It’s summer in New Zealand. Did you hear that? Maybe it bears repeating. It’s summer in New Zealand! While you’re dealing with freezing temperatures and yet another snowstorm, it’s warm and sunny Down Under. Most visitors head to the South Island in search of The Lord of the Rings locations, adventure activities, and jaw-dropping landscapes. But where do New Zealanders go?
Kiwis head north. To the Far North, actually. And while heading north means cooler temperatures to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it means you’re getting closer and closer to the equator in the southern half of the world. Which makes the Bay of Islands the summer playground of New Zealand.
It’s about a three-hour drive from Auckland, the country’s largest city, to the Bay of Islands. Take your time, though. Stop at a winery along the way. Ascension Wine Estate has a Mediterranean-style villa and pours a delicious Malbec. Drive slowly through the tight curves of the Brynderwyn Hills. And stop for a harborside lunch in Whangarei. Eventually, you reach Opua, a yacht-filled harbor where you catch the vehicle ferry to Russell.
The Bay of Islands is Māori land. Captain James Cook was the first European to land here, and Russell eventually became the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand. Whalers, and then missionaries, arrived. The area had a horrible reputation—it was called the “Hell Hole of the Pacific” due to its lawlessness and rampant prostitution. You’d never know it today, though. Historic Russell is a charming village with elegant, timber buildings that overlook a pebble beach, a long pier, and Kororāreka Bay. The Strand—the main street along the waterfront—is full of seafood restaurants, small lodges, and a tiny grocery store.
Visit the historic sites: the park-like Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the Mission House and the Stone House (the oldest buildings in New Zealand), and Christ Church (the country’s oldest church that still has musket and cannonball holes from an 1845 battle). Relax on Long Beach, and swim in the clear, blue water. Go river fishing for trout or ocean fishing for snapper. And then get out on the water. Sail between the area’s 144 islands on the Gungha II. Dolphins swim along the side the yacht as it picks up speed. Pass the Black Rocks, Cape Brett, and the Hole in the Rock. Anchor near Motuarohia Island to swim, kayak, and hike up the hill for amazing views. Then return to Paihia—the liveliest Bay of Islands’ town—for a post-sailing, sunset cocktail at a café on waterfront Marsden Road.
From here you could head farther north. On windy Cape Reinga, you’ll find the endless Ninety Mile Beach and the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. You could head south, and meet up with the tourists on the South Island. Or stay where you are. Keep exploring more of the uninhabited islands. Eat tons of fresh seafood. Dream of buying one of the waterfront—or at least water-view—homes. And enjoy the area that the Kiwis like to consider their own little secret.