New Zealand has experienced a tourist boom in recent years, fueled in part by the success of The Lord of the Rings films. Most tourists travel south from Auckland, the largest city in the country, and then head to the thermal mud pools and cultural attractions of Rotorua (central North Island). From there, tourists often venture south to the dramatic landscapes of the South Island.

Yet there are many things to see and do in the Northland region of the North Island. The Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga ? New Zealand’s northernmost point ? are probably two of New Zealand’s most beautiful locations.

The Bay of Islands is close to the northern tip of the country. It's a natural harbor, with several arms extending into the land. There are almost 150 islands and secluded bays boasting an abundance of marine life. Captain James Cook visited the region in 1769 and named the area. It was here that the first Europeans settled. But you'll also find many historical sites documenting the original Maori culture.

Paihia is a friendly little beach town in the Bay of Islands and a good launch spot to explore the area. If you have your scuba diving license, it’s possible to explore the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior. The Rainbow Warrior was Greenpeace’s flagship. In 1985, it was due to set sail to protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Instead, it was bombed in Auckland Harbor by the French secret service, killing a Greenpeace photographer in the process. Two French secret agents were captured in New Zealand. The others escaped and were picked up by a French submarine. The Rainbow Warrior was towed to the north of New Zealand and sunk as a memorial.

The Bay of Islands is New Zealand’s premier cruising
ground, offering a different island to explore every day

I wanted to see the ship for myself. This was the first time I had done a wreck dive, and it had been over two years since I had done any scuba diving, so I was a bit nervous. It was different diving in colder water, and I had to get used to wearing a thicker wet suit with hood and booties. Four other tourists aboard my tour were all more experienced divers than me ? the couple from Germany were dive instructors themselves ? and so I got the dive instructor as my “dive buddy,” as you are always supposed to dive in pairs for safety.

First, we had a look at photos and a map of the wreck to orient ourselves, and then we all got into the water. The ship lies at a depth of about 82 feet (25 m). We knelt down in the sand at the sea bottom just in front of the bow of the boat and looked up to see the Rainbow Warrior looming over us. The wreck is covered in algae, barnacles and coral. We spent about 20 minutes exploring the boat, first swimming around and then inside the ship.

The mess hall was filled with a mass of fish (who soon parted when we appeared). And while there wasn't much else to see inside the boat, it was still a great experience. There is a certain eerie feeling to swimming through an abandoned vessel where someone has died.

On the way back to Paihia, the dive boat clipped something underwater and the engine failed. The dive instructor had to radio for help and we waited for another boat to pick us up. One of the other tourists aboard was French, and jokingly suggested that he might be able to arrange for a French submarine to pick us up…

The Bay of Islands is known for its marine life: marlins, whales, penguins, dolphins and other fish. I opted for a cruise that offered a swim with the dolphins. Sure enough, a half hour into our cruise, we came across a group of dolphins swimming around some fishing boats. But since they were near fishing boats, we couldn't approach them. Another half-hour passed and we found another group of dolphins, but they had babies with them, so we couldn’t go swimming with them, either. Instead, we got to lie down over the bow of the boat and watch as the dolphins swam under us.

The largest isle in the Bay of Islands, Urupukapuka, is rich
with archaeological sites
Cape Reinga makes another great day-trip from Paihia. I took a tour up to the cape, and along the way we drove over the so-called “90 Mile Beach” (which is actually only 64 miles or 103 km long). This long stretch of beach is considered a “highway” and all the tour buses drive along it, as well as other vehicles. It’s common for drivers unfamiliar with the beach to get stuck in the sand or to be caught unawares by the incoming tide. It made for some interesting viewing!

Near the beach are enormous sand dunes that are a popular spot for sand boarding. Our tour bus provided boogie boards, and we climbed up a punishing steep dune. Then we lay down on the boards, pushed off and zoomed down at a frightening pace.

After lunch, we reached dramatic Cape Reinga, “the place of leaping” in Maori mythology. Here, the spirits of the dead are believed to leap off the land and climb down the roots of an ancient tree to descend into the underworld. This is also the site of a lighthouse and provides spectacular ocean views.

The Bay of Islands is within close distance of Waipoua Forest, which contains Tane Mahuta (meaning “Lord of the Forest”) ? the biggest living Kauri tree in New Zealand. This giant is 167 feet (51 m) high, has a circumference of 45 feet (13.8 m), is estimated to be about 2,000 years old and was worshipped as a god by the local Maoris. The Kauri trees are remnants of the ancient subtropical rainforest and were once prized for their beautiful, strong wood. Over 99 percent of them were chopped down. There are several projects underway to replenish their numbers.

The nearby town of Kawakawa boasts the first building in the Southern Hemisphere designed by Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000). It’s not the grand structure you’d expect. It’s a public toilet! Still, it's one of the most interesting public toilets you’ll ever see, sporting the same unusual curves and colors that Hundertwasser is renowned for.

There are many other activities that can be undertaken from the Bay of Islands. Beautiful walks, waterfalls and scenic cruises are all possibilities. So, if you arrive in Auckland, make sure to go north before you head down south!

If You Go
Bay of Islands
Bay of Islands Travel Guide
New Zealand's Information Network
New Zealand Tourism Board
Tourism New Zealand