New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Islands is a favourite holiday destination, but few people make it past the tourist centres of Paihia, Kerikeri and Russell. Did you know there are roughly 144 islands that give the beautiful Bay of Islands its name? The Bay of Islands is famous for beautiful beaches, native wildlife, plus some of the best scenery and weather in the world. Whether you’re looking for fishing, a remote place to explore, or a stunning spot to eat a packed lunch, you’ll find it in our list of the most amazing secret islands in the Bay of Islands.
Islands for fishing
If you love seafood, it doesn’t get any better than fishing in the Bay of Islands. While there are places around the coast where you can drop a line, these island fishing spots are only accessible by boat. So make a note of these islands if you have your own, or ask one of the many fishing charters in Paihia or Kerikeri to take you out.
Just north of the Purerua Peninsula sits Lion Rock. It’s an amazing spot for fishing, diving, and exploring. If you enjoy scuba diving or collecting crayfish, Lion Rock is a must visit, with clear waters offering visibility up to 30 metres on a good day.
Even though it’s close to the shore you will need a boat to access Lion Rock, as there is no direct access from Rangihoua Road down to the coastline. Some fishing charters or scuba diving operators can help you reach this remote location, and guide you around the rocky caves and crevices.
Rocky Point and The Needles
A few kilometres east from Lion Rock around the Purerua Peninsula lie Rocky Point and The Needles. These steep, shard-like rock formations provide caves, tunnels and craggy hiding spots for a wide variety of local sea-life.
Ideally, you would have a boat to take you from your marina along the coastline, as well as some kayaks so you could get up close and explore. If you’ve brought diving equipment expect to find crayfish. Otherwise, bring your heavy-duty fishing tackle and come looking for kingfish. The largest kingfish in the world are caught around New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, with specimens growing up to 2 metres and 50kg!
The island cluster off the coast of Cape Wiwiki is another favourite diving and fishing spot. The largest of these islands is Harakeke Island. Harakeke is the Māori word for flax; a plant used for weaving and basket making. The shores of Harakeke island are rocky and steep, but there are a few spots on the northern coastline where you could step off a boat and get access. Sturdy climbing shoes are a must, but the views showcase some of the Bay of Island’s best natural landscapes.
Follow Oihi Road East to Whale Bay, where you’ll find beach access if you’re towing a boat. Then set off North, past Motutui Island, following the coastline. You’ll find other launching ramps at Waipapa Landing, Rangitane or Opito Bay.
Also part of this island cluster are The Ninepin and Tikitiki Island. The inlets around these islands are home to plenty of snapper, plus you can find kingfish around the breaking rocks.
Islands for Māori culture and history
While the Bay of Islands is most famous for the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Māori were living on many of these islands for hundreds of years before European contact. From archaeological sites, to early points of contact with Europeans, the Bay of Islands can offer insights into New Zealand’s past.
Te Pahi Islands
This small island group in the shelter of Wairoa Bay saw some of New Zealand’s earliest contact between Māori and European visitors.
Māori Chief Te Pahi held a fort or pa on Motuapo Island. Intrigued by the potential of trade with the British, Te Pahi sailed to Australia in 1805 to meet with the Reverend Samuel Marsden and Governor Philip King. Nine years later, Reverend Marsden arrived in December 1814, where he preached New Zealand’s first Christmas Day service. The spot is now marked with an ornate stone cross.
Both Wairoa Bay and neighbouring Rangihoua Bay can be accessed off Rangihoua and Oihi Roads. You could spend a leisurely afternoon kayaking around Te Pahi Islands from Waiaroa Bay, around to Rangihoua Bay, where from the shore you can see the Marsden Cross. Because of the deep cultural and historical significance, this area is part of the Rangihoua Heritage Park.
Possibly the most famous, and one of the more easily accessible islands in the Bay of Islands. It’s part of the picture perfect view from Paihia’s Te Ti Bay. With a golden beach and a tree-sheltered hillside, it looks like an ideal spot for sunbathing and exploring.
Motumaire Island is actually a major archaeological site, with the remains of a Māori pa (fort) and midden. It’s registered under the Historic Places Act and is looked after by the Department of Conservation. There are a number of guided kayak tours that will tell you local stories about the island. In summer you can rent your own kayaks to make the 500 metre journey.
West of Cape Brett in the Eastern Bay of Islands is the pristine Waewaetorea Island. Whether you enjoy isolated beaches for relaxation, spotting local wildlife, hiking trails or cultural heritage sites, Waewaetorea has them all.
This beautiful island is only accessible by boat, but is worth the journey. Before European arrival, several Māori iwi (tribes) called Waewaetorea home. Hiking around the island, you can still find evidence of the fortified walls, moats and palisades they built to defend themselves. The walking tracks will take you to most of these settlement sites, as well as offering you the best views of Paihia, Russell and the mainland.
Famed explorer Captain James Cook also dropped anchor off Waewaetorea, and traded for fresh water and food. As recently as 1967, American millionaire and tobacco magnate William Neal Reynolds bought the island with plans to build a resort on it. His plans were sunk by local resistance, and Mr Reynolds eventually sold Waewaetorea to the New Zealand government for one dollar.
If you feel like leaving your mark on New Zealand’s landscape, you can visit Waewaetorea Island as part of Project Island Song. This is a partnership project between the Department of Conservation and local iwi to eradicate pests and plant native seedlings.
All year round, you can volunteer to be part of Project Island Song, which is a fantastic way to visit Waewaetorea Island, and the six other islands that are part of the project: Moturua, Motukiekie, Okahu, Urupukapuka and Poroporo islands.
From planting trees in autumn and winter, weeding introduced species, or sharing biosecurity messages in summer, volunteering for Project Island Song is a way to see the Bay of Islands while doing your bit for the environment.
Islands for snorkelling and scuba diving
One of the Bay of Islands’ more special features are the Black Rocks. This group of small islands is roughly 9 kilometres north of Paihia, and just off the northeast coast of Moturoa Island. Formed by volcanic eruptions around one million years ago, the blackened tops of the basalt lava flows give this distinctive rock formation its name.
Many boat charters and tour operators in Paihia or Kerikeri can take you to the Black Rocks, and for good reason. The volcanic rocks fall straight to the sea floor, around 30 metres down. As the molten rock cooled, air pockets formed a number of caves and tunnels, providing homes and hiding spots for bait fish and shellfish alike. If you love snorkelling or scuba diving, you could spend hours watching fish darting in and out of openings as you swim around the clear waters.
The presence of smaller fish can also attract larger predators, making the waters around the Black Rocks ideal for fishing. In this part of the Bay of Islands, you can expect to find kingfish, kahawai and snapper.
Motukōkako / Piercy Island
One of the Bay of Islands’ most beautiful treasures is The Hole in the Rock. Found on the very northern tip of Rakaumangamanga (Cape Brett), this island is said to be the landing place of Tūnui-a-rangi, one of the great ocean waka that first brought the Māori to New Zealand. Māori named this small island Motukōkako, and Captain James Cook called it Piercy Island.
With sheer cliffs rising 150 metres out of the ocean, this forbidding island would probably have been considered just one of many in a crowded bay if the ocean hadn’t carved out the now famous 16 metre high hole in its southwestern tip.
The steep cliffs rising out of the ocean were part of an initiation ritual for Māori warriors. They had to climb the rock face and collect a feather from a kokako bird that lived atop the island, before making their way safely back down. This tiny island is also an ecological sanctuary, as it has no evidence of ever being home to introduced animals. It’s a glimpse at what pristine, pre-European New Zealand may have looked like.
No trip to the Bay of Islands is complete without making the journey to Motu Kōkako, and if the waters are calm and the tide is right, sailing through the famous Hole in the Rock. The more adventurous visitors can even take a helicopter ride to the top of this iconic landmark.
There’s even more to see under the water. In Cathedral Cave, underneath Motukōkako, you can dive to 35 metres, taking in colourful rock walls and fish. At 25 metres down you’ll find a boulder garden and there’s potential to see large fish such as sharks, marlin, sunfish and kingfish.
Mahenotapuku / Bird Rock
Just three kilometres West of Motukōkako Island is another pristine home to some of New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. Although you’ll hear and smell it long before you arrive. It’s easy to understand how Mahenotapuku, also known as Bird Rock got its name. This rocky outcrop is home to a variety of birdlife, including cormorants, shearwaters and gannets. On a sunny day, you may also spot seals warming themselves on the rocks.
While the Bay of Islands are known around New Zealand as ‘The Winterless North,’ but you could be forgiven for a moment for thinking these rocks are covered in snow. Sadly not. While the guano does add a certain smell to the surrounding area, you’ll quickly grow accustomed to it as you’re spotting native animals in their natural environment.
Like Motukōkako, Mahenotapuku can offer experienced scuba divers and snorkelers sheer rock walls covered in coral, anemone and sponges as well as schooling fish and even sharks. In summer you may also spot flying fish, marlin and mako. Mahenotapuku Island is further out to sea than Motukōkako and divers and swimmers must be more aware of currents and surges.
Islands you can stay on
Want to get off the mainland? New Zealand’s Department of Conservation maintains a few sites where tourists can stay. It’s good practice to check with the Department of Conservation around availability, follow their instructions, and of course take all of your rubbish with you when you leave.
The largest island in the Bay of Islands, Urupukapuka is possibly the easiest to reach and has the most to offer.
You can catch water taxis to Urupukapuka Island from the Paihia i-SITE year round, if the weather is fine. During summer, regular passenger ferries from Paihia and Russel stop at Otehei Bay, on the south side of Urupukapuka Island every day. If you want to stay over, you can book cabin accommodation, or bring your own camping gear.
If you have your own boat, just anchor off one of Urupukapuka Island’s many beaches. The sheltered bays are perfect for swimming, fishing and kayaking.
The Urupukapuka Island Walk will take you around the entire island. The approximately five hour journey follows the island’s outer edge, passing Urupukapuka’s main archaeological sites. While moderately steep uphill walks in the peak of summer may test your fitness levels, the view around the Bay of Islands is more than worth it. The walk is made more beautiful in summer when the beautiful red flowers of the pohutukawa forest are in full bloom.
Thanks to the success of Project Island Song, a number of native birds have been released on to Urupukapuka Island. While on the walking track, keep an eye and ear out for the rare North Island saddleback (tīeke), North Island robin (toutouwai) and whitehead (pōpokotea), as well as the more common brown teal (pāteke) and New Zealand dotterel.
Getting to the Bay of Islands
Looking for your own island escape? Auckland is your gateway to the Bay of Islands. You can fly from Auckland Airport through to Kerikeri or via Whangarei. Driving from Auckland to Paihia is approximately a three hour journey, but you should expect delays when travelling during the busy summer months.
Swimming gear, beach towels and sunscreen are must-pack items. If you fancy fishing or diving, but don’t fancy packing the bulky equipment, you’ll find spots in Paihia, Kerikeri and Russell where you can hire what you need.
Bring your sense of adventure, and prepare to explore as you make your way around the beautiful Bay of Islands.