This little-known island feels like Fiji and is just an hour from Auckland, writes Sarah Pollok
As we're stretched out on the hot sand, gaze split between easy beach books and water so clear it elicits all kinds of cliche adjectives, my friend turns to me and says, "Well, turns out you can go to Fiji for $55."
Admittedly, months of city lockdown and travel restrictions can make one prone to exaggeration; after weeks of walking around the same suburb, taking a ferry to an island feels supremely exotic.
But even without the travel starvation, Rotoroa Island is the Edenic kind of destination that reminds you why people are so obsessed with New Zealand. In typical fashion, most Kiwis (spoilt by world-class beaches) have no clue it exists.
"Rotorua?" people asked, "How are you taking a ferry there?"
Today, the 80ha island, sandwiched between Waiheke and Ponui, is a sanctuary for birds like the tūī, takahē, tīeke (saddleback) and brown kiwi.
More than a century ago, however, it was a sanctuary of a very different kind. Purchased by the Salvation Army in 1908 (for the princely sum of 400 pounds), the island became a private rehabilitation facility where men addicted to the bottle could come and dry out.
As the country's first and longest-running treatment centre, Rotoroa Island served more than 12,000 New Zealanders and was impressively self-sufficient, with rich vegetable gardens, farms and orchards keeping guests' stomachs and schedules full.
The exhibition centre is petite but packed with history about life on the island (as well as a glorious air-conditioning system for brutally hot days).
Treatment ceased in 2005. Three years later it was purchased by a philanthropic couple who created the Rotoroa Island Trust and finally, in 2011, it was reopened to the public.
Proudly pest-free, we're thoroughly briefed at the ferry terminal about cleaning our shoes, checking bags for stowaways and reminded often to "take only photos, leave only footprints".
With a coastline of around 8km, the island is a near-perfect size; small enough to see everything, with multiple beach stops as we go, big enough to use up the whole day. Departing Auckland at 8.30am, we arrive around 9.45am, and have until 5.30pm to explore.
Carrying 116 passengers, the ferry has travellers of every kind. There are the retired couples who come armed with sun hats and hiking poles (which aren't strictly necessary; the tracks are smooth and peak elevation is 65m).
Teens clustered in groups toting overstuffed beach bags and music speakers. Families who clearly take beach days very seriously as they wheel little wagons packed with cooler bins and shopping bags on board.
Travelling lightly, we scoff at the excessive luggage, instead opting for slender backpacks to carry our water bottles, sandwiches, books and towels. Yet, as 4pm rolls around and the desire for an ice-cold diet coke and snack sets in, their cooler bags and gourmet set-ups suddenly don't seem so silly.
In classic island time, the day passes slow, yet some are still able to be late for 5.30pm departure. The boat won't leave without you, but DoC absolutely will chase you down to the dock in their car as passengers look on disapprovingly.
Although, with an island as beautiful as this, we can understand why you'd want to stay until the very last minute.
CHECKLIST: ROTOROA ISLAND
Fullers ferries depart from downtown Auckland to Rotoroa Island Saturday and Sunday at 8.45am and are priced from $55pp.
See fullers.co.nz for more information.