This little-known island feels like Fiji and is just an hour from Auckland, writes Sarah Pollok
As the weather warms up, we’re all eager for a long (long) awaited beach holiday, especially if we missed out on a winter-break to Europe or the US. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars and many hours getting to a popular destination like Fiji or Rarotonga to enjoy tropical bliss.
In fact, for Aucklanders, a gorgeous, little-known island is just 75 minutes away from the city and costs less than $100 to reach.
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 say when I tell them about my visit to the island, “How did you take 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.
When I visit, 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, our group are 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. If you take a morning ferry, you’ll have more than enough to do during the five or so hours until the early evening ferry back (times vary depending on the day/season, so check the website for up-to-date details).
Onboard, the ferry has travellers of every kind. There are teens clustered in groups toting overstuffed beach bags and music speakers and 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). Also, 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 3pm 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 departure. The boat won’t leave without you, but the Rotoroa Island rangers 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
Explore Group will operate regular ferry services from Wednesdays through to Sundays from September 30.
To celebrate the launch, Explore Group is offering discounted ticket rates for bookings made before 30 November 2023 for travel until 31 March 2024.
Tickets will be $75 for adults (+16), $40 for children (5-15) and free for under-5s. Prices will then revert to $95 per adult and $50 per child for bookings made from 1 December 2023.
See exploregroup.co.nz for the full schedule.