The Bay of Islands was my favorite part of New Zealand. Abel Tasman was a close second, but we had the best three days in Paihia, Russell, and on Urupukapuka Island.
We explored Russell and Urupukapuka Island by boat. Our first morning, we took a boat from Paihia to Russell and took a 10-minute walk to Long Beach, which we shared with 10 people and a coffee cart (hallelujah!). Every beach should have a hip coffee/food truck nearby serving something delicious.
The beach was quite flat, so even at high tide, Blythe was able to explore in the water and stand on her own (in contrast, the Hawaiian beaches tend to drop off quickly - the beaches here seem to remain shallow much farther out). After some swimming and sunning, we walked back to town to poke around and have lunch.
We were drawn into Hone’s Garden by the succulent wall, but stayed for the peaceful courtyard and the delicious food. It was early for a drink, but it would be the perfect place for early afternoon cocktails. Just around the corner is Wood2Water, with handmade surfboards, skateboards, and home goods. They offer woodworking courses, including making your owning SUP or skateboard!
The next day we took a boat to Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island. The boat drops you in Otehei Bay where there are picnic tables, a full restaurant, kayak rentals, SUP rentals, an outdoor shower (Blythe’s favorite feature), and bean bag chairs. However, the best part of the islands awaits beyond this first bay. There are a series of trails leading all over the island, including to a few swimming beaches. We first hiked to Cable Bay, where we shared the beach with just three people who had camped there the previous night and were grilling the fish they caught that morning.
Hiking to Cable Bay, and the bay itself, felt a bit surreal. The grass on the island is just so green, the sky so blue (and so big), the beach so pristine and empty. Blythe and I did a quick walk to one end of the beach and found several sea urchin shells still intact. We swam, collected shells of all colors, ate a snack, and headed to our next spot.
We were worried that we’d leave Cable Bay and wish we hadn’t, but our concern was unfounded. Sunset Bay may have been even more spectacular and we had it to ourselves save for two kayakers who stopped by for a few minutes. Sunset Bay was smaller and more of a cove. The tide was lower and there were incredible tide pools at one end filled with sea urchins, crabs, snails, oysters,mussels, and anemones. Blythe loved checking out the animals and it’s so fun that she now recognizes creatures like mussels, snails, and hermit crabs. She also marveled at the presence of an outhouse (B loves visiting bathrooms, she just doesn't always want to go to the bathroom in them) and the rope swing on the way down to the beach.
Rob and I each took turns running to see other parts of the island and we reconvened at Otehei Bay for a beer before our boat back. We didn’t want to leave; as we were having our beer, we met a couple from the Netherlands (although the husband is originally from Boston) with a 2-year-old who were camping on the island. I was so jealous and would definitely camp overnight on our next trip (Cable Bay had a shower, bathrooms, and water; Sunset Bay had water and a bathroom). We had a nice chat, exchanged email addresses, and are planning to meet them for dinner when we are in Amsterdam in May!
On the boat ride back to Paihia, we lucked out and saw a pod of dolphins! Trips to see dolphins are a popular activity in the Bay of Islands and it was magical to see them swimming alongside our boat.
We cooked our meals at home during this part of our trip (other than Hone’s Garden), and mostly spent our time exploring, swimming, and falling in love with this part of New Zealand. We flew from Wellington to Auckland, thus skipping a great deal of the North Island (or “Northland” as they say). The Bay of Islands was an easy trip from Auckland and I couldn’t recommend it more. My advice would be to stay in Russell as its much more quaint and less touristy than Paihia. Leave your car in Paihia and take the ferry to Russell (or drive around) and then just get around by boat or kayak.