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Most of the action is out on the water, whether you’re yachting, fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, diving or cruising in the company of whales and dolphins. Back on land, with its subtropical environment and fertile soils, the Bay of Islands is home to dozens of artisan producers, a handful of standout wineries, and a host of excellent restaurants bringing it all together to serve punters with genuine Kiwi hospitality.
From the outset, the British struggled with farming the land in New Zealand. Some only survived with the assistance of the Maori people, who grew imported crops for the early settlers, particularly potatoes exchanging these for European items they considered more valuable, including weapons.
If you strike up a friendship with any locals today, you’re more likely to be offered some freshly caught fish in exchange for some conversation and a shared meal. Looking after the land is key to the region’s Maori people.
Kaitiakitanga (guardianship) can be observed here in the sustainable production practices, and the ubiquitous commitment to cutting unnecessary waste, particularly plastic. Even buying a simple take-away fish and chips at the beach - if you haven’t brought your own receptacles (locals do!) expect cardboard boxes and wooden spoons, and no litter. Bring your own re-usable coffee cups and cutlery if you can.
Kerikeri is the agricultural heartland of the region surrounded by orchards of peaches, avocados and kiwifruit, as well as an abundance of small vineyards. The farmland setting is perfectly complemented by traditional New Zealand country fare at this upmarket restaurant. We are talking slow-cooked lamb shanks, wild game pie, confit duck and steak. After you’ve overindulged on a three-course Sunday roast, the only thing to do is work off some of those hearty calories on the 1km self-guided trail through the vineyards before hitting the cellar door.
Visit: 165 Waimate North Rd, Kerikeri; 09-407 8230; www.akeakevineyard.co.nz; 11.45am- 2pm & 5.45-8pm Monday - Saturday, lunch only Sunday, tastings 10am-4.30pm
Plough & Feather
Famed for its agriculture, Kerikeri also plays a significant part in the North Island story with its well-preserved historic sites, particularly Kerikeri Mission Station and Kororipo Pa. Next door, also located on Kerikeri Basin, is the popular Plough & Feather, occupying an old homestead with sweeping views from the veranda tables. The location is everything. Mains here run the gamut of bistro favourites like burgers, steak and fish of the day; plus there’s a good selection of vegan options. There’s also an excellent range of New Zealand craft beers.
Visit: 215 Kerikeri Rd, Kerikeri; 09-407 8479; www.ploughandfeather. co.nz; 9am-10pm summer
Old Packhouse Market
What looks like any old fruit-packing shed on the outskirts of town, turns into a heaving farmers’ market every Saturday morning with local producers, winemakers and farmers selling direct to the public. Follow the hand-written chalkboards to try local wines, craft beer, baked goodies and delicious gourmet street food. Check online for regular themed night markets on a Thursday, too.
Visit: 505 Kerikeri Rd, Kerikeri; 09- 401 9588; www.facebook.com/ theoldpackhousemarket; 8am- 1.30pm Saturday
At this chocolate shop and cafe, opposite the Old Packhouse Market, you can watch the artisans at work through the factory window as they pop out another batch of colourful confections. After taste-testing these melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, with unusual flavours and ingredients, it won’t matter that being preservative-free they don’t last longer than a week — you will have gobbled them up well before then.
Visit: 504 Kerikeri Rd, Kerikeri; 09-407 6800; www.makana.co.nz; 9am- 5.30pm
Leaving Kerikeri behind, head to Paihia for all the peak water-based tourism experiences in the Bay of Islands, and you’ll be spoiled for dining out experiences from around the globe. Charlotte’s Kitchen, named after an escaped Australian convict who was New Zealand’s first white female settler is a vibey restaurant and bar that occupies a cheeky perch on the main pier. While tucking into the Asian-influenced dishes such as steamed pork buns and Vietnamese rolls (not to mention the freshly shucked oysters) you’ll hear the wash from ferries under your feet as they moor up and deliver day trippers back to the mainland.
Visit: Paihia Wharf, 69 Marsden Rd, Paihia; 09-402 8296;
www.charlotteskitchen.co.nz; 11.30am- 10pm Monday to Friday, to 11pm Saturday and Sunday
The next stop is across the bay at Russell. Once a one-horse town filled with pirates, prostitutes and outlaws, it’s now a genteel village of historic streetscapes. The Gables occupies an 1847 building (formerly a brothel) on the waterfront, built using whale vertebrae for foundations. Today it serves exceptionally good Kiwi classics, with an excellent wine list and local cheeses. Book a table by the windows for maritime views.
Visit: 19 The Strand, Russell; 09-403 7670;
www.thegablesrestaurant.co.nz; noon-3pm & 5.30-10pm Wednesday-Monday
Duke of Marlborough Hotel
A popular, historic hotel and restaurant, the best reason for stopping here on your gourmet tour is to watch the water activity while tasting your way through the New Zealand craft beer selections on the sunny deck. Try hyper-local brews such as Kainui Pilsner, a Kerikeri thirst quencher, big on hops, oozing citrus; or the Phat House Pale Ale from Waipapa, with a rich and complex toffee malt finish. In winter, you can take it inside and cosy up in a chesterfield by a roaring fire.
Visit: 35 The Strand, Russell; 09- 403 7829; www.theduke.co.nz; 11.30am-9pm
Sage @ Paroa Bay
It’s a 15-minute drive along winding roads into the hinterland behind Russell to Paroa Bay, but the views alone — over the turquoise waters of the Bay of Islands away from the hubbub of Paihia and Russell — make the extra effort worth it. Once you arrive at this winery restaurant, overlooking manicured lawns and rolling green farmland, and drink in the briny sea air gusting up the hillside, you’ll know what we mean.
The limited mains menu has a seafood focus, with quality ingredients and punchy flavours: a side salad comes with dukkah, pickled vegetables and balsamic beetroot, for example. But we’d recommend the dramatic cheese and charcuterie tasting board, and an afternoon grazing while sampling the Paroa Bay wines. If you can’t organise a designated driver, book a night at the villa accommodation on-site, which comes with private beach access and an infinity pool.
Visit: 31 Otamarua Rd, Paroa Bay; 09- 403 8270;
www.thelindisgroup.com/paroabaywinerysage; noon- 5pm Wednesday and Thursday, to 8pm Friday to Sunday.
WHAT TO DO
DISCOVER THE BAY CRUISE: Take a four-hour Discover the Bay cruise to the jaw-dropping Hole in the Rock; or alight at Urupukapuka Island for nature walks and sheltered beach swimming. www.exploregroup.co.nz
KERIKERI MISSION STATION: Two of the nation’s most significant buildings nestle on the banks of Kerikeri Basin: the Stone Store (NZ’s oldest stone building) and Kemp House, a pretty wooden Georgian-style house and NZ’s oldest (built in 1822). Around the inlet, Kororipo Pa is the site of Hongi Hika’s pa (fortress) and village. www.historic.org.nz
WHERE TO STAY
ARCADIA LODGE: A characterful 1890 hillside house kitted out with interesting antiques. Meals are complemented by spectacular views over sailboats bobbing on the water from the deck. Grab a bottle of local wine from the honesty bar, and find a quiet spot in the garden. www.arcadialodge.co.nz
MOON GATE VILLA: Modern accommodation set amid tropical foliage and a water feature, with a huge spa bath in the larger suite. There is also a compact self-contained cottage in the gardens, and a solar-powered swimming pool. www.moongatevilla.com
WAITANGI DAY: Ceremonial events are held at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to mark Waitangi Day on February 6. Expect a naval salute and an annual outing for the huge Maori waka taua (war canoe) Ngatokimatawhaorua followed by food, music and cultural performances. www.waitangi.org.nz/whats-on/waitangi-day
Bay of Islands is a three-hour drive from Auckland. To reach Russell take the Fullers car ferry which runs every 10 minutes from Opua between 6am and 9pm. Alternatively, Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Bay of Islands (Kerikeri) Airport.