In the Corner of the World – Bay of Islands

Over the next few weeks here at Gadling, we’ll be bringing you updates from our recent travels across New Zealand – in the process, we hope to offer a range of perspectives about what visiting this truly unique and fascinating country is all about. You can read previous entries HERE.

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.

View Mike’s Bay of Islands photo gallery. Read more of Gadling’s In the Corner of the World series here.

The best kind of travel experience

I just returned home to New York after three weeks in New Zealand and Australia. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my best stories from this adventure with you. On my travels, I was fortunate enough to swim with dolphins, explore gorgeous beaches, hike up mountains and around lakes and interact with some amazing animals. But for my first story from this trip, I’d like to share with you one of the best travel experiences I have ever had. In fact, it’s one of my best life experiences in general.

I arrived in Auckland late in the evening after more than 24 hours in planes, airports and buses. Needless to say, I collapsed in bed at my hostel (after a few whiskeys at the pub) and planned to hop a bus to Paihia in the Bay of Islands early the next morning. I was alone on the other side of the world but I felt nothing but excitement and anticipation.
The next day, I caught a bus north to Paihia. It’s a four-hour ride by bus from Auckland, so I sat back, watched the gorgeous New Zealand countryside roll by and started to realize how breathtaking that part of the world really is. Since I was traveling alone, I was able to lose myself in the scenery, jot down notes to myself and experience the bliss of feeling like you’re all alone even when other people are around you. I was, obviously, quite content.

After two hours, the bus stopped for a rest break. We pulled into a roadside cafe in a small town and the driver instructed us that we had 15 minutes to stretch our legs, have a snack and use the toilets. The bus would be locked and no one would be allowed back on until it was time to leave. Having spent the previous day traveling from New York and the first two hours of my first day in New Zealand on a bus, I was eager to breathe some fresh air and unfold myself. Plus, I was starved.

I entered the cafe and worked my way immediately to the pies. Before I left New York, everyone I knew told me to eat pies while in New Zealand and Australia. My eyes grew wide and my stomach rumbled as I grabbed a mince pie and got in the queue. That’s when things took an odd turn.

I reached into my back pocket for my wallet and felt nothing. I patted down every pocket in my shorts (cargo shorts…this process took a minute) to no avail. While on the bus, I had taken my wallet out of my pocket to get more comfortable. Wallets can be a real pain in the ass. Literally. In my infinite wisdom, I had left it there when I got out for our break. So, no mince pie for me. Knowing that I had a granola bar in my bag, I resigned myself to waiting to eat back on the bus. I put the pie back and walked outside.

Other passengers milled about and I exchanged a few pleasantries while admiring the vastness of the sky, interrupted only at the horizon by the rolling green hills. Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t even notice the teen-aged Māori girl who had walked over to me. She extended her hand, in which she had a white bag. “It looked like you left your money on the bus,” she said. “I got you your pie.” I was flabbergasted. I was so amazed by the generosity and selflessness of this act that I was without words for a moment. Finally, I thanked her profusely and assured her that my wallet was, in fact, on the bus and that I would give her the money in a few minutes. Before I could introduce myself, ask her where she was traveling to or engage her in any conversation, she strolled away seemingly oblivious to how moved I was by her gesture.

So, I sat in the sun and ate my pie. It tasted even better than I had hoped. When I saw the driver unlock the bus, I hurried to get on so that I could grab some money from my wallet as quickly as possible. I scurried to my seat and found a NZ$5 note right as the girl began her walk down the aisle. As she passed my seat, I looked up at her and offered her the bill while thanking her again. “No worries,” she said. “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it.” I was floored. “Are you sure? I owe you the money,” I said. She shook her head, smiled and walked to her seat. The bus pulled away, the cafe disappeared in the distance and we entered the lush northern regions of New Zealand’s north island.

Over the next hour, I caught myself stealing glances in the girl’s direction. She gazed out the window, listened to music and sent text messages on her phone. Eventually, she reached her destination in a tiny town that didn’t even have a true bus stop. She didn’t acknowledge me as she walked up the aisle and got off the bus. To her, our interaction was innocuous. I, however, still remember it in vivid detail.

My trip was just beginning and already I felt the warmth of the people of New Zealand. I felt welcomed. I felt positive about people and humanity and the world at large. What I didn’t feel was alone. And I couldn’t have been happier.