I’m all about finding my own fun while traveling—and at a low cost.
Part of deviating is looking for ways to explore a new place without paying for a tour guide to show you around. Sometimes self-guided tours take you to unique places that turn out to be just as good as the tours or better!
This was the case the day Jonathan and I arrived in Paihia in Northland New Zealand. We had a whole day free to fill with whatever we chose.
So we went snorkeling in the Bay of Islands on our own for just $20 each. Here’s how.
Getting to Paihia
Jonathan, or Jono for short, and I were heading North from Auckland. It was just the two of us.
A few hours earlier, I had given Carolina a huge squeeze and watched her, once again, walk away to continue on the rest of her journey.
We had dropped her off at Auckland airport. She was on her way to Fiji while Jono and I were heading for Paihia in the Northland region of New Zealand’s North Island.
I had been waiting to go on a Northland road trip since my first week in New Zealand when I was driving around with Harry, the German. We had ran out of time on our two week North Island adventure to give Northland the time it deserves.
Now Jono and I had the opportunity to explore it to its fullest.
I had adopted Jono into my travel plans after keeping in close contact with him ever since we met in Napier. He had showed me free-diving in Hawke’s Bay and prepared an awesome seafood feast for me and Harry.
Lucky for me, our travel plans happened to align. Carolina and I were in Auckland at the same time as he was in the area for a wedding. With the next few weeks off from his job in Napier, he was ready for some Northland fun!
Driving up the Eastern coast, we stopped in many small seaside towns with adorable boats anchored in small harbors, views of islands off the coastline, and tons of sea birds and seashells.
As a boater and beach bum, I was loving every minute. Northland was already proving to be a water-lover’s dream.
Paihia and the Bay of Islands
We eventually made it to Paihia and immediately looked into booking a couple of SCUBA dives. Paihia Dive couldn’t fit us in until the next day.
No problem! We’d just find something to do today.
Paihia is a major tourist destination for locals and foreigners. It’s loaded with visitors seeking to do all sorts of water-related activities: swimming at the beaches, glass bottom boat rides, diving lessons, snorkeling excursions, dolphin and whale watching, parasailing, etc. You name it—they probably have it.
What caught my eye were boats carrying passengers to some of the remote islands in the bay.
After all, this was the Bay of Islands with its 144 islands to visit and feast your eyes upon. We couldn’t miss an opportunity to get out onto at least one of the islands!
A cheap water taxi
The largest of the Bay of Islands is Urupukapuka (man, I love these Maori names!!). It’s located about 4.5 miles out from Paihia and it’s easily accessible by water taxi.
The best part? It was only $20 for a round trip ticket to Urupukapuka and back.
We could spend the entire day there for so little! Meanwhile boat and snorkel tours run upwards of $100 in the Bay of Islands.
Water taxis around the Bay of Islands are really cool. Some are just regular people moving boats and others are yellow like a New York cab but spaceship-like and completely enclosed with glass windows.
On the way there, the captain of the water taxi gave everyone on board some tips about the island. There were options for guided or self-guided hiking, there’s a café, kayak rentals, and plenty of white-sand beaches and bays for swimming. Basically it’s the perfect island getaway and a relaxation haven.
But Jono and I came prepared for our own self-guided activities.
Jono is an experienced free diver (no-tank diving). He was eager to get in the water with his mask, snorkel, and fins for some easy, clear-water diving.
Meanwhile, I had rented a mask and snorkel at a discount ($10) from the place we’d be diving with the next day.
We were all set for some self-guided snorkeling and diving in Cable Bay.
Landing on the island, I immediately noticed how lush and green the fields and hills of this island were. There are sheep farms in operation on Urupukapuka, though—meaning there is poop hidden in all that beautiful greenish-yellow grass. Typical New Zealand!
We took in stunning 360-degree views and passed ancient Maori grave sites on the short hike over to Cable Bay from the taxi drop-off.
Aside from the occasional sheep droppings, this place is paradise!
We found campers on the beach at Cable Bay. Apparently, campers pay $10 a night to stay there.
If I could plan a bigger trip with bigger money—I’d definitely book this spot to camp in advance. It’s the island life at its best.
We asked a couple who looked like they had been camping there for a month to watch our few belongings as we waded into the water.
The bay was surprisingly chilly. But soon we were getting a workout swimming out into the bay and around the corner to a secluded area. Jono was diving under as I meandered along the surface watching him.
Observing someone free-dive is like watching a human seal or dolphin or something. Strangely graceful.
The area is a reserve, so Jono couldn’t hunt for fish there. He was only there to explore, as was I.
A few times he called me down to the sea floor. We never swam deeper than maybe 4 meters. I was able to come down to him and view what he pointed at, but quickly had to return to the surface.
While he can stay under for over 3 minutes, my breath-holding skills are a little less practiced.
The sea was full of all kinds of fish, anemones, and kelp. There were tons of snapper and lots of kina! Kina is super spiny and inedible-looking but it’s a native food favorite! Jono had cracked some open and served it at the feast he prepared in Napier, so when he pulled one up from the bottom to show me I recognized it. Yum!
The best part was spotting an enormous sting ray! Probably a meter wide, this thing fluttered along the bottom beneath me. Jono dove down to greet it and it fluttered away a little faster.
I spotted another one later on but never snapped a photo as good as this one Jono got for me while diving down to it.
A day well spent
Most of our day had been spent swimming, diving, and snorkeling around Cable Bay. We could have done it for longer but the chill of the water did eventually get to us.
We gathered our items off the beach and hiked back up and over to the water taxi dock. On the way, the sun was beginning to set, creating shaded islands amidst sparkling sunlit waters.
We were looking forward to our booked SCUBA diving tour the next day, but today proved you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have an awesome time in the Bay of Islands.
Urupukapuka Island snorkeling was a day well spent—and a cheap one at that!