Rakiura/Stewart Island is the third-largest island in New Zealand. It lies 30km (19mi) south of the South Island and only has one town to its name: Oban, which lies on the eastern side of the island in Halfmoon Bay. Stewart Island is home to unique wildlife, stunning natural features and epic walking and hiking routes.
While Stewart Island is one of the largest islands, Waiheke Island is New Zealand’s most densely populated. This picturesque destination is also the second-largest island in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf and the most accessible – you can easily catch a ferry and reach Waiheke in 40 minutes. The island is a popular day trip and wedding and honeymoon destination because of its stunning vineyards and picturesque beaches.
Kapiti Island is where the coast, shrubland and native forestry come together in perfect harmony. It’s 5km (3mi) outside the western shores of the lower North Island and is home to two protected conservation sites with various native birds, marine animals and critically endangered species. Its proximity to Wellington has made the island a popular tourist site – particularly for birdwatchers; however, daily visitor numbers are capped to protect the local environment.
Famously the first place in the world to welcome the New Year, the Chatham Islands comprise 10 islands within a 60km (37mi) radius. The two largest islands, Chatham and Pitt, are the only ones inhabited; most of the other islands have restricted access or are completely off-limits. You can fly in from Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington to immerse yourself in a hilly showcase of shrubbery, photogenic beaches, dunes and epic lagoons.
Aotea/Great Barrier Island is the largest island in the Hauraki Gulf. As with Waiheke, passenger ferries departing from downtown Auckland will take you to the island. Its eastern shores feature high cliffs and awe-inspiring surf beaches, while the western side is best known for its serene, sheltered bays. Native forestry is another major asset, and you’ll find several walking tracks around the island that are worth exploring.
Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island is home to New Zealand’s first nature reserve, established in 1896. Its importance to local conservation efforts means that access to the pest-free island is highly restricted. If you want to visit, you’ll need to get a special permit from the Department of Conservation before you’re allowed to embark on an approved commercial charter that will transport you to the island. Little Barrier lies 80km (50mi) north of Auckland and is a good place for birdwatching, diving and snorkelling.
Named after French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville, this picturesque island lies the Marlborough Sounds. Natural remoteness is a strong part of the island’s appeal. Here, you can immerse yourself in various nature-based activities, such as diving, snorkelling, cycling, walking and marine wildlife spotting.
Motu Ihupuku/Campbell Island is part of a subantarctic Unesco World Heritage site 700km (435mi) south of the South Island. It is the main island among the Campbell Islands, which are surrounded by various rock formations and islets – the most well known are Dent Island, Folly Island and the Isle de Jeanette Marie. Campbell Island is steep, rocky and surrounded by cliffs and is also home to several endemic birds, including the Campbell Island teal and snipe, both of which are critically endangered.
Rangitoto Island and its young volcano are among Auckland’s most recognisable natural landmarks. The island, which emerged from the sea just 600 years ago, is a short ferry ride from the city and a favourite spot for those wanting to go hiking and participate in water sports. Sea kayaking, birdwatching and walking up Rangitoto’s summit are some of the island’s most popular activities.
Poor Knights Islands are off the Tutukaka Coast in the North Island’s Northland region. They’re the remnants of some ancient volcanoes that have been moulded into a spectacular network of underwater caves, arches, tunnels and cliffs. Diving and snorkelling are the island’s main activities; indeed, the sea surrounding the islands has been a marine reserve since 1981, thanks to its incredible biodiversity.
Enderby Island is one of the Auckland Islands, a subantarctic New Zealand territory that sits 465km (290mi) south of the South Island. Just north of Auckland Island (the largest in the archipelago), it’s notable for its fauna. Enderby is a key nesting site for endemic seabird species such as the Auckland shag, teal and snipe, as well as being an excellent place to spot New Zealand sea lions, brown skua, northern giant petrels and yellow-eyed penguins.
Matakana Island is a long, flat island that borders the Western Bay of Plenty’s Tauranga Harbour. Even though it’s 20km (12mi) in length, the island is fairly narrow – only 3km (2mi) wide. Conservation is a significant part of Matakana Island’s operations. You’ll find hundreds of indigenous plant species in the area, and the surf side of the coastlines are known for being a prime nesting location for various native seabirds.
Whakaari/White Island is New Zealand’s only active marine volcano. It sits 48km (30mi) off the North Island’s east coast in the Bay of Plenty region and is as much a place of interest for scientists as it is a popular tourist attraction. Dramatic geothermal beauty aside, the island’s surrounding waters are another notable asset. Here, divers can marvel at the underwater steam vents and resident marine critters, while avid fishers will have plenty of opportunities to cast a line during specialised chartered boat tours.
Venture slightly beyond White Island to meet the lesser-known gem that is Moutohorā/Whale Island. It’s a remnant of an eroded volcano and home to several endangered native plants, birds, marine mammals and lizards. It is considered a protected nature reserve, and access is highly restricted. Similar to Little Barrier Island, only a small selection of approved boat operators can take you to Moutohorā.
Matiu/Somes Island, the largest island in northern Wellington Harbour, is presently a scientific and historical reserve. In the past, it has served as a military defence point, a human and animal quarantine station and an internment camp – you can still see the historic remains of its colourful past by walking around the area’s main loop track. A scheduled ferry service runs from Wellington to Matiu/Somes Island seven days a week, making this an ideal spot for an island-based day trip.