I arrived in Paihia after a four-hour bus ride north from Auckland. I’d spent that time staring out the window at the lush countryside of New Zealand’s North Island. I’d seen rolling hills, green meadows and plenty of sheep. For all I had heard about New Zealand’s gorgeous coastline, my first 14 hours in this far corner of the world had been marked by a landscape that looked a whole lot like Vermont. That’s not to say that the interior of New Zealand isn’t spectacularly gorgeous, but I had selected the Northland as the first desitination on my trip because I was itching to see the dynamic coastal features of the South Pacific. And then it happened. My InterCity bus pulled into Paihia and it seemed as if all that lay between me and the end of the Earth was the bluest water I had ever seen and a few tiny islands speckled along the horizon. I had reached the Bay of Islands.
The Bay of Islands is a must-see for travelers visiting New Zealand for two key reasons: Its history and its natural beauty.
Let’s start with a brief history lesson. Just across the Waitangi River from Paihia is the town of Waitangi where, in 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi ceded the nation’s sovereignty to Britain. The treaty was signed in the home of Captain William Hobson and was drafted in both English and Māori. It was signed by representatives of the British Crown and the five northern Māori tribes and copies of the treaty were disseminated throughout the island for review and agreement by the other tribes. However, before all of the signed copies were returned, Hobson claimed New Zealand for Britain on the basis that the Māori ceded the North Island in the treaty and that Captain Cook had discovered the South Island and claimed it for the British despite the fact there there was already a large Māori population living there.
Because of this deceit by the British (actual or perceived, depending on who is explaining the tale to you), the Treaty of Waitangi is a point of contention in the nation’s history. I visited the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where you can see the house where the treaty was drafted, as well as the world’s largest war canoe. The museum explains the history of the treaty but whitewashes the story so as to make it more pleasant for the mostly Anglo tourists. Still, it’s worth a visit to see the birthplace of modern New Zealand.
Across the street from the Waitangi Treaty House is the entrance to the Haruru Falls Trail. Finding myself with nothing to do on a gorgeous late summer day in Waitangi, I decided hike the trail. Since it’s not a loop, I hired a tuk tuk to take me to Haruru Falls, at the opposite end of the trail. The falls are by no means tall or awe-inspiring, but they are still a highlight of the walk and offer some small pools in which you can swim if you don’t mind water so cold that your muscles completely tense up. From the falls, the roughly 5km trail winds through woodlands, marshes and mangroves and offers glimpses of native birds and lush flora. I encountered maybe a half dozen people on my hike, which allowed me to be mostly alone with my thoughts and nature as I walked. Along the way, there are signs explaining the various plants and ecosystems that you encounter.
After the hike, I met up with some friends that I had made on the previous day’s bus ride and took the short ferry ride to Russell. Situated on a peninsula that juts into the Bay of Islands, Russell was the first European settlement in New Zealand. The ferry ride is about 15-20 minutes and docks by The Strand in Russell, which is the heart of Russell’s tourist area. Here you will find virtually all of Russell’s restaurants and several of its historical sites. While Russell was once a haven for drunken sailors and criminals, it is now one of the quaintest and most peaceful places you will ever visit. While Paihia and Waitangi offer prime examples of Māori culture in New Zealand, Russell perfectly encapsulates the European influence.
As you step off the ferry in Russell, you feel as if you have been transported to New England. The small houses and seafood restaurants add to the serene charm of the natural landscape. Rather than hang around the pier with the collection of tourists who had also elected to visit Russell for the day, my new friends and I walked a few kilometers to the other side of town and made our way to Long Beach.
Long Beach provides a gorgeous sanctuary from the touristy main stretch of Russell. With cliffs on either side, the beach is located in a small bay with some of the most pristine waters I have ever seen. After a short nap on the beach to recharge my batteries after the Haruru Falls Trail hike, I swam in the bay to cool off and, for the first time, found myself physically in the Bay of Islands.
With dusk approaching, we made our way back to Paihia. Because it caters to backpackers, the town offers a fair amount of hostels and inexpensive accommodations. I spent two nights at the Pickled Parrot, located close to many of the other hostels, as well as several restaurants and bars. Almost all of the hostels offer dorm accommodations along with double and twin rooms. I shared a dorm with seven other strangers from Germany, England, Belgium and Brazil. Paihia’s nightlife revolves around young backpakers, seafood and alcohol. You’ll find no shortage of fish and chips, Kiwi beers like Tui and excellent local wines. I had no problem striking up conversations with other travelers and never took a meal alone.
It’s no wonder that Paihia is considered “The Jewel of the Bay of Islands.” It’s the gateway to the region’s other destinations, such as Russell and Keri Keri, adjacent to Waitangi, the birthplace of modern New Zealand and offers some of the best of both old and new. As the first stop on my trip to New Zealand, it whet my appetite for more of what this beautiful country had to offer. After a few days in the Bay of Islands, it was time for me to pack up and get back on a bus. There was more to see; but if my first stop was any indication, this corner of the world had plenty to offer.