What to do under the world's second-bluest sky.

By Carrie Mullins
Updated June 13, 2017
Bay of Islands
Credit: © Getty Images/Image Source

One hundred and forty-four islands dot the waters off the far north-western coast of New Zealand. This area, which was first settled by the Māori over seven hundred years ago, was fittingly named the Bay of Islands by Captain Cook in 1769.

Because it’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Auckland and not at all on the way to other popular destinations, the Bay of Islands doesn’t make it onto most foreign tourists' itineraries. It should; the landscape is gorgeous, a 2006 study found that the area has the second bluest sky in the world (after Rio de Janeiro), and despite the relative quiet, there is plenty to do, see and eat.

There are three lovely towns to visit in the Bay of Islands—KeriKeri, Paihia, and Russell—each steeped in Māori and early colonial history. Still, most activities take place in the Bay, which sees a constant flotilla of fishing boats, kayaks, yachts, and parasails zooming across its turquoise waters. The focus is also on the sea when it comes time to eat, which makes a refreshing change from the lamb-heavy menus found across the rest of the country.

From lunch amidst the vines of a working vineyard to dinner in a historic whaling tavern, here are seven excellent stops on a brief tour of the Bay of Islands.

The Duke of Marlborough Hotel & Tavern

food from duke
Credit: © Carrie Mullins

The ferry from Paihia to the tiny, charming town of Russell (population: 800) takes about fifteen minutes and docks in sight of a white, two-story house fronted by a colonnaded veranda. This is the Duke of Marlborough, the oldest licensed hotel in New Zealand. The Duke has seen various owners since it was first opened by ex-con Johnny Johnston as a whaler’s grog shop in 1827, but the most recent upgrade in 2010 to both the hotel and kitchen has ensured its place as one of the best establishments in the Bay. If the weather is nice—and it almost invariably is—take a seat outside to listen to live music while sipping on a glass of wine from the Duke’s extensive cellar. The restaurant’s elevated bistro menu emphasizes New Zealand-grown ingredients with dishes like grilled Hawkes Bay lamb ($32NZ) and oven roasted Far North Hapuka, a flaky white fish served with salsa verde made from Kawakawa, a slightly bitter, native green plant ($33NZ). theduke.co.nz

The Gables Restaurant

gable octopus
Credit: © Carrie Mullins

Like its neighbor The Duke of Marlborough, The Gables is proud of its part in Russell’s bawdier history. The building was constructed in 1847 and functioned at various times as a brothel and a hiding place for fleeing sailors. Though recently renovated, the restaurant has retained its historic details, from the original wooden floors to the large mantled fireplace. In addition to an a la carte menu there is a three-course Taste of Northland menu ($70NZ) that features dishes such as free-range Northland pork with kumara or whole local snapper, filleted tableside and served with a light citrus beurre blanc. The wine pairing is a nice way to sample Northland vineyards like Omaha Bay and Mahurangi River Winery. thegablesrestaurant.co.nz

Ake Ake Vineyard

Located five miles outside of KeriKeri, this is the only certified organic vineyard north of Auckland. You can taste Ake Ake’s range of wines, from a traditional Sauvignon Blanc to the more unique Chambourcin, at the vineyard’s Cellar Door. If possible, stay for lunch at the restaurant. The tables are set amidst the vines, and the chef uses ingredients grown in the vineyard’s own gardens. akeakevineyard.co.nz

Ti Bay Takeaways

take away
Credit: © Carrie Mullins

A favorite of locals and backpackers alike, Ti Bay Takeaways in Paihia is little more than a counter and a deep-fryer—but it’s the place to go if you want cheap, freshly fried fish and chips served mere meters from the ocean. For $7.50 NZ, you’ll get two pieces of whitefish coated in a shatteringly crisp batter and a pile of golden French fries, all wrapped to go in light brown paper. Going on a fishing trip? Bring in your catch and they’ll fry it for you on the spot. Crn Davis Crescent, Paihia 0200

Provenir Cuisine & Cellar

Credit: © Carrie Mullins

New Zealand chefs are having a moment with modernist dining, making it hard to go to an upscale restaurant and avoid foams, gels, and hyper-tweezed plates. As the most ambitious restaurant in the generally casual Paihia dining scene, Provenir follows suit with carefully arranged dishes, but luckily the chef doesn’t sacrifice flavor for aesthetics. The tasting menu ($100 NZ) elevates simple local ingredients, like thinly sliced Akaroa salmon served with horseradish and citrus fruit, or a delicate Kerikeri Inlet flounder served with smoked corn and a Sauternes verjus. 130 Marsden Rd, Paihia 0200

Alongside Bar

Set on a small pier that extends out over the bay, this open-air bar is a great place to sip a craft beer or cocktail while watching the sailboats glide by. Alongside is close to the ferries and also makes a good choice for lunch, serving seafood-focused comfort foods like snapper sliders, Green Lipped mussels in coconut milk, and beer-battered Orongo Bay oysters. alongside35.co.nz

Paihia Beach Resort & Spa

Each room in this small but well-appointed boutique hotel has hardwood floors, large spa baths, and views over the ocean. Despite being across the street from the beach, it’s hard to resist the hotel’s own pool area with its salt-water pool, five hot tubs, and access to on-site restaurant Provenir’s wine list. paihiabeach.co.nz