New Zealand Family Sailing Holiday - Bay of Islands


Moored close to the main wharf at Paihia, the adventure began with a short trip by tender with our bags to the ‘Manawanui’ (‘The Big Heart)– the 22m steel ketches which would be our home for the 2 night and 3 day sail in the Bay of Islands. The night before we stayed in Paihia making the set departure time of 9am relaxed.

Zara Family Holiday

We had booked the trip with our children, 8 & 10 years old and were travelling with another family of five, with children aged 7, 10 & 12. Once on board, with cabins found; there are 2 double cabins and 2 rooms which are shared with 3 bunks in each with 1 main shared bathroom – (if its ensuite travel you are used to – leave those comfort expectations back on dry land – as the scenery and experience more than makes up for the close quarters). With baggage stowed, introductions made including Johns second mate Griffin – we were in for a short safety briefing before setting sail (for the record John had lost no one overboard during his 18 years as cook and captain of his yacht).

Map Sailing in the Bay of Islands

With a magnificent 15 knots of breeze, we left Paihia bobbing behind us and with curiosity piqued we wondered which island in the distance we were heading for.  The itinerary is pretty much predetermined by the weather, but John is open for suggestions – included in his repertoire of routes are the Cavalli Islands, Cape Brett, the Poor Knights and the group of small islands that make up the Bay of Islands.

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Sail in the Bay

John chose an excellent first stop off the shore of a large beach in a bay of Urupukapuka Island. Lunch seemed to appear from nowhere – fresh salads, and meats with locally sourced loaves of bread (all diets are catered for and we had a companion with an egg, fish, & gluten allergy so forewarned he can make sure you don’t miss out). Following lunch our options included hiking, swimming, snorkeling (short wetsuits, masks, fins and snorkel provided) and kayaking.  When we tired of snorkeling – Griffin would appear as if by magic and whisk us back to the yacht by tender.

This 3 hour stop set the tone for the whole trip – lots of time for relaxing and enjoying the environment, with expert knowledge about the flora, fauna and marine life. We sailed away late afternoon for the evenings' anchorage chosen for calm sheltered waters. After a delicious bbq dinner on the deck of the stern – the effects of the fresh sea air had most of us in bed early. 

The following morning – the smell of coffee wafting into my cabin woke me – a continental breakfast self serve is available from 7.30 – 8.30am. Our next mark was to be the tip of Cape Brett – where the eponymous Hole in the Rock is found. Soaring out of the ocean 148 metres tall at the northernmost tip of Cape Brett – its Maori name being Motu Kōkako, also known as Piercy Island or "The Hole In The Rock". 

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Dinner on board

It is probably the most important island in the Bay of Islands in conservation terms, being in near pristine condition; a survey in 1987 found 99 different types of flora, and two types of petrels and lizards, and no evidence of introduced animals. This rock is magnificent – we navigated around it with the children’s imaginations in overdrive describing the shape – half dog, half elephant with trunk submerged. We were trying to miss the roaring boats that depart daily from Paihia for this destination – and our timing was nearly perfect. Some of us chose to board the tender and head into the cave on the west side and then through the 18 m (60ft) `hole’, John had cleverly anchored Manawanui so we were able to line up the yacht on the other side of the entrance to the hole, for the perfect shot. 

Hole in the Rock

We left the rock and went over to the tip of Cape Brett where six of us opted to climb to the lighthouse a 15 min steep climb above for sweeping views of the Cape, the greater Bay of Islands and out to the Poor Knights Islands, 25 nautical miles away. Meanwhile, Griffin took our keen fisher friend out in the tender to try his hand at hooking a snapper, kingfish or kahawai in the deep waters off the rock, but no luck this time.

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Cape Brett

We lunched in a sheltered spot below the lighthouse and after lunch, I went with four of the children to snorkel an excellent deep water channel that cut through the tip of the peninsula. John and Griffin both snorkeled with us; with visibility in the range of 15m, we were very excited. John would retrieve spiky sea urchins (kina) from the depths and open them for us to hold as we snorkeled the surface – the children bravely held out their hands out as inquisitive bold and colorful sandagers wrasse among others darted into the gooey centre of the kina for a feed. 


Back on board we set sail for a rocky outcrop west of the Cape – we were joined by a pod of four delightful bottlenose dolphins who stayed with us for at least half an hour riding our bow wave and amazing the children and adults alike with the realization that they are mammals just like us – with no gills, they must hold their breath for each dive– the sound of the powerful single nostril right on top of the head breathing in was memorizing.  One of the reasons we headed to the rock was to see the great NZ fur seals that hang out there, heavily camouflaged – we also tried trawling for a ‘Kingi’ but again no luck (the fisher friend was blaming the full moon). 

After a few laps of trawling, we headed back towards the Cape Brett Peninsula to the only marine reserve in the Bay of Islands at Deep Water Cove. Here the snorkeling was even more spectacular. A Kingfish was spotted and several eagle rays cruised like spaceships below us. Again we hand fed kina – to pigfish, blue mau mau, sandagers wrasse and snapper.

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All this fish spotting was fueling our desire for a feed of fish.  Later that afternoon as we reached our anchorage in the Kahu Passage, our fisher friend found limited success catching a couple of Kahawai form a rocky point that Griffin had dropped him off at, which we planned to put in the fish smoker later. Those adults left on board may have indulged in a healing gin and tonic (the only item not provided on board is alcohol which is byo), or a book read in the hammock swung between the masts, whilst the kids were happy jumping from the side of the boat and some swam or kayaked to the unspoiled beach nearby (lifejackets on at all times in the kayaks was a strictly kept-to rule). 

kid on the boat

What sets the motu or islands of the Bay of Islands apart from other often-cruised locations in New Zealand is the absolute lack of dwellings, for the most part, to be found ashore. There is something quite special and soothing that comes from being in such an unblemished place. Unfortunately, the winds happened to rise up that evening so John wisely shifted us to shelter across the bay – where we admired the huge full moon that hung low in the sky.

The next morning we woke again to fresh coffee and breakfast. John returned us to the beach from the previous evening as a couple of us intended to do a walk to the top for 360-degree views of our journeys progress. It put our trip into perspective as from the hilltop we could see all the way around from Cape Brett back to Paihia – and enjoyed watching a nearby sailing regatta in progress. The fisher friend meanwhile had spectacular success with snapper caught from the same rocks as the night prior. He remarked that standing on the rocks he could see the fish darting and eagle rays cruising past – a very healthy display of marine life.

Grubs Up

John made short work of preparing the most delicious feast for our last meal on board. We dined on just caught snapper and kahawai sashimi, with both fish also as sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy, and the smoked kahawai. I had brought with me (just in case of such an event) an outstanding bottle of Clearview Estates flagship 2002 Endeavour Chardonnay that was an absolute joy of a wine match. 

Following this triumphant lunch we all took turn doing jumps and bombs off the boat – as we savoured the journey to its unavoidable end, with John kindly taking us this time to the wharf at Russell where we had a few additional nights booked. This is, without doubt, New Zealand’s best sailing adventure available.


Suzie Thorp
: 26 Feb 2019 (Last updated: 10 Mar 2020)

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