THE BAY OF ISLANDS, 240km north of Auckland, lures visitors to its beautiful coastal scenery, scattered islands and clear blue waters. There are other equally stunning spots along the Northland coast, such as the Whangaroa and Hokianga harbours, but what sets the bay apart is the ease with which you can get out among the islands, and its pivotal history. This was the cradle of European settlement in New Zealand, a fact abundantly testified to by the bay’s churches, mission stations and orchards. It’s also a focal point for Maori because of the Treaty of Waitangi, still New Zealand’s most important legal document.
Perhaps surprisingly, much of your time in the Bay of Islands will be spent on the mainland, as there are no settlements on the islands. Most visitors base themselves in beachside Paihia, which is set up to deal with the hordes who come here for the various cruises and excursions, as well as being the closest town to the Treaty House at Waitangi. The compact town of Russell, a couple of kilometres across the bay by passenger ferry, is prettier and almost equally convenient for cruises. To the northwest, away from the bay itself, Kerikeri is intimately entwined with the area’s early missionary history, while Waimate North, inland to the west, was another important mission site and Mission House.
In 1927 American Western writer Zane Grey came here to fish for striped and black marlin, making the area famous with his book The Angler’s El Dorado. Every summer since, the bay has seen game-fishing tournaments and glistening catches strung up on the jetties.
A warm climate, abundant seafood and deep, sheltered harbours contributed to dense pre-European Maori settlement in the Bay of Islands, with many a headland supporting a pa. The bay also appealed to Captain Cook, who anchored here in 1769. Cook landed on Motuarohia Island at what became known as Cook’s Cove, where he forged generally good relations with the inhabitants. Three years later the French sailor Marion du Fresne, en route from Mauritius to Tahiti, became the first European to have sustained contact with Maori, though he fared less well when a misunderstanding, probably over tapu, led to his death, along with 26 of his crew. The French retaliated, destroying a pa and killing hundreds of Maori.