The Bay of Islands is famous and rightly so. Paihia is the centre of tourism here and a great base for most activities. Russell across the harbour is the oldest European settlement in New Zealand and a bit harder to get to – either by a twisty coastal road from north of Whangarei, by passenger ferry from Paihia or car ferry from Opua – either way, it’s definitely worth it, one of the prettiest waterfronts in the country! Kerikeri north of the bay is an affluent area with many orchards and lifestyle properties, with some of New Zealand’s oldest houses, it is a bit removed from the Bay of Islands but set on a scenic river, with plenty of other sights like the impressive Rainbow Falls.
If you’d like to avoid the mass tourism side of the Bay of Islands and intend to boycott the cruises and activities you’ll actually miss out on the best things here, the most spectacular aspect of the bay really is being out on the water, cruising to the big Hole in the Rock, seeing or even swimming with dolphins on the way and seeing or walking on those amazing islands in the bay.
You can book some highly rewarding activities like a Maori canoe expedition to the Haruru Falls.