It’s all very well for the Bay of Islands to be packed with wineries, wreck diving, sailing adventures and historic tours, but Bay of Islands activities for children under 5 require a different approach.
We’re thinking Pohutukawa-lined beaches, ferry rides, ice creams, nature walks, farmers markets and animals. The Bay of Islands has plenty of this, making it an epic destination for families with toddlers and babies – see our ideas below.
Getting out walking in lush forest is good for the soul, and young kids will love exploring a forest with an ‘enchanted’ vibe. Twenty minutes out of Kerikeri, Puketi is a massive, ancient kauri forest – one of the largest native tracts in Northland. The biodiversity is incredible, and there are even kiwi, native bats, and a small number of kokako deep inside the forest.
The Manginangina Kauri walk is a short, flat track that takes 15 minutes one way. It winds through wonderous, towering kauri trees and swamp forest. What’s more, it is all on stroller-friendly boardwalk. There are panels along the way explaining the forest ecosystem, which is great if you need facts to counter questions from any small budding biologists in the family.
If you’re well equipped with snacks (and a stroller/frontpack/backpack for toddlers when stamina runs out) we recommend the Puketi Nature Trail loop. This 1.6km track is flat and very easy walking – it’s an hour well spent immersed in nature. Here you will see a mature kauri grove, hear beautiful birdsong, and if you’re walking in the evening you might come across the glow worms.
The Old Packhouse, Kerikeri
Weekend farmers markets are guaranteed entertainment, and The Old Packhouse market is the best in the district – the vibe is lively, friendly and fun.
While adults will enjoy the coffee, baked treats, massages, fresh produce, paua fritters, flowers, art, live music and baby/kids clothing (and that’s just to name a few), the kids will love the handmade soft toys and puppets, the musicians, and the ice cream. Some weekends the market even has a bouncy castle, face painting and a petting zoo. There is plenty of shade there under the stall and the Old Packhouse Cafe itself.
The market is open 8am -1.30pm Saturdays, and 9am-1.30pm Sundays.
Rangihoua Heritage Park
This beautiful place is important New Zealand’s history: it was where Maori oversaw the first Pakeha settlement in New Zealand and incidentally was where the first Christmas Day was celebrated in New Zealand, in 1814. There’s a rip-roaring story behind the interactions between Maori and Europeans in this area, with enigmatic personalities, friendships and skulduggery – read it before you go or listen to it when you get to the park.
The park is about 40 minutes’ drive from Kerikeri, and it takes about 1 hour to walk down to the Marsden Cross and up again. However, leave more time for coaxing children, reading the information boards, and playing on the gorgeous beach and river mouth. The paths are suited to strollers, just be ready to exert yourself pushing one back up the hill. And take lots of snacks, water, sunscreen and hats!
A day at the beach
With small children, a day at the beach creates those classic family memories – and the Bay of Islands has some of the most beautiful and child-friendly beaches around.
For example, Te Tī Beach is a golden, Pohutukawa-lined beach that stretches all the way along Te Tī Bay, at the northern end of Paihia, right to the Waitangi River mouth. It is generally very calm and safe for swimming, and there is a popular playground at the end. There are parking spots right on the waterfront.
Long Beach/Oneroa is another great pick for a family day out, just over the hill from Russell. It’s a beautiful golden sandy beach that stretches about a kilometre, and you can drive right up to it on Long Beach Road. From the beach there are gorgeous views across the islands to Cape Brett peninsula. The swimming is safe and sheltered in all tides, and there are rock pools to explore at the north western end. There are a few Pohutukawa trees scattered along the beach, but do take a pop-up shelter in case it’s a busy day at the beach. Look out for the Adobe Cottage, built in the 1940s by a local woman Charlotte Larkin, with her own hands – to inspire returning servicemen to build their own.
Waitangi Mountain Bike Park
The Waitangi Mountain Bike park is a rewarding half-day out. The park is free to enter, and features 40 kilometres of professionally built tracks, including downhill riding, jump trails and beginner trails (it was designed by Jeff Carter, who built much of the Whakarewarewa Forest Mountain Bike Park and many more). One parent can rent a bike and go for a blast in the forest, while the other parent can enjoy a coffee at the café while overlooking the pump track, which is great for toddlers and pre-schoolers to burn around on their balance bikes or 3-wheelers. There are also gorgeous views out over the bay to be had from the café.
The Parrot Place
This Kerikeri bird display and breeding centre is guaranteed to entertain any animal-loving children and adults. There are about 300 birds from all over the world in residence here, with enclosures set amongst lush landscaped subtropical gardens (being outdoor, it’s recommended you visit in good weather). The birds are well taken care of and many are keen to interact, entertaining you with their cheeky antics, squawks and colourful plumage – some of them will sit on your arms and shoulders. Young children will love holding the cups of nuts or seeds available for purchase, to feed the birds as you walk through the aviaries. There’s also a play area the kids can tear around in, and a kiosk selling refreshments and ice creams.
Ferry ride between Russell and Paihia
The passenger ferry ride between Russell and Paihia is a relatively cheap and accessible way for families to get out on the water briefly – and the views are beautiful! Crossings take only 15 minutes and small children will love cruising on the water, passing the other boats in the busy channel, seeing the land from a different perspective, and arriving in a different town to explore. This 15 minutes of gentle rocking at sea might even lull a tired baby to sleep. A ferry timetable can be found here.
Daytrip to Otehei Bay
Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island is a gorgeous daytrip via ferry with little kids and babies – and on the Fullers ferry, any child under the age of 5 travels for free. The island is a predator-free reserve so the birdsong can be just glorious, and the island has a network of walking tracks all over. If you’re up for a short walk and have the baby in a backpack, head up to the lookout point. For those who just want to relax, in Otehei Bay itself there is a café and bar with beer on tap, bean bags and picnic tables outside, and beautiful grassy park-like grounds offering plenty of shade, right on the beach. The kids will love swimming at the beach and spotting snapper in the pristine clear water off the jetty.
Ice Cream Stop
Nothing brings a smile to the faces of a travelling family like a stop for ice cream – and in the Bay of Islands there’s no shortage of the good stuff! We love Blue River Orchard in Kerikeri. This family-run business grows the blueberries onsite, and they will make fresh, creamy blueberry ice cream as you watch (with coconut cream options for vegans/lactose intolerance). They also sell all sorts of other blueberry products like relishes, jams and smoothies. The kids will love the outdoor area which has a little sailboat, and beanbags under a tree.
We also love Cellini’s Gelateria and Espresso in Paihia and in Russell, where flavours like Manuka Honey & Almond, Butterscotch & Pecan, Churro, or Lemon Sorbet are sure to please – and the coffee is a delicious pick me up. Another stop, which is more a place for coffee and baked goods than for ice cream, but still worth a mention, is the Third Wheel Coffee Co in Paihia. This brand-new café is said to have the best coffee in town, lovely baristas, gorgeous baked goods and importantly, they do a mean fluffy.The Bay of Islands is well set up for adventurers of all ages and stages – and for families of young children, it’s the perfect place to create early childhood memories of beaches, ice creams, boat rides, enchanted forests and even parrots thrown in for good measure!