Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, is the self-titled City of Sails because of its harbour and impressive boat-per-capita ratio. Any day the sun is shining or there is a breath of wind, the harbour will be dotted with sails and lined with wake as boats are taken out. Thousands of people, unlucky enough to be missing out, will look to the water with envy as they continue their daily commute to the grey drudgery of their normal lives. It is worth getting out on the water just to provide inspiration for such envy.
The harbour has a number of islands, each unique and interesting; with hiking trails, beaches, museums, wineries and some of New Zealand’s diverse wildlife there is something for almost everyone. If you are visiting Auckland, I recommend getting out of the city and visiting one or more of these amazing islands.
The Young Volcano: Rangitoto Island
Rangitoto Island is one of Auckland’s iconic sights. You can’t miss it unless you lock yourself in a room and adamantly refuse to look to the east for the duration of your trip.
Rangitoto literally means ‘Sky Blood’. When I first learned this I thought it was a poetic description of lava erupting into the sky. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and is instead named for where Tama-te-kapua, a great Maori captain, was injured and defeated in battle.
There are a few ways to get to the island. The easy way is by ferry from Auckland or Devonport. The not-so-easy way is by kayak from Mission Bay, which will take you around two hours assuming the weather is being nice. If you are a sailor, you can sail over yourself, assuming you have a boat. Pay attention around the Rangitoto Channel as container ships usually beat yachts in games of Chicken.
Once on the island, there are two ways to get to the summit. You can walk the trail to the top, which is my recommendation for anyone who is able. Alternatively, you can take the 4WD train up the road, which feels like cheating unless you’re physically unable to walk, or are travelling with a small child who, in the nature of small children, will want to be carried after the first 50 metres despite promising to walk the entire way. At the summit, you can rest your weary legs and be rewarded with 360 degree views of the harbour and the always impressive sight of the volcanic crater.
If you have time, or aren’t interested in seeing the summit, there are different walks around the lower parts of the island. If you are the kind of person who likes dark holes in the ground where anything could happen (have you seen The Descent?), there are lava caves on the island, so remember to take along a torch to go explore.
It is important to note, there is nothing on the island, so you need to take everything over yourself. That includes food, water, sunscreen, shoes and, if you’re the sort who is always late for ferries, something to huddle under through a cold and lonely night. I joke, but seriously here’s a site for water taxis, just in case.
Motutapu, the Sacred Island
Close to Rangitoto, Motutapu is accessible via an artificial causeway built during WWII and is almost completely different in character. The full name Te Motutapu a Taikehu means the Sacred Island of Taikehu, who was a Maori holy man of the Tainui iwi, one of the local tribes.
The island was extensively inhabited by Maori until the sudden, and likely unappreciated, appearance of its volcanic neighbour, which wiped most of them out. In the nature of humans, people soon returned and found the volcanic ash made quite a good fertiliser and thus farming continued.
There are hiking trails on Motutapu and a campground run by the Department of Conservation. Remnants of World War II bunkers and several archaeological sites are dotted around the island. Some rather aggressive pest eradication programs have been in operation on both Motutapu and Rangitoto, and if you are up for it, there are volunteer programs aiming to help restore the native forests and wetlands.
Keep an eye out for tieke, the saddleback. It is a small black bird with fleshy, red wattles hanging down either side of the beak, and a coppery patch on its back which, unsurprisingly, resembles a saddle. They’re very rare and Motutapu is one of a few places you may see them in the wild.
Island of Wine: Waiheke
Waiheke has been home to actors, musicians, poets and writers; basically populated by a bunch of island hippies. Over recent years, more ‘townies’ have started moving to Waiheke, choosing to commute into the city via ferry than face the parking lots of the Auckland motorway system. While this has chased the eccentric of Waiheke’s residents to the more isolated Great Barrier Island, the laid back attitude of the locals still thrives.
During more recent years, Waiheke has also become one of Auckland’s award winning wine regions, giving it the nickname the Island of Wine, and it is home to enough wineries for a normal person to spend a decent amount of time well sloshed trying to visit them all. Given the wineries are often relatively small, the wine can be on the expensive side. Still, if you’re a wine lover, you can easily stumble your way around a few of them before finding a deck chair somewhere sunny for an afternoon nap.
Outside of the wineries, there are the normal things one can do on holiday in New Zealand. Hiking along beautiful tracks or horse riding to isolated beaches. There is diving, camping, a zip line and all the art tutorials you could possibly wish for.
Waiheke is the most populated island in the Auckland Harbour and the most commonly visited. It is also easily accessible given the regular passenger and car ferries throughout the day.
The Wildlife Sanctuary: Tiritiri Matangi Island
As with Motutapu and Rangitoto, Tiritiri Matangi has undergone pest eradication and restoration of native forest, before becoming an open ecological reserve. It is now home to a number of New Zealand’s endangered animals including species of birds, lizards and one variety of New Zealand’s giant weta. A weta, if you haven’t had the pleasure, resembles a fat, brown grasshopper with the addition of body armour and spiky shin guards. They are very passive, but seem to elicit screams and shudders every time they get close enough for a hug.
Tiritiri Matangi is a nature lover’s dream and a bird watcher’s paradise. Not only will you be surrounded by stunning forest scenery, it is one of the few places in the world where you may spot some of New Zealand’s precious and precariously endangered birds.
Among them, the takahē was once thought to be extinct. For 50 years the birds had not been seen, until a search was conducted in the Murchison Mountains and a small population was discovered. Since then, they have clawed their way back from extinction. Not an easy task for monogamous birds.
Take the ferry over from Auckland Ferry Building or Devonport. There is a small cafe and store on the island for your lunchtime needs.
Get away from it all: Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier and Little Barrier are the outer islands in the Auckland Harbour. Great Barrier feels like one of the most untouched places in New Zealand, and if you love to get outdoors, you will have an amazing time exploring the forests, beaches, coves, swimming holes, hot pools and waterfalls. There is excellent surfing and diving on Great Barrier as well.
Be aware that Great Barrier runs on generator and solar power, so you may not get to stand in a long, hot shower for half an hour, but this is a small price to pay for such an interesting place. Great Barrier really showcases some the camping and hiking available in New Zealand, particularly for those who may not have time to explore the other parts of the country.
There are a few things you definitely want to take along. A torch is one of them, as when the power is turned off, the lights go off too. You’ll also need to take some cash if you want to buy anything. There is no ATM on the island. While some places accept credit card, not all do and you will need cash.
All guests are advised to watch their waste as well. As you can imagine, living on a relatively small island, whatever waste you generate will soon become a very close and personal problem.
Little Barrier Island
Little Barrier Island is a restricted area and you need a permit to land there. To get a permit, you will need to prove you can wrestle a bear, have sweet survival skills, can live on nothing but insects, and can outrun hungry velociraptors. No one really knows what is out there. No one who lands there ever comes back.
In all seriousness, Little Barrier is an ecological reserve and if you land without a permit you will be prosecuted, fined and thrown into a snake pit, which isn’t too bad considering there are no snakes in New Zealand.
It is completely pest free with the exception of wasps. Even the introduction of ants can have a massive impact on the ecosystem of this island. Do not go there without a permit. For details on how to apply for a permit, visit this site.
Further north is Kawau Island, a beautiful island with nice walking tracks, the mansion of Sir George Grey, Governor of New Zealand and a retired copper mine. While it lacks the established interesting points of the other islands, it also lacks the small hoards of visitors. If you are in the area, heading north, then it is a nice place to spend a pleasant afternoon.
Ferries regularly run to Kawau from Sandspit Wharf, east of Warkworth.
All of this is available in the Auckland Harbour. While Auckland itself may seem like just another small city, these islands provide such diversity you can always find something to do, other than sitting around sipping flat whites and listening to people talk about rugby.
Remember, on all of the islands, please check your bags for stowaways, like plant seeds, insects, animals, and misbehaving children who can ruin the islands for everyone.
Much love and happy travels.