This bush-covered beauty is an island like no other, as Elisabeth Easther discovered recently.
The ferry trip to Great Barrier proved to be quite an adventurous start to our weekend. As we set off at 8 o'clock one stormy Friday morning - clouds slung low, the sea unsettled - the captain informed us we were heading into 35-knot south-easterlies that were whipping up 3-5m swells.
"It's going to be a bit lumpy," he warned, which is the polite way of saying "rough as guts".
And yes, there was a fair bit of shuddering and juddering, but the proffered sick bags were not required.
Relieved to make landfall, we navigated the narrow, sometimes perilous, roads, admiring avenues of gnarled pohutukawa, their boughs a guard of honour above our heads.
Going to Great Barrier is like being transported to another world, another time. I especially loved the shacks and baches that looked like holiday homes from my childhood.
You can find creature comforts on Great Barrier, but the good old ways, corrugated and recycled, are never far away. The greenery here is lovely, too, a splendid combination of native and old-fashioned colonial planting. Manuka and kanuka rub along beside magnolias and hydrangeas and, despite the rough buffeting the island often receives, plenty of growing is going on.
Great Barrier Lodge, the former mill manager's house, has been taking guests since 1922 when it was on the other side of the bay. Hosts Archie and Erica ensure guests feel right at home and the beds, linen, views, facilities and picture postcard bay all combined to win us over. But time was of the essence.
Saturday morning started with a dawn expedition to Medlands Beach for a slice of sunrise. Climbing Memory Hill with a flask of tea, we sat, sipped and gazed out to sea, our smiles as wide as the ocean. When the sun was up and the tea all drunk, we made for Kaitoke's sweeping white sands where ours were the only footprints to make tracks in who knew how long.
Harataonga's coastal campsite (run by the Department of Conservation) was also a treasure. The coastal track takes you on a 30-minute loop or further afield for up to five hours. It'd be wise to keep your bird book handy.
It's fair to say all the beaches on the Barrier are delightful and we'd have stayed beside the seaside all day, but Windy Canyon was calling. If you do only one thing on the island (apart from sampling all the beaches) this walk is a corker. As the name suggests, there is a canyon, a mighty impressive one, and the breeze that blows through it will knock you off your feet if you're not firmly planted. As for the views, the trees and sturdy tracks and stairs, it's so flaming gorgeous.
Be warned, though, there are a fair few of those prettily shaped stairs to climb, so you'll need to be fit. If you're feeling super frisky, go all the way to the top of Mt Hobson, or Hirakimata, which translates as "the mountain visible from a wide area".
About 60 per cent of the island is under DoC protection and they do such a good job of caring for it. Everywhere you go there are quality toilets, well-kept campgrounds and the predator-free section of the island is alive with native life.
We'd hoped to sample as many of the island's culinary delights as possible but, after our first dinner cooked by Erica, (coq au vin and garden-fresh veges) we ate at the lodge the second night, too, because it was just so easy. Erica grows mean greens, and her permaculture garden is outstanding.
Come Sunday, despite us all having offspring back home pining for us, none of us was ready to return. Pretending we had all the time in the world, we took the lodge's kayaks for a spin over to the old whaling station, the banjos of Deliverance plucking at our imaginations. We then flitted to Fairy Springs, an easy 40-minute walk through bush to a thermal pool and picnic area.
The next thing I knew, we were packed and on the 3pm ferry home. The return voyage could've been a miserable affair, but a fleet of dolphins raised our spirits, playing dodgems beneath our bowsprit, ducking and diving and putting on a show.
Great Barrier Island, you're simply divine and everyone should go there at least once. Everyone. Just not all at the same time - as that would rather spoil things.
NEED TO KNOW
Great Barrier Lodge: With a range of room options available, your hosts can arrange transfers, do dive fills and feed you like you've never been fed before.
Sealink Ferry: The crew are delightful and the facilities on board could win awards for elegance and cleanliness. And they don't charge extra for dolphins.
Elisabeth Easther was a guest of Sealink Ferry.