. Only accredited boats are able to approach dolphins so if you book a standard trip, even if you see dolphins from afar, your skipper will not be able to divert course for you to see them in closer quarters.

Hike across Urupukapuka Island

Now this is a must-do if you’re in the Bay of Islands! As the name suggests, the bay includes over 140 islands, and there are a few that are definitely worth a visit. We did a day trip on the Bays and Beaches tour, which includes a stop at Roberton Island (Motuarohia) to see where explorer James Cook first landed and climbed up to see the islands before him (it’s well worth the hike for one of the best views in New Zealand).

You’re then able to get a drop off on one side of Urupukapuka Island, which is the largest island in the bay. Here you can take one of a few different walking trails to end up at Otehei Bay, where you can reward yourself with a cold drink or a delicious lunch (we can definitely attest that the fish and chips there was really delish!). The shortest trail from one side of the island to the other is two hours although if you’re speedy, 90 minutes is entirely possible.

If you’re not keen on such a long hike you can just get a ferry out to Otehei Bay from Paihia and do one of the shorter walks like the Otehei Bay Loop (20 minutes) or the Cable Bay Loop (1 hour) but regardless of the route you choose you’ll see stunning scenery and hopefully a few local birds like the paradise duck and the oyster catcher.

Take the ferry over to Russell

Did you know that Russell used to be New Zealand’s capital? This quaint little town used to be known as the ‘hellhole of the Pacific’ but nowadays is a gorgeous place to visit with a fantastic waterfront promenade, amazing beaches and a few hiking trails if you’re up for a walk.

The ferry is pretty affordable costing about 12 NZD (8 USD / 6 GBP) for a one-way trip; pretty good value particularly if you time your return for sunset and get orange and pink-streaked skies for the fraction of the price of a proper tour. Find the ferry timetable here.

Our pick of things to do is to simply relax at the Duke of Marlborough, the oldest pub in New Zealand, but there is heaps to do in this seaside village. You might notice in this article that we are fish and chips aficionados and the Duke does a mean plate of Kiwi’s finest ‘fesh and chups’, cooked in a crispy beer batter with chips and an apple coleslaw.

You can get your history fix at the Pompallier Mission, a museum which showcases printing and bookbinding, or check out Christ Church, the oldest church in the country. Stroll through the art galleries, head out to Long Beach or try one of the various hiking routes. The most popular is the Maiki Hill walk (Flag Staff Hill) which overlooks Russell with panoramic views, or the Tapeka Point walk.

A day trip to Cape Reinga

Now if we’re honest, you should dedicate more than just a day trip to Cape Reinga. It’s a three hour drive one way so a day tour out there means you’ll need to skimp on activities, or have a very long day out.

Either way, you should try to squeeze Cape Reinga into your itinerary.

It’s where the two oceans meet – the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and offers the awesome sight of the tides merging together, known to the Maori as the meeting of ‘the sea of Rehua’ with ‘the sea of Whitirea’ essentially the male and female ocean intertwining.

It’s also of great spiritual importance to the Maori people as the spirits of the dead are rumoured to travel to Cape Reinga on their way to the afterlife, as signified in an 800 year old pohutukawa tree at the northernmost point.

The best way to do the day trip is undoubtedly on a tour so you can focus on enjoying yourself rather than racing between the key spots – we suggest this one from Get your Guide which includes a cool Dune Rider vehicle!

Either way, there are a few items to check off your list. Firstly, a stop at Kauri Unearthed, where you can take in a 45,000 year old Kauri-carved staircase; the world’s ‘oldest workable wood’.

Then, a drive along Ninety Mile beach (90 Mile Beach) which, contrary to the name, is an 88 mile stretch of sand which has epic views of the North coast. You can also try your hand at sandboarding in nearby Te Paki dunes if you’re looking for a bit more pulse-racing action.

Your last stop should definitely be the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, near the northernmost tip of New Zealand where you not only see an iconic landmark in New Zealand but see those tides from the two oceans jostling for space.

Get lost in the Waipoua Forest

About two hours from Paihia is the largest tract of native forest in the Northland, the Waipoua Forest.

What makes this forest so famous? Well it is home to two of the world’s largest living kauri trees, which are really something to see!

The Tane Mahuta, also known as the ‘Lord of the Forest’ is over 2,000 years old and 4.4 metres wide while the Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest) is apparently between 2, 500 and 3,000 years old. It’s a relatively easy walk to these two – they have raised wooden walkways – and you can hire a local guide if you want some more information on the heritage of the forest.

One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll be asked to clean and disinfect your shoes when you arrive to stop the spread of the Kauri Die back disease.

Waipoua Forest near Paihia, New Zealand

Photo credit: itravelNZ / Flickr

Relax at Paihia Wharf

It’s really the jumping off point for the plethora of fantastic boat tours out of Paihia, but the wharf offers a bit more than just cruises. You can book water activities kayaking or paddle-boarding or just take in the views.

Our pick is to indulge in some lunch or a glass of wine at Charlotte’s Kitchen, a high-end eatery perched on the wharf itself and looking out across the stunning, glassy waters of the Bay.

Alternatively, if you’re on a tighter budget then head to Vinnie’s for traditional fish and chips, which you can then defend from the very assertive seagulls as you sit on the wharf and get those views for free.

Photo courtesy of Centophobia / Flickr

Check out the Rainbow Falls

If you aren’t bowled over by Haruru Falls, you’ll definitely want to make like TLC and chase the Rainbow Waterfalls. This 27m ‘block’ (rectangular) waterfall is only a 30 minute drive from central Paihia.

From the car park its only a 5 minute easy walk to the base of the falls but even if you didn’t want to make the quick walk down, there are two lookouts near the top which are probably about a minute away from the parking lot!

As with Harura Falls, there is a longer walking track if you’re keen on a bit of tramping. That is a 3.5km track which takes about 90 minutes and leads you from the falls to the Kerikeri basin where you can see some of the heritage buildings of that town, including the Stone House. Mission House and St James’ Church. You’ll be rewarded with some beautiful native plans as well as kauri trees.

Location: Kerikeri 0295, New Zealand

Photo courtesy of Steve Shattuck / Flickr

Take a scenic helicopter flight

The Bay of Islands is absolutely spectacular from every angle but there is really nothing that compares to it from the air. Our suggestion? If you have the dosh, book a helicopter flight out of Paihia.

You’ll see the rugged Northland in all its glory, seeing the Bay, the Hole in the Rock, Cape Reinga and Great Exhibition Bay which boasts lilywhite silica sand and crystal clear water like we’ve only see in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands before.

The trip isn’t cheap but if you book a combo (450 NZD / 297 USD / 228 GBP) then you can also include some land activities like a visit to the lighthouse, sandboarding and a stop at Tapotupotu Bay beach for a quick dip in the ocean.

Want to book a sightseeing flight? Check out the options here.

Photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan / Flickr

More things to do in Paihia

We listed our favourite ten activities above but, of course, there are far more things to do in the Bay of Islands and particularly Paihia. A few more ideas:

  • Do the famous ‘Cream Trip’ cruise following the route that used to deliver mail and supplies to the island dwellers
  • Check out the Farmer’s Markets on Thursdays. It takes place from 1-4pm on the Village Green.
  • Try the famous Kapiti ice-cream at Cellinis!
  • Hire a jet ski from Tangos and explore the bay
  • Go mountain biking at the Waitangi Mountain Bike Park and the Twin Coast Cycle Rail Trail
  • Try to catch some snapper with a fishing charter or excursion

Interactive Map of things to do in Paihia

When is the best time to visit Paihia and the Bay of Islands?

Generally the best time to visit the area for ‘warm weather’ is between January to March, with highs around 23 degrees Celsius. January is still relatively busy with local tourists, so February or March are probably your best bet.

What about Paihia in winter? Well, the town shuts down a lot due to weather but you’ll definitely get some great sights at the Haruru and Rainbow Falls due to the sheer amount of water!

How long do you need in Paihia?

Three days in Paihia is ideal, and will see you cover most of the main Paihia attractions. However, you could squeeze in the main sights and outdoor activities within a weekend so two days could work.

Did you enjoy our guide to Paihia in New Zealand’s north island Northland? Let us know in the comments if we forgot anything or something has changed – we rely on your feedback to ensure the info in this guide is correct!

Also, if you’re heading to the New Zealand South Island and want to check out places like Lake Tekapo, Milford Sound and Stewart Island then please check out some of our other New Zealand itineraries, including our epic guide to the drive between Christchurch and Queenstown!

What camera equipment and other gear do we use?

We’re living proof that you don’t need the most expensive gear to travel the world and take good photos. Here are some of our must have items that make it into the packing list for all our travels.

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