Islands in Auckland
The sparkling, sheltered waters of the Hauraki Gulf are sprinkled with islands of all sizes. Many can be visited by ferry for the day and a handful of those come with overnight accommodation. Each has its own character and unique attractions, so here's an introduction to the top Auckland islands, to help you find your perfect escape.
Before travelling to one of the conservation islands, check your bags and belongings for stowaway pests, such as rodents, ants and other insects. Also, clean your footwear before boarding the ferry to avoid bringing unwanted seeds and soil diseases to the island. When you arrive on a pest-free island, you may be met by rangers to recheck your gear.
Explore Waiheke Island beaches, cafés and wineries
Once home to farmers, artists and alternative lifestylers, Waiheke Island is now a thriving visitor destination and an internationally recognised wine region with more than 25 vineyards. The introduction of fast ferry services opened the island up to day-trippers and resident commuters. They're drawn to the island's beach-focussed, arty, foodie and environmentally-aware lifestyle.
Waiheke has a wonderful array of things to see and do, from winery tours and award-winning restaurants to white-sand beaches and coastal walks. Most of the shops, cafés, restaurants and popular beaches are on the western half of the island, nearest to the ferry terminal. Oneroa, the main town on Waiheke Island, is a bustling village set above a beautiful north-facing sandy beach. Further east is Palm Beach and the white sands of Onetangi. Beyond that there's a long loop road around the eastern end of the island. This route passes Stoney Batter Reserve, a historic walk with spectacular views from a series of impressive WW2 gun emplacements.
Ferries to Waiheke depart regularly from Auckland's CBD ferry terminal and Devonport. The pleasant 40-minute trip passes several islands of the inner Hauraki Gulf. From the Waiheke terminal, public bus services, taxis, tour operators, and car and bike hire operators can carry you off to the island experiences that most appeal to you.
Step back in time on Aotea/Great Barrier Island
Lying 100km northeast of downtown Auckland on the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf, Aotea/Great Barrier Island, known locally as 'the Barrier' is the fourth largest in New Zealand's main island chain. Historically a source of minerals and timber, today more than two-thirds of the island is set aside as a public-access conservation park. Visiting this wonderfully relaxed and natural island is like stepping back in time. The ocean-facing east coast is known for high cliffs and beautiful white-sand surf beaches, while the west coast is home to fiord-like coves and sheltered sandy bays popular with boaties. The mountainous centre of the island is covered in native forest; the highest peak, Hirakimata (Mount Hobson), rises to 621m above sea level.
Walking and hiking trails range from 30 minutes to several days and carry you through spectacular landscapes with panoramic views. There's even one trail - Kaitoke Hot Springs Track - that leads to geothermally-heated pools. Fishing and diving around the Barrier are legendary and local charter operators will get you to the best spots. With a resident population of less than a thousand and no street lights or public electricity supply, Great Barrier is the only recognised Dark Sky Sanctuary island in the world. The stargazing here is truly amazing and local Dark Sky Ambassadors run guided evenings to help you learn more about the galaxies, stars and planets.
Aotea Great Barrier Island is a 30 minute flight or 4.5 hour ferry trip from Auckland. Accommodation ranges from backpacker lodges, B&Bs and bookable private holiday homes to motels and luxury lodges. There's no public transport on the island, but there are taxis, shuttles and passenger transport operators, as well as car, scooter and e-bike hire companies. In summer, the number of people on the island quadruples, so it pays to book accommodation, flights and transport well in advance.
Climb and explore Rangitoto Island
Emerging from the sea only 600 years ago, Rangitoto is the youngest island in the Hauraki Gulf and the closest to downtown Auckland. Almost perfectly symmetrical, its gently sloping volcanic cone is 5km wide and 260m high. Landing on Rangitoto is like stepping onto another planet. Remarkably, native ferns and trees have thrived on this rocky volcanic landscape and the island is now home to New Zealand's largest pōhutukawa forest, resplendent in red flowers during summer.
Managed by the Department of Conservation, Rangitoto is a predator-free sanctuary with a flourishing bird life. The most popular walking track leads up through the lava fields to the summit, which takes about an hour. From there the views extend in every direction, providing great photos of the city, North Shore beaches and other islands in the Hauraki Gulf. It's a great place for a picnic lunch. Near the summit the track passes lava tunnels or caves, which you can explore if you bring a torch. A four-wheel drive train provides another option for exploring the island. Departing from the ferry wharf, it stops near the top, where there's a boardwalk and steps to the summit.
No one lives on Rangitoto, there's no shop or café and, apart from a few rentable historic baches, no accommodation. It's a wonderful day-trip destination that begins with a 25-minute ferry ride departing from the downtown terminal and some sailings stopping at Devonport on the way.
Go birdwatching on Tiritiri Matangi Island
Only 30km from downtown Auckland and 4km east of Whangaparaoa Peninsula, Tiritiri Matangi is remarkable island wildlife sanctuary that's open to the public. From 1902 to 1971, the island was leased from the government and operated as a private farm, an exercise that left very little native vegetation. Today, two-thirds of the island is covered in native forest, thanks to the efforts of countless volunteers. The island has also been cleared of predator mammals, so that endangered bird species can flourish.
Now managed by the Department of Conservation and the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi organisation, the island welcomes more than 20,000 visitors a year. Knowledgeable volunteers provide 90-minute small-group guided tours that you can book in advance. You're also free to roam the island self-guided. There are several well-marked walking trails that range from 30 minutes to three hours. The views are magnificent and two of the beaches are perfect for a swim. Most of the birds on the island are quite used to visitors. With no fear of predators, they'll flit about, rest, bathe and feed remarkably close to you and your camera.
Tiritiri Matangi is also home to New Zealand's oldest working lighthouse. Close to the lighthouse there's a visitor centre with complimentary tea and coffee, a gift shop that sells cold drinks and a shared bunkhouse you can book (well in advance) for an overnight stay. Wednesday to Sunday and on public holidays, the ferry departs in the morning from the Auckland CBD terminal from, then returns from the island in the afternoon. The trip takes 75 minutes, stopping at Gulf Harbour on the Whangaparaoa Peninsula each way.
Follow Governor Grey's footsteps on Kawau Island
At 8km long and 5km wide, Kawau is one of the larger islands of the Haruaki Gulf. It's about 8km by ferry or water taxi from Sandspit Wharf, which is east of Warkworth and just over an hour north of Auckland by car.
Kawau's unique character rests on the historic shoulders of Sir George Grey, who owned the island from 1862 to 1888. Within the sheltered haven of beautiful Bon Accord Harbour, which almost bisects the island, there are many picturesque bays. The most remarkable is Mansion House Bay. Here you can tour Sir George Grey's stately home, then stroll along the road that his carriage (pulled by two zebras!) used to take. While the zebra that Grey introduced weren't especially happy on the island, the monkeys did so well they had to be eradicated. Notable legacies of Grey's obsession are peacocks, wallabies and kookaburras. It's hard to miss the peacocks, because they strut around Mansion House Bay like they own the place. But the wallabies, which were a threat to native flora and fauna, are now all but gone from the island. Some wallabies were returned to Australia where their particular species had become rare and endangered.
From the historic coach road, a track leads to the picturesque ruins of a seashore copper mine - the oxidised copper colours are truly amazing. Another great Kawau walk is the Redwood Track, which reveals an interesting collection of exotic trees planted by Grey - redwoods, Australian bush cherry and bunya-bunya pines, to name just a few. A visit to the yacht club bar across the harbour will help you to connect with the island's own brand of hospitality.
Kawau Cruises ferries depart from Sandspit Wharf mid-morning daily. Prior bookings are required. The return trip departs from Mansion House mid-afternoon. There's a café at Mansion House Bay, but the opening dates and times vary - check ahead or bring a picnic lunch. One of the cruises, the Royal Mail Run, offers an optional BBQ lunch on board the ferry.
Discover history and conservation on Rotoroa Island
Rotoroa Island is off the eastern end of Waiheke Island and a 75-minute fast ferry ride from downtown Auckland. For 100 years the island was closed to the public and operated as a Salvation Army rehabilitation centre for drug and alcohol addiction. Today it's an open wildlife sanctuary and home to endangered native species, including kiwi, takahē, pāteke (brown teal), tīeke (saddleback) and skinks. At 80 hectares, Rotoroa Island is a perfect size to explore in a day. You can also stay overnight in bookable accommodation to take full advantage of the island's walks and beaches.
Several loop tracks make it easy to choose a walk that suits. Most have spectacular views and sheltered picnic spots. There are beautiful sandy beaches along the way that are ideal for a swim or a relaxing nap. To learn more about the island's wildlife and natural beauty, you can book a highly-rated 90-minute guided nature walk with a ranger. At the modern museum and exhibition centre, you'll discover fascinating stories of the island's interesting history and the people who made it all possible. You can also explore the original 1860s schoolhouse, jail and butchery.
A ferry to Rotoroa departs from the CBD ferry terminal every day in summer and on weekends during winter. The ferry stops at the Orapiu on the eastern end of Waiheke along the way, so it's possible to connect with Rotoroa from Waiheke Island. A drinking water fountain is available on the island, but there's no shop or café and day-visitors need to take their rubbish with them when they leave. Rotoroa's bookable accommodation consists of three and four-bedroom homes, plus a large 18-bunk shared hostel-style house.
Motutapu Island, which is joined to Rangitoto Island by a causeway, is a mosaic of protected archaeological and historic sites. There are more than 300 Māori sites recorded on the island, including the Sunde site on the western coast, where footprints of humans and dogs have been preserved in layers of volcanic ash from the Rangitoto eruption. Motutapu was an important part of Auckland's defence network during WWII. Historic military sites include a major gun battery, army barracks, underground ammunition stores and bunkers.
Motutapu means 'Sacred Island', and it's preparing to become New Zealand's largest island conservation park. Home to a working farm, some of the island's pastoral scenery is being slowly transformed into coastal native forest. At the same time, the cultural landscape - created by Māori, early settlers and military operations - is being protected and interpreted.
A network of easy walking tracks links historic and natural places of interest. The tracks lead over farm pastures and through regenerating native forest, allowing you to discover birdlife, native trees, Māori pā (fort) sites, historic homesteads, military sites and delightful beaches. The longest trail is a loop around the island that takes 4.5 hours. At Home Bay on the eastern side of the island, there's a lovely swimming beach and a bookable camping ground with toilets but no showers.
Motutapu is a recreational reserve managed by the Department of Conservation in partnership with the Motutapu Restoration Trust. The Trust's project began in 1993, the island was declared predator-free in 2011 and more than half a million trees have been planted by volunteers, creating a young 100 hectare forest at Home Bay. Small populations of kiwi and takahē have been translocated to the island where they are thriving alongside other rare and endangered birds, as well as our more common native species.
Ferries to Motutapu's Home Bay depart on selected Sunday mornings (check timetable) from the downtown ferry terminal and stop at Devonport on the way, returning the same afternoon. Charter ferries can be booked for larger groups and there are on-demand water taxi services available from Auckland. There are no cafés on Motutapu or Rangitoto, so pack a picnic in hard, sealed containers and bring plenty of water.