Bay of Islands is (as the name suggests) a Bay containing 144 small islands which lays off the far northern point of New Zealand. As well as being a spectacularly beautiful place to visit it is also steeped in both Maori and Colonial history. Captain Cook charted these islands when he sailed around them in 1769.
Waitangi is also the place where over 500 Maori chiefs met with representatives of the British crown in 1840 to sign over rights to the land when the Waitangi Treaty was signed on the 6th February. The date of which is still ceremonially celebrated with a national holiday every year.
I have been fortunate to visit Bay of Islands twice now, both via cruise ships and I have to say that it is most definitely a place which I want to return to and actually stay for longer so that I can explore the area in more depth.
The Bay has an abundance of dolphins so if you are coming in by ship then keep a watchful eye open both sailing in and out of the bay as there is a good chance that the local dolphins will appear close by.
The port of Waitangi is a port where you will have to tender ashore. I was told by a tour operator than many people who haven’t booked directly with the cruise line for their excursions often miss trips because they haven’t left enough time to tender ashore. The tender itself takes between 10-15 minutes, this will take you the Pier at Waitangi but many of the boat trips will leave from Paihai for which you will also need to take a shuttle bus which is another 5-6 minutes.
In Paihai you will find an array of small shops, restaurants and market stalls, there is also a tour office where you can book your own day trips once ashore, obviously subject to availability, or you can take a Ferry over to neighbouring Russell. (The first permanent european settlement).
You will find that there is an array of shore excursions on offer if Bay of Islands is included within your cruise itinerary, but likewise if you decide to have a day in port then you will find plenty to occupy you as well.
Personally I would recommend that if you are visiting the Bay for the first time then you actually take a boat trip around the islands as they truly have to been seen to be believed. The boat operators also know where and when to locate the dolphins and I have to say that when we took this trip a year ago it was one of the best shore excursions I have ever done. You may also have the opportunity to go out that little bit further to see the ‘hole in the rock’ and if the seas are favourable you may actually be able to sail right through the hole. On the day we did this trip in 2019 whilst visiting via Royal Caribbeans ‘Ovation of the season the waters did get a little choppy once we left the shelter of the islands and for safety reasons they didn’t attempt to get the boat through the hole. Our video of our Bay of the Islands dolphin watching trip can be seen here
This year we were fortunate enough to return to Bay of Islands again, this time on a much smaller ship, Holland America Line’s MS Maasdam. Being a smaller ship naturally means that tendering ashore is easier but as I had booked our excursions through the cruise line then there is no worry whatsoever about not getting ashore in time.
Having had such an incredible excursion last year and being absolutely potty about dolphins it was tempting to do the same trip again, however as I want my son to connect with nature on land as well as the sea and have the broadest possible experience we opted for something different.
This time we boarded the coach at Waitangi Pier and made the 30 minute journey out to Puketi Forest. Here we had a guided tour around the forest, with the highlight being the giant Kurai trees, some of which are over 1000 years old. It was a very wet walk as the rain fell heavily, but seeing as much of New Zealand is suffering a severe drought, no one could begrudge the much needed rainfall. Our forest guide was clearly very knowledgable, but sadly half the group couldn’t actually hear here!
After a short stop in the town of Kawakawa for a snack stop and an opportunity to use their famous toilets (yes really), we were back on the bus and heading towards part 2 of the excursion the Kawiti Caves.
The Kawiti Caves are still privately owned and run by a local maori tribe and are beautifully preserves in their natural state. Their is no gift shop or commercialism, there is not even electric lighting inside the cave – visitors are handed a few lamps to share between the group and that is it. Photographs only permitted just inside the mouth of the cave, once inside then it is considered sacred and the maori guides ask no further photographs are taken.
Once inside the caves you have the opportunity to walk through the limestone tunnels and marvel at the stalactites and stalagmites, before all lanterns are switched off and above you appears a ‘milky way’ of glow worms twinkling in the darkness, as the guide explains in detail their life cycles, feeding and reproduction process.
Even if cameras had been permitted in the caves there are none which would have captured the true beauty and atmosphere within the caves. It was truly magnificent.
I have been in a few caves throughout the world and for general tourist caves these were the darkest and narrowest I have ever had to navigate and there at boardwalks and wooden steps to navigate before you get to the glow-worm rooms. It is definitely worth the effort but if you have mobility problems or suffer with claustrophobia then these caves may not be for you!
Once we departed the caves, it was a 30 minute scenic drive back to the ship, with about an hour to spare to look around the shops & market in Paihia or for those who wishes to go straight back to the ship the coach took us right back to the tenders.
A very enjoyable day out (even with the rain!)
Bay of Islands remains one of my favourite cruise ports. The only problem is, there is SO much to see and do in and around the area that one day just isn’t enough!