Sarah Ell relishes a taste of Great Barrier's wild landscape and sense of freedom.

When you say Great Barrier Island, most people think alternative lifestylers, isolation, wild weather, shipwrecks (the Rose Noelle, the Wairarapa).

But, as we discovered this summer, this hidden paradise on Auckland's horizon is also a place with a strong sense of community, good coffee, stunning views, noisy and curious birds, wild beaches, thick bush and clear waters.

And, better still, this outpost of the Super City is only a half-hour flight away. It's kind of hard to believe that the same amount of time it can take to drive to the supermarket on a Saturday on the "mainland" can see you whisked away from the everyday world and taken to an island paradise.

Spending a weekend there recently with my family filled my head with vivid snapshots of a different life: intense images of wild landscapes, clear light and a sense of freedom.


I had only visited the island before by boat so it was great on this trip to have a rental car, from Aotea Car Rentals. We made the most of our wheels to thoroughly explore the Barrier's roads, which as the signs say are frequently narrow and never straight.

While most of the main artery from north to south is sealed, there are plenty of gravel roads to meander along, leading to hidden harbours such as Whangaparapara and lonely but majestic beaches like Kaitoke.

Great Barrier's majestic beaches like Kaitoke are only a half-hour flight from Auckland.
Great Barrier's majestic beaches like Kaitoke are only a half-hour flight from Auckland.

Highlights of a special island

Here are some of my favourite impressions of a weekend spent on this special island:

A warm Friday evening sitting out the back of one of the world's most isolated Irish pubs, The Currach in Tryphena. Kaka squawk noisily overhead while we enjoy beer and deep-fried onion rings (so good we go back the next day and have another round).

The view of Tryphena and back towards Moehau on the end of the Coromandel from our comfortable suite at Tipi and Bob's Waterfront Lodge, just up the road from the pub. The light changes constantly, the tide rises and falls and kaka and tui come to feast on the flowering flax. Great food, too.

Finding little treasures - a kina shell on the rocky shore below Tipi and Bob's; giant seaweed on Medlands Beach; pretty leaves and fern fronds in the bush; painted rocks, ceramics and other beautiful local crafts at the Aotea Community Art Gallery in Claris.

The most "folky" of folk museums, the Milk, Honey and Grain Museum at Claris. This collection of little sheds is full of quirky relics of the island's past: shipwrecks, mines, kauri loggers, dairy farmers, beekeeping and whaling.

Picnicking on a box of goodies from the Claris Texas cafe beneath the pines at Whangapoua, in the island's northeast. Down an unsealed road and through a farm paddock is a huge, unspoilt sweep of white sand, with only Rakitu/Arid Island - and a lot of ocean - between you and Chile.

Climbing up a very big hill at Glenfern Sanctuary to be rewarded by a stunning view of the ins and outs of Port Fitzroy. A flock of little pateke (brown teal) waddle out of their pond to check us out on the way past. The late Tony Bouzaid's dream of restoring a piece of the island's ecosystem behind a predator-proof fence is slowly taking shape, with kaka, kereru, tui and other natives finding sanctuary here.

A sense of community - friendly locals everywhere we went, including at the island's annual Santa Parade and market, and sculptor and artist Charmayne Dobbs manning the coffee machines at Hooked on Barrier. Cindy Wiseman at the airport iSite is full of good advice, and everyone has time to chat.

The bonus of a scenic flight there and back, on Fly My Sky, flying low over the city and the gulf. A few small bumps but a lot easier and quicker than the ferry, especially with kids.

Arriving back in Auckland and to the traffic, the electronic devices, to-do lists, the school run, queues at the supermarket and general city madness, I can't help but think those who live on the Barrier are on to a good thing. Fortunately, they're happy to share it.

Need to know

• For all Great Barrier tourism information, contact the Great Barrier Island i-Site Visitor Centre, Claris Airport, Great Barrier Island, 0800 GO TO BARRIER (468 622),

FlyMySky, daily flights from Auckland Airport to Claris.

Aotea Car Rentals, depots at Claris (airport), Tryphena and Port Fitzroy.

Tipi and Bob's Waterfront Lodge, accommodation and restaurant, 38 Puriri Bay Rd, Tryphena.

The Currach, Irish pub and accommodation, 78 Blackwell Drive, Tryphena.

Aotea Community Art Gallery, 80 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris.

• Milk, Honey and Grain Museum, open "most days during sunlight hours", 47 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris.

• Claris Texas cafe, open daily 8am-4pm, 129 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris.

Hooked on Barrier, fishing charters, tours and coffee, 89 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris.

Glenfern Sanctuary, Glenfern Rd, Port Fitzroy.

Sarah Ell was a guest of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development.