Gateway to Paradise: Bay of Islands, NZ
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New Zealand’s Bay of Islands is a gateway to paradise known as New Zealand. After five days at sea, we were all anxious to see and stand on land again. We had heard New Zealand was a beautiful country but were unprepared for the blend of pristine beauty, rich marine life, and charming coastal towns offering so much bounty. One of the Bay of Islands’ hidden gems is the captivating diving experience on the Canterbury wreck amidst vibrant coral reefs. I was excited to dive into this beautiful haven on such an outstanding wreck and volcanic reef.
Diving into the Deep: The Canterbury Wreck and Coral Reefs
The Bay of Islands boasts an underwater wonderland, and Roger and I were in for a treat with the opportunity to explore the historic Canterbury wreck. Submerged off Deep Water Cove, the HMNZS Canterbury, a decommissioned navy ship, has become a thriving marine ecosystem. Coral reefs adorned with a kaleidoscope of colors surround the wreck, providing a mesmerizing backdrop for an unforgettable dive. Schools of fish surrounded us as we made our way around Canterbury’s decks.
We were lucky to be hosted by Pahia Dive Company, which has shown this beautiful dive haven to divers worldwide for decades. I contacted Craig from Pahia Dive to see if he could accommodate a few of us from our ship with a slightly later start time. He graciously agreed and met us at the tender when we walked onto the land through security. Craig runs a professional and very friendly dive operation where safety is first followed by fun. It is clear to see he loves his job and his beautiful aquatic backyard.
Descending into the crystal-clear waters, we were greeted by a myriad of marine life. Schools of colorful fish danced around the sunken vessel while vibrant corals created a surreal underwater landscape. The Canterbury wreck serves as a testament to the incredible resilience of nature, transforming a once utilitarian structure into an underwater haven teeming with life. We dropped onto the middle of the ship and made our way down from the tower along the ship’s sides. We stopped to make a call from the helm’s comm phone, but alas, no one answered. The fish were plentiful, the current was mild, the visibility was about 50’, and we had a blast exploring the swim-throughs and decks of the Canterbury. We took many pictures and videos and headed up when our air began to run low, doing our safety stop before surfacing.
A Town Steeped in History: Paihia
Paihia, a charming town in the Bay of Islands, is the gateway to this aquatic paradise. This coastal gem offers a perfect blend of relaxation and adventure, making it an ideal base for exploring the region. Wander through the quaint streets adorned with boutique shops, cafes, and art galleries, all exuding a laid-back charm that defines the essence of Paihia. Bob enjoyed wandering these streets, stopping for lunch, and shopping for gifts.
Taking the included tour, Bob learned the town’s history is deeply intertwined with the arrival of European settlers and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Visitors can explore the past at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, a significant historical site that provides insight into New Zealand’s cultural heritage. The town was preparing for its holiday to celebrate the signing of the Treaty. They expected thousands of visitors from all over New Zealand and even overseas. These beautifully preserved grounds include the iconic Treaty House and the Waka (Maori war canoe), which are fascinating. We had not realized how deeply the Māori culture was ingrained into New Zealand life. However, by the time we left our last stop in New Zealand, we had learned how critical the Māori people and culture are to New Zealanders. Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of mainland New Zealand.
Sailing the Seas: Russell
A short ferry ride from Paihia transports you to Russell, a town with a rich maritime history. Once known as the “Hellhole of the Pacific” during the whaling era, Russell has evolved into a serene haven with cobblestone streets, colonial-era buildings, and a relaxed waterfront. Stroll along the historic Pompallier Mission and Russell Museum, offering glimpses into the town’s whaling and missionary past.
Several of our cruise friends embarked on a sailing adventure to Russell. Cruising through the Bay’s azure waters unveils secluded coves, hidden beaches, and breathtaking landscapes. The tour provided the chance to spot dolphins, seals, and other marine life, adding excitement to the experience. They had a chance to see some of the 144 green volcanic islands that make up the Bay of Islands.
Savoring Local Delights: Culinary Adventures
No journey is complete without savoring the local flavors, and the Bay of Islands doesn’t disappoint. Bob stopped and had lunch in Paihia, savoring his fresh fish tacos and beer. Russell also boasts various restaurants, from seafood joints offering freshly caught delights to cozy cafes serving artisanal treats. Visitors can indulge in a seafood feast complemented by views of the harbor or a sunset dinner cruise for a romantic culinary experience. Unfortunately, we would be heading to our next stop in New Zealand at sunset.
A Tapestry of Wonders in the Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands, with its pristine waters, vibrant marine life, and historic towns, was a fantastic introduction to New Zealand. Its laid-back and beautiful islands, waterfronts, and wonderful people were perfect to set the tone for our week ahead. We explored the underwater marvels of the Canterbury wreck, meandered through Paihia’s charming streets, or sailed to Russell, and can attest this corner of New Zealand is unforgettable. If you plan a trip to New Zealand, don’t miss spending several days in the beauty of the Bay of Islands, where nature, history, and maritime allure converge in perfect harmony.
Bay of Islands Excursions – A Glimpse of Paradise
Duration: 3.50 Hours
A Galaxy of Glowworms in Ancient Caverns — Stroll among ethereal glowworm lights, delicate stalactites, and stalagmites formed over thousands of years. Enjoy a scenic 30-minute motor coach ride to the Kawiti Caves, home to impressive rock formations and thousands of luminous glowworms. Formerly known as the Waitomo Caves, this series of caverns is set in a massive limestone outcrop on private property owned by descendants of Maori chieftain Kawiti. After exploring these natural wonders, you will go to the quaint town of Kawakawa. Nicknamed “Train Town” because the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway runs down the middle of its main street on the way to Opua, Kawakawa is also celebrated for its ornate public bathrooms designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, a former resident of the town. You will have some
Turquoise Waters of the Bay of Islands
Scenic Cruise to Russell and Sample New Zealand Cuisine — Enjoy scenic cruising around the Bay of Islands during this relaxing excursion across the seas. Meet your friendly crew as you climb on board your flat-bottom vessel, then sit back, relax, and soak up the views as you navigate the calm waters of the Bay of Islands. Savor a delicious New Zealand–inspired menu with a selection of meat and side dishes accompanied by refreshments. Your boat will cruise toward Okiato, with views of the picturesque Omata Estate vineyard and Kororareka Oyster Farm along the way. Stop to explore the quaint town of Russell; despite the beautiful setting it enjoys today, it was once dubbed “unsavory” by the whalers, traders, and sealers who frequented here. Stroll around the village and explore its old homesteads, historic churches, and wooden cottages. After free time at leisure, board your boat back to the wharf and your awaiting ship.
Bay of Islands Panorama
Duration: 2.50 Hours
Scenic Countryside, Historic Homes & Modern Art — View the historic Kerikeri Basin, admire Rainbow Falls, and view the ornate Hundertwasser public bathrooms. Leaving Waitangi, you will travel through the countryside past lush citrus fruit orchards and russet-colored fields to Kerikeri. Here, you will enjoy a short stop at the picturesque Kerikeri Basin, New Zealand’s most historic site and home to the country’s oldest buildings, dating back to the early 1800s: the wooden Kemp House and the stone-constructed Stone Store. You can photograph these historic buildings before a short drive takes you to the beautiful Rainbow Falls waterfall along the Kerikeri River. Your tour concludes with a scenic drive via the quaint town of Kawakawa, home to the quirky public bathrooms designed by world-famous artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. This iconic work of art even includes a living tree that grows through the center of its stalls.
Kerikeri Historic Buildings & Rainbow Falls
Duration: 3.00 Hours
A Look at New Zealand’s Pioneer Life — Step back in time to 1814, imagining the lives of pioneering British missionary
families who settled in the wilds. Your tour of Kerikeri begins with a scenic drive to the town, where settlers like Samuel Marsden and Charlotte and James Kemp accomplished many “firsts,” such as planting New Zealand’s first grapevines and citrus trees. You will see New Zealand’s oldest wooden building, Kemp House, filled with period furnishings, and the Stone Store, a weatherproof warehouse that was later a general store. Marvel at its authentic reproductions of goods from the 1820s to 1860s. Also within sight are Rewa’s Village, a reconstructed Maori fishing village, and a path leading to the fortified headquarters of Chief Hongi Hika. Enjoy morning or afternoon tea at a local venue before a short drive takes you to beautiful Rainbow Falls, which cascades into a pool on the Kerikeri River.
Traditional Maori Waka
Duration: 3.00 Hours
Paddle Through the Bay of Islands on a Cultural Expedition — Journey through the waters of the Bay of Islands with a member of the Ngapuhi tribe on this cultural experience. Meet your Maori guide, don your life jacket, and climb on board your “waka” or canoe. A member of the Ngapuhi family will serve as your guide and regale you with tales of the past as he points out significant sights and heritage landscapes along the way. Glide through stunning scenery and embrace your spiritual well-being as you paddle through tranquil waters in your 50-foot replica canoe. Listen to stories about Maori culture and traditions, learn Maori songs and chants, and keep your eyes peeled for local wildlife. After this exceptional insight into the indigenous people of New Zealand, return to your awaiting ship.
Bay of Islands, New Zealand:
A Tapestry of History, Culture, and Natural Splendor
Nestled in the northernmost part of New Zealand’s North Island, the Bay of Islands is a captivating region that seamlessly blends a rich historical tapestry with breathtaking natural beauty. Here’s a snapshot that delves into the region’s history, culture, geography, and its vibrant current-day life.
History: A Maori and European Tapestry
The Bay of Islands holds a significant place in New Zealand’s history. It was one of the first areas where European explorers, including Captain James Cook, made contact with the indigenous Maori people in the late 18th century. The region witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, a pivotal moment in New Zealand’s history that shaped its cultural and political landscape. Waitangi, located within the Bay of Islands, remains a key historical site, housing the Waitangi Treaty Grounds that tell the story of the treaty’s signing.
Culture: Maori Heritage and Maritime Traditions
Maori culture is deeply ingrained in the Bay of Islands, and visitors have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the traditions and stories of the local iwi (tribe). The region echoes with tales of ancestral voyages, cultural performances, and the intricate artistry of Maori carvings.
The maritime heritage of the Bay is also vividly celebrated. Russell, once a raucous whaling port known as the “Hellhole of the Pacific,” now showcases its colonial past with well-preserved buildings and museums. The Russell Museum provides insights into the whaling era and missionary activities that shaped the early European history of the region.
Geography: Island-Studded Paradise
True to its name, the Bay of Islands is a picturesque archipelago, adorned with over 140 subtropical islands. The region’s geography encompasses serene bays, golden beaches, and lush greenery. The iconic “Hole in the Rock” near Cape Brett is a natural marvel, a distinctive rock formation that has become a symbol of the Bay.
The crystal-clear waters are not just a visual treat; they offer opportunities for marine adventures, including sailing, fishing, and diving. The bay’s underwater world, with its coral reefs and diverse marine life, attracts enthusiasts from around the globe.
Current Day Life: Coastal Charms and Outdoor Pursuits
Today, the Bay of Islands is a magnet for those seeking a blend of relaxation and adventure. Towns like Paihia and Russell offer a laid-back coastal lifestyle, with boutique shops, waterfront cafes, and a warm community atmosphere. Residents and visitors alike indulge in outdoor pursuits, from sailing on the bay to exploring scenic walking trails.
Culinary experiences thrive in the region, with seafood being a highlight. Local markets and eateries showcase the bounties of the sea, providing a feast for both residents and tourists.
A Living Canvas of New Zealand’s Allure
In essence, the Bay of Islands is a living canvas that beautifully showcases New Zealand’s cultural diversity, historical roots, and natural allure. Whether you’re fascinated by the stories embedded in the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, drawn to the maritime charm of Russell, or eager to explore the islands and waters, the Bay of Islands invites you into a world where past and present harmoniously coexist.