The Best Things to Do and See on Great Barrier Island, New Zealand

Medlands Beach is a must-see when on Great Barrier Island
Medlands Beach is a must-see when on Great Barrier Island | © John Kershaw / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Monica Evans
12 August 2020

Soak in natural hot springs hidden deep in an ancient forest, surf pristine breaks or stargaze in one of the world’s Dark Sky Sanctuaries – then sit back at a relaxed waterfront restaurant and sample scrumptious local food. Find out why Great Barrier Island (or Aotea in the indigenous Māori language) is a nature lover’s dream in this guide to the best things to see and do.

The Barrier is just a half-hour flight – on a plane little bigger than a station-wagon – from Auckland Airport, or a four-hour ferry from the central city’s Viaduct Basin (vehicles can be brought over by ferry too). But the off-grid destination feels a world away from the city’s bustle. Fewer than 1,000 people live on the 285sqkm (115sqmi) island, making plenty of space for an array of native forests and wildlife: 60% of Great Barrier is set aside as a nature reserve.

That doesn’t mean it’s a social dead-zone, though. The Barrier’s residents are remarkably creative, and the thriving community ensures winter nights stay lively. There’s a lot to love about Great Barrier Island’s unique mix of isolation and culture; read on to learn more about some of its most unmissable attractions.

Stargaze at Medlands Beach

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Great Barrier was the first island in the world to become a Dark Sky Sanctuary. This means that it was recognised by the International Dark Sky Association for the quality of its night skies, and that residents and businesses on the island have agreed to follow certain practices, such as changing out glaring blue LEDs for softer-toned bulbs to keep light pollution in check. Take a Dark Sky Tour with local company Good Heavens to get the low-down on what’s above you. “They weave in a lot of Māori stories of the night sky,” says Gendie Somerville-Ryan, a trustee of local tourism initiative Destination Aotea/Great Barrier Island. “You sit on your moon chair and you have chocolate brownies and hot chocolate and a telescope and binoculars…and of course a blanket in winter!” She says that while the sky is stunning at any time of year, the Milky Way is most spectacular from March to September.

Soak in the Kaitoke Hot Springs

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Find your own private hot pool in the middle of the forest! The Kaitoke Hot Springs is a natural river that runs through the island over a geothermal area. “So the heat of the geothermals is bubbling up through the river. It’s a beautiful experience to lie in those pools,” says Somerville-Ryan. It’s a flat, easy 45-minute walk to the pools from the road edge at Kaitoke Swamp; baby buggies will make the journey just fine, and the pools are a great spot for a picnic. The pool temperatures vary depending on how much rain has fallen in recent days, explains Somerville-Ryan, but it’s usually easy enough to find one that suits.

Cruise the island on an electric motorbike or e-bike

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Create a bespoke eco-tour on an electric motorbike or e-bike. With limited public transport and lots of secluded beaches to explore, these planet-friendly vehicles are ideal for getting to know the small but hilly island at your own pace. “There are a couple of places on the island where you can rent them: MotuBikes and Paddles & Saddles,” says Somerville-Ryan. MotuBikes delivers bikes and picks people up from all over the island; note that you will need a full driver’s licence to ride its motorbikes. As its name suggests, Paddles & Saddles – which is based near the town of Tryphena – also rents paddle boards, fishing gear, masks and snorkels.

Hike up Mount Hobson (Hirakimata)

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If the idea of hiking hills doesn’t intimidate, the three-hour walk through Windy Canyon up to the summit of Mount Hobson, the highest point on the island, comes highly recommended. “It is geologically quite special because it’s basically the edge of a volcano that exploded many years ago, so you go through some spectacular rock formations,” says Somerville-Ryan. “It’s a reasonably robust walk – it has a lot of steps at the end – but when you get to the top, you can see right over the island and right across to Auckland down through the Coromandel,” she says. There’s a tramping hut with epic views near the top to stay overnight in if you book in advance with the Department of Conservation. From the summit of Mt Hobson, return the way you’ve come, or take the Kaiaraara Track down the other side of the mountain (which will take about three more hours), and exit the park near the village of Port Fitzroy.

Surf the breaks at Okiwi, Awana and Medlands

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“Surfing is big here,” says Somerville-Ryan, “and there are several good places to go.” Okiwi, Awana and Medlands are the main breaks. According to Kiwi surfer Manu Moana, “Okiwi is a really good quality estuary bar break.” Awana and Medlands are beach breaks that offer several options as the sand bars shift around frequently. The waves here are intermittent, says Moana, and hitting the surf in an easterly or northeasterly wind is best. In summer, tropical cyclones bring the best waves, while in winter it’s best to look out for southwesterly storms. Boards can be rented from the Earth Shack at Medlands Beach. Don’t forget to bring or hire a wetsuit – the water can be chilly even in high summer.

Meet the locals at the Barrier Social Club

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Rainy day? The Barrier Social Club in Tryphena keeps the community connected by providing tasty brews, locally sourced meals and a movie night every Monday. “Right through winter, the club organises all kinds of events from darts competitions to quiz nights and poker nights,” says Somerville-Ryan. It’s a favourite haunt for locals and a likely place in which to find someone to have a yarn with (chat) about island life. The club is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 4pm until late; it’s wheelchair-accessible and pet-friendly and has gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and forest.

Eat like a local in Claris and Tryphena

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It’s expensive to import food from the mainland, so Great Barrier’s residents are particularly expert at creating and sourcing their own: there are swathes of committed organic gardeners, hunters, brewers and beekeepers providing delicious greens, wild meats, beers and honey, among other delicacies. Sample some of their delights at the regular Saturday Market at Stonewall Village in Tryphena.

These recommendations were updated on August 12, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.