Kia ora: Great Barrier Island

Much of Great Barrier Island's coast is worthy of a cinematographer's attention.
Much of Great Barrier Island's coast is worthy of a cinematographer's attention.

Origin of name: Maori called it Aotea, after one of the early migration waka. In 1769, Captain Cook sailed by and renamed it on account of the barrier it forms between Hauraki Gulf and the open sea.

Population: 852 (2006 census).

Where is it: 90km north-east of central Auckland, 19km north of Coromandel Peninsula, in the outer Hauraki Gulf. It's the fourth largest of New Zealand's islands with a land mass of 285sq km.

Getting there: Take the Sealink ferry, with or without the car. Or you can fly, or sail your own boat there.

The island's slogan: It's not that sort of island. Although it could be "Next Stop Chile".

Fancy this: The Pigeongram Service started on the Barrier after the Wairarapa was wrecked off the coast in 1894. With no way to send word until the next boat arrived, the isolation was keenly felt and, 18 months later, the Pigeon Post, a world first, was in operation, Each pigeon carried up to five lightweight letters per trip, and the service flew until 1908 when a telephone line was connected from Coromandel.

Most famous local: One of Al Capone's old cars worked out its last years on the island, operating as a taxi.

Best local website: thebarrier.co.nz, greatbarrierisland.co.nz and also islandaccommodation.co.nz

Early industry: Gold, silver and copper mining, whaling and kauri felling all made their marks on the heritage of Barrier. The island was also the home of the country's first commercial bee-keeping operation.

Biggest industries: Farming, fishing and tourism.

Source of pride: The community, everyone is on board and everyone is on a board. If you live here you get involved.

Town competitions: Barrier Blokes' Day is said to be a hoot. There are also fishing competitions, a golf tournament and the Wharf-to-Wharf Marathon in October is well run.

Best reason to stop: Because you've probably never been there before.

Best place for kids: Mermaid Pools at Sugarloaf. These natural pools fill at high tide, warming up in the daytime sun so, by low tide, they're perfect for a dip, or for hunting for crabs and little fish.

Best place for a drink: Currach, the Irish Bar, at Tryphena. Claris Golf Club and the Claris Sports Club are also beaut for a bevy.

Best food: Claris Sports Club, open Thursday to Sunday. Ang Sana Thai (bookings essential) is yum and in summer there's The Burger Shack on Sanderson Rd. Some of the posher lodges and B&Bs do fine dining. Great Barrier Lodge does delicious food and stunning views.

Best flat white: Claris Texas Cafe or the Wild Rose Cafe on Mulberry Grove in Tryphena.

Best museum: Medlands Museum. The Milk, Honey and Grain Museum in Claris, Gray's Museum in Awana and Young's Museum in Okupu, Barrier Museum on Kaitoke Rd. Make a day of it and see them all.

Best Art Gallery: Aotea Community Arts Centre, near Claris airport, has something by every artist on the island - there are many artists on the island and lots of lovely galleries.

Best walk: The walking is so excellent there's a festival each year - greatbarrierwalkfest.org. The best hike is up Mt Hobson, a four-hour round trip, and it's 621m high, so you need reasonable fitness. For a more sedate walk, Windy Canyon at the base of Mt Hobson is nice, although prepare for lots of stairs. The Kaitoke Hot Springs walk is gentle through beautiful bush, and you can wallow in warm water once you're there.

Best view: From the top of Mt Hobson, also known as Hirakimata, which translates as "the mountain that is visible to the eye from a wide area".

Best place to pull over: Sugarloaf, the ridge between Kaitoke and Medlands. There's a long stretch of white sandy beach there that you could easily mistake for paradise.

Best facilities: The island is blessed with loads of long drops with views. One local gentleman boasts that, when horse treks pass his ablutions block, it adds another dimension to their tours.

Best playground: The island's wonderful beaches. All you will need is your imagination.

Best shop: The Island Emporium is the island's first, newest, and only department store. Quirky and super well stocked.

Best swim: Okupu or Lion Bay. If you're lucky you'll see dolphins. Or Harataonga, where Survivor was shot. It's like a picture postcard. Kaitoke Hot Springs.

Wildlife: Crayfish, kiwi, kereru and kaka are everywhere. Kaitoke bird sanctuary is bursting with life.

Also excellent: Surfing, horse trekking and fishing are all good value.

You should know: The island has no reticulated electricity. Locals use mainly solar and wind, so bring a torch. Leave unnecessary electrical devices at home.

Fancy this: There are no ATMs, and although most outlets have eftpos, do bring cash.

Practical advice: If you bring your car, give it a good wash when you get home, because the salt spray from the ferry will demolish it.

Locals say: What took you so long?

Visitors say: What took us so long?

Thanks to Neil Stichbury for spilling the beans.

- NZ Herald

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