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10 Free and Cheap things to do in the Bay of Islands

September 2, 2022

If you’re after things to do in Paihia and the wider Bay of Islands, but you want to go easy on your wallet, we’ve got the perfect list of free or cheap activities for you and your family. Whether that’s nature walks, cycling or learning about history, Bay of Islands has you covered for an inexpensive yet rewarding day out.

Haruru Falls

1. Visit Haruru Falls

These popular falls may be small, but after rain they absolutely thunder with raging water (haruru means “big noise” in te reo Māori). They have a unique and beautiful horseshoe shape. This is where the entire Waitangi river empties into a lagoon – which was New Zealand’s first river port, used by both Maori and missionaries. The falls are just a couple of minutes’ walk from the carpark. Alternatively, you could kayak up to the falls, joining a half-day tour for around $45-$80.

2. Catch the amazing views from the Paihia Lookout

Walking in nature is good for the body, the soul, and the wallet. The 1.5-kilometre track starts at School Road, and it is gravelled, wide and well-maintained. It begins by winding through the Horotutu Scenic Reserve – keep an eye out for kauri trees. After about 30 minutes of uphill walking, you’ll reach a junction. The right hand side track takes you to the lookout with stunning views of Waitangi, Motumairie Island, Russell, and Cape Brett. You can return the way you came, or if you want to walk another two hours, you can walk the other track at the junction: the Oromahoe Traverse, which is scenic and the track is more intrepid.

3. Experience Waitangi Mountain Bike Park

This non-commercial mountain bike park has more than 40 kilometres of professionally-built tracks, in picturesque forest with views of the sea. The park was designed by Jeff Carter, who built the amazing Whakarewarewa Forest Mountain Bike Park and many others around the globe. There are 30 trails for all abilities, with great flow and features including downhill riding, jump trails, cross country, and beginner trails. The funky café has great coffee, which parents can enjoy while watching their toddlers attempt the pump track nearby. Highly recommended for a great day out for the whole family. Entry is free but they ask for a small annual donation to keep the park operating. Bike rental is also available for a fee.

4. Explore the Waitangi Treaty Grounds

A visit to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a must-do for any New Zealander, to cement awareness of New Zealand’s heritage and the coming together of two peoples. Entry is $30 pp for New Zealanders, but children (under 18s) are free! Make sure you go to one of the cultural performances, to see graceful demonstrations of the poi, breathtaking demonstrations of Māori weaponry, stick games, waiata (songs) and a traditional haka. Check out the two contemporary museums, Te Rau Aroha (commemorating Māori soldiers in the wars) and Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi (exploring the signing of the treaty). Also have a chat with the carvers in the carving studio, while they demonstrate traditional carving techniques which have been handed down through generations.

Children at Waitangi Treaty Grounds

5. Ride the Pou Herenga Tai - Twin Coast Cycle Trail

This cycle trail leads all the way from Opua in the Bay of Islands to Horeke in the Hokianga harbour, taking you through a region rich in early Māori and European history. The entire trail can be done in one day, or you can break the 87 kilometres into sections: Opua to Kawakawa (11 kilometres), Kawakawa to Kaikohe (34 kilometres), Kaikohe to Okaihau (14 kilometres) Okaihau to Horeke (28 kilometres). Our favourite parts? The section between Kaikohe and Okaihau, where you pass through a historic 80m rail tunnel, and the Opua to Kaikohe section with the beautiful estuary track and the famous Kawakawa Hundertwasser toilets.

6. Catch your dinner alongside the locals at the Opua wharf

We can’t think of a better Bay of Islands dinner than a fresh-caught, pan-fried snapper. The best fishing at this wharf is in autumn and early winter, where you can haul lovely snapper from the depths at the end of the wharf. Otherwise, trevally is plentiful in winter and spring, and kahawai can be caught all year round. Fishing won’t be so great after heavy rain because it is at the mouth of the Kawakawa river. The wharf is now used only for recreation and tourism, but the original Opua wharf was built in the 1880s for loading coal from Kawakawa. In the 1920s it was used mainly for the freezing works, and reached its busiest commercial shipping in the 1950s.

7. Coastal walk from Paihia to Opua

This is a gentle two-hour walk along the coast on a well-established walkway. It follows the beach and crosses the road bridge at Te Haumi Stream. From there, you walk through coastal forest (it’s part of the Te Araroa Trail). You’ll get great views over the channel or the Russel peninsular and the Waikare Inlet. It finishes at Opua, which has a general store and the ferry landing has public toilets.

If you have energy left, take the ferry to Okiato and walk to Russell (3.5 hours).

8. Swim at Rainbow Falls

Underneath the 27-metre Rainbow Falls lies a popular swimming hole on the Kerikeri River. Here you can swim behind the falls with the water cascading in front of you. Teens (and other adrenaline junkies) will love jumping into the deep, clean water from the jumping platforms, although it is advised you first watch the locals jump to know where it is safe. It’s a 5-10 minute walk up the river to the falls, and there is a large picnic area at the top of the falls.

Rainbow Falls is a popular swimming hole on the Kerikeri River

9. Visit Christ Church, New Zealand's oldest surviving church

This small, beautiful church has an amazing atmosphere – a real sense of wairua. Built in 1835 in Russell, this Anglican church originally held services in both English and Māori. On a wander around the church graveyard, you’ll pass the graves of the famous chief Tamati Waka Nene, Dr Samuel Ford (the country’s first resident surgeon), men from the HMS Hazard who were killed defending the village against Hone Heke, many whalers, and more. If you’re there on a Sunday, why not experience a service in New Zealand’s oldest church at 10.30am.

10. Laze at the beach

The best things in life are free and lazing on a Bay of Islands beach has got to be one of them! Take sunscreen, a blanket, a book or some beach games and enjoy a beautiful day out. There are plenty of beaches to choose from. In Paihia you can head to Paihia Beach, which is the busiest beach and the launchpad of many tours, or the more peaceful Te Tii Bay (it’s sheltered and great for swimming/fishing, plus it has a playground at one end) or Sullivan’s Beach which has no road access – walk around from Paihia Beach at low tide. In Russell, head to Russell Beach, Tapeka Beach (this one has a lovely public reserve area and boat ramp) or Long Beach/Oneroa which has beautiful views out to Roberton Island.

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