Doug Laing sees new horizons on Great Barrier Island

The text message says it all: "Isn't that in Australia?"

Many New Zealanders — more so if they're not from somewhere between Pokeno and Silverdale — struggle over the geographical location of Great Barrier Island.

As tourists learn on one of the unique Local Connections tours launched recently by Princess Cruises, it's not part of that other "Barrier" off the coast of North Queensland.

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It is a classic throwback to the line: Don't leave home till you've seen the country. Princess Cruises offer a novel alternative in that boarding the 330m Princess Majestic for a Sydney-to-Sydney cruise, one can leave home and come back and see the country, in a way that might otherwise seem impossible.

Great Barrier Island is "across the Ditch", as tour material states for travellers inbound via Australia.

Great Barrier Island, seen from the deck of the Majestic Princess. Photo / Doug Laing
Great Barrier Island, seen from the deck of the Majestic Princess. Photo / Doug Laing

The island is a pinpoint in the Hauraki Gulf, 100km northeast of Auckland, 285sq/km, 43km north-to-south. It's the fourth-largest island in the main chain of our antipodean wonderland, even if just 0.1 per cent of the land mass.

Of course, of course. I knew that!

Fact is, Great Barrier Island, a 25-minute flight or four-hour ferry voyage from Auckland to nominal capital Tryphena, is a mystery to most New Zealanders, and to be true, a good many of the barely 1000 population might prefer it stays that way.

But, with the help of some very knowledgeable locals, Princess Cruises is opening the door in a way that does find acceptance. People want to come visit, and, as long as they help keep out such things as the kauri dieback, which has no known fix, they are welcome.

Walking tour on Great Barrier Island. Photo / Doug Laing
Walking tour on Great Barrier Island. Photo / Doug Laing

Climbs and walks tour guide Benny Bellerby is one of those locals. Born on the island, son of a hippie — there's little that he isn't, from conservationist to dark-sky business operator, all delivered with a unique passion and knowledge of an island he'll never leave.

The middle ground is that this is its attraction, its isolation perhaps best highlighted by its status as a Dark Sky Sanctuary, as recognised internationally and now with at least two businesses operating related tours — if experiences craning back at night can be called tours.

Lights out over Great Barrier Island Great Barrier. Photo / Mark Russell
Lights out over Great Barrier Island Great Barrier. Photo / Mark Russell

From the deck of the Trillium Lodge, a log-cabin of some size with a range of classy guest rooms and views over the harbour, Deborah Kilgallon, of Good Heavens Dark Sky Experience, takes us through a tour of the sky, using a laser pointer to identify she's learned about in crash-course astronomy while full-time mumming.

There's excitement, which may miss the general point, when shooting stars appear across the sky, with somewhat more frequency than most are aware, but which we are assured happens all the time.

Once exploited for its mineral and kauri resources, not to mention the whales of the surrounding waters, Great Barrier Island is now a Department of Conservation nature reserve, with intrepid walks and climbs, and people with the knowledge to complete the picture for the modern holiday explorer.

Trillium Lodge, on Great Barrier Island. Photo / Doug Laing
Trillium Lodge, on Great Barrier Island. Photo / Doug Laing

From its highest point, Mt Hobson (Hikarimata), and from other positions on the island, one can see the two visages of Coromandel Peninsula across Colville Channel, and, on a nice day, Auckland city.

At night, one can see whole new worlds.

CHECKLIST

For details on sailing with Majestic Cruises and their Local Connections tours, go to princess.com/learn/cruise-destinations/local-connections/