The island lives up to its reputation as one of the Gulf's most magical spots, finds Catherine Smith.
I have found the spot where I want to be buried: under the ancient pohutukawa tree, edged by a white picket fence over looking the ocean on Whangapoua Beach, Great Barrier Island.
It may be a tad inconvenient for the family - this is the most northern beach on the island reachable by road - and the good folks from the wreck of the SS Wairarapa (120 souls were lost in 1894) may have to shuffle over a bit, but the brochures aren't lying when they claim this golden empty spot as one of the most beautiful in New Zealand.
My husband and I were determined to explore every road on the island in our late summer weekender, as we'd brought our car over on the SeaLink ferry.
Even the trip itself was a delight. The sight of super-efficient engineer Johnson inching cars into every spare centimetre of the deck had German and Japanese tourists reaching for their iPhones to take videos.
Mid-way from Auckland, he then generously summoned dolphins to play along side the ferry: six cheeky adolescents cavorting with us for 20 minutes, long after mums and babies had dropped away.
So we were truly in the Barrier mood and by the end of day one, we'd drifted into Barrier time too. Already we'd missed coffee or meals at two of the most highly recommended cafes because they were closed (one, the owners were tired after a busy week(!), the second because the owners had gone to a funeral service), but we'd learned to amble on to the next spot and make our own discoveries.
We'd adopted the local custom of picking up any hitchhikers we spotted and been richly rewarded by tales from interesting travellers, including a Spanish girl who'd heard of the island magic from her European mates and whose two-day visit had stretched to the whole summer.
The permanent population of Barrier sits around 800, but in summer, Medlands Beach becomes Auckland-by-the-Sea. Apart from a camera-armed walk along that beach to inspect the famed Herbst baches (raved about as far afield as stylish international magazine Monocle and the Financial Times) we avoided our city brethren and headed for quieter stretches of coast.
We lost count at six the pristine campsites dotted around both east and west coasts. Our trip was about eating, not hiking so we didn't venture to the Department of Conservation huts through the magnificent Mt Hobson and surrounding bush tracks.
Armed with a list from Barrier regulars, we headed to dinner at Tipi and Bob's at Tryphena. Though the fish was immaculately cooked, we were irritated at the over-zealous rules that mean local catches have to go to Auckland and come back out to the island. And even more disappointed to learn that all but one of the famed Barrier mussel farms are now harvested by a Coromandel business and the shellfish no longer land on the island.
But we did manage to catch local organic produce from Okiwi farm at the teeny Saturday market outside the Tryphena store (and coffee at the sometimes-open-for-dinner Wild Rose cafe).
Best finds were the funky Burger Shack on the road to Claris, and the smartly shingled shed on Port Fitzroy wharf. The buffet dinner at the famous-on-the-Barrier Angsana Thai restaurant had deeply satisfying flavours - complete with Thai herbs from the garden - from Wan Pen Mendoza, with cheerful service from her husband Dennis.
But really, we could have just as happily stayed put at our B&B, the Shoal Bay Estate.
Owners Francis and Val have restored an old family property and relocated from their farm in Rodney to pamper guests with right-on-the-water sea views and Val's amazing home cooking. With meat from their mainland farm, fresh produce from the garden and eggs from their contented chooks, breakfast sure set us up for the day.
I can see that Great Barrier is where contented folks go to live. And then get buried in splendour. Sounds like a good life plan.
Getting there: SeaLink ferries' summer timetable (until April 30) sees ferries depart four days a week, twice a day from Wynyard Quarter. No sailings on Easter Saturday and Sunday. Adult fares from $85 return ($120 holiday weekends), cars $370 return, family passes available. Ph 0800 732 546.
What to do: The Great Barrier Garden Tour is on Saturday, November 24. Special rates available from Great Barrier Airlines and Sealink. Tour tickets cost $65-85. Phone: (09) 429 0890 or email email@example.com.
Where to eat: Angsana Thai Restaurant, Gray's Rd, near Claris. Ph (09) 429 0272.
Where to stay:
Tipi and Bob's Waterfront Lodge: Tryphena Harbour. Ph (09) 429 0550.
Shoal Bay Estate: Shoal Bay Rd, Tryphena. Ph (09) 429 0543 or 0274 774 018. Bed and breakfast $185 double, courtesy cars available.
Further information: See greatbarriernz.com.
Catherine Smith was a guest of SeaLink and Shoal Bay Lodge.