Just after finding buyers for ‘Van Housing,’ our beloved 2004 Hyundai Grace campervan we spent 10 weeks road tripping around in across much of New Zealand’s South & North Island, we decided we needed to take her – and ourselves – one one final, bumpy Kiwi adventure.
Having heard plenty of rave reviews about an area called the Bay of Islands – the tropical tip of the North Island consisting of 144 islands, remote beaches, sand dunes and a few tiny yet loveable towns – and ignoring the consistent forecast for heavy rains, we set out for a last road trip in the only home on wheels we’ve ever owned.
One Week in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands
While I think most people – barring the ones who live here, of course – would say one week in the Bay of Islands is perhaps too much, that’s the true beauty of having a full year visa to explore a country… you can take as much or as little time as you want in each spot without the stress of cramming a whole country into a one or two week trip. Relax, bro! And keep in mind no one else is in a hurry, so you certainly shouldn’t be either.
How to Get There
Though we drove to the Bay of Islands in our own campervan, an easier and more budget-friendly option as a traveler would be to make your own itinerary via Intercity’s FlexiPass. Their 25 hour pass will get you from Auckland all the way up to Cape Reinga, the very northern tip of the Bay of Islands (and New Zealand, actually).
Because my boyfriend had to leave early from the Bay of Islands trip to sell his surfboard in Piha Beach, it was a lifesaver for me to be able to use this bus pass to get back down to Auckland, saving me loads of money on renting a car or hitchhiking for hours with a potential weirdo.
Where to Stay
If you aren’t in a hurry to make it all the way to the actual Bay of Islands on Day 1, as it’s not the shortest of drives, my suggestion would be to spend your first night a 30 minute drive north of Auckland on the Hibiscus Coast Highway. The town of Orewa has a lovely little freedom camping spot called Arundel Reserve with the following amenities:
- Self Contained Only
- Onsite Bathrooms
- Crowded (get there early!)
- Maximum Stay of 2 Nights/Month
The following day, we decided to knock out most of the driving by bypassing the town of Whangarei to spend the night in Paihia, a seaside gem and the main tourist hub of the Bay of Islands. As a note, there are no (nice) freedom camping spots in town or particularly anywhere super near to town, so we sucked it up and paid the $18 per person, per night to stay in the (admittedly) scenic and well-placed Waitangi Holiday Park, which includes the following:
- Near to Waitangi River
- Unpowered & Powered Sites
- Communal Kitchen
- Onsite Bathrooms & Showers
- TV Lounge
- Communal Laundry Facilities
- Shared BBQ Area
Seeking something a little more remote and off the beaten path, the next day we packed up and headed north even further to Doubtless Bay, a stunning and quiet beach area with a lovely freedom camping spot known as Tokerau Beach Freedom Camp, found on the very useful WikiCamps app. Amenities include:
- Beachfront Location
- Self Contained Vehicles Only
- Onsite Bathrooms (5 minute walk away)
- No Maximum Day Limit
While we had originally planned to drive to Cape Reinga to round out our South to North New Zealand road trip, multiple days of heavy storms in the area unfortunately put a damper on any sand dune surfing plans we once held, causing us the not-so-sad task of turning around and staying in the same area until the weather cleared up enough to allow us to book a boat tour. You can’t come to the Bay of Islands without seeing any of the islands, y’all. It’d be like going all the way to Disney World to hang out with the guy in the parking lot dressed as Iron Man. Nah. Just a little further south of Doubtless Bay, the Lions Park Mangonui lot is a decent spot for a night of freedom camping and includes the following:
- Self Contained Only (but no signage about it)
- 24 Hour Maximum Stay
- Onsite Bathrooms
- Drinking Water & Dump Station
- LOTS of Roosters (bring ear plugs)
- Near to Restaurants & Market
- Directly by Mangonui Harbour
If you’re desperate and you know it, stop your van (clap clap!). Alright, so admittedly this isn’t the most scenic of places to stay – it’s known as ‘Free Parking Behind Hundertwasser Toilets’ – but it does the job when you’ve just gotten off of an 8 hour boat tour, it’s pouring and you just can’t be asked to drive anywhere else for the night. Also there’s food – and artsy yet nice toilets, as you may have guessed – just nearby, so it could be worse. This odd spot includes the following:
- Self Contained Only (doubt you’ll have an issue if not, though)
- 24 Hour Maximum Stay
- 15 Minute Drive from Paihia
- Grassy Area
- Near to Town
What to Do
Look, if you want to know all the possible areas to explore and activities you could do within the Bay of Islands, this ain’t the right blog for that. It’s too exhaustive of a list, and because the weather during our trip was mostly piss poor, in the fact that it was pissing down rain and also pouring, and also we are poor, I suggest you look up a list of the top activities in the area, of which there are many excellent blogs and resources to choose from.
Bay of Islands Day Cruise
My advice is, at the very minimum, to book yourself a seat on the half day ‘Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise‘ from GreatSights New Zealand, which departs directly from Paihia Wharf and takes you alongside – and on to – some of the Bay of Islands’ most gorgeous beaches, cliffs, uninhabited islands and through an actual hole in a giant rock. Because we still had unused hours on our Intercity bus passes, we were stoked to see that we could use our FlexiPass to book this day tour – as well as a number of others – simply by trading in our extra bus hours. Yew!
Since this area is well known for its friendly dolphin population, we decided to pay the extra $30 for the chance to snorkel with dolphins… assuming they wanted to swim with us, too.
*Word to the Wise, or Perhaps Not So Wise: Swimming with dolphins, on this beautiful day in the Bay of Islands, turned out to be the most stressful snorkeling experience of my life, at no fault of the dolphins. After spotting a small pod shortly after leaving the wharf – in dark water on an overcast day, mind you – we were told we could try swimming with the dolphins in the next couple of minutes or not at all. We decided to go for it. After hastily throwing on our snorkeling gear, we were given vague instructions to jump into the giant net attached to the boat, grab the rope on the far side of the net, and stay there until we were told to swim out. What I did not know, nor did any of my seemingly just-as-confused snorkeling buddies, was that we would mostly be dragged alongside the boat in the net while being told to stick our faces in the water to spot an apparently nearby dolphin. Now, as a person who has not been a recent victim of Pirate Harassment 101, I was unaware of this newfangled way in which to ‘snorkel,’ which was more like flailing about in a giant sinking hammock of white people than it was ‘snorkeling.’ Suffice it to say, my suggestion is to skip this part of the tour. And to give credit where credit is due, we were all given full refunds despite having apparently ‘snorkeled’ near dolphin(s) at some point during the hammock drag.
While I fortunately don’t have any photos of myself participating in this experience, others who stayed aboard appeared to confuse our time in the water with fun, opting to join in on the same activity – albeit sans mask and fins – later in the day, of which I fortunately do have photos of.
All in all the day was fabulous. We stopped at a total of 14 spots, including one of my new top 3 swimming spots in all of New Zealand – Waewaetorea Island – and were given a thorough history of the area, along with fun facts and local insight as to what makes this area so friggin’ cool.
As an especially rad treat, we also got to see some locals playing what is perhaps the most invite-only game of cricket ever, as it can only be reached by boat and is played on a shallow patch of reef and sand bar. Fore! …or whatever you say in cricket. I don’t know.
On one of the final tour stops just off the coast of Cape Brett Peninsula, you’re treated to views of a single lighthouse and a single house on a steep and lush hill, and it’s just about as awe-worthy a sight as you can hope to see. And lastly, steering the rather large catamaran through the 60 foot tall Motukokako, or ‘Hole in the Rock,’ is something you have to experience to appreciate.
Oh, Bay of Islands. We miss you already, ya beaut!