Lack of electricity and cell-phone reception should be no barrier to planning a trip to Auckland's off-grid island, writes Scarlett Cvitanovich
Half an hour - that's all it takes to be whisked away from the fast pace of Auckland to the sanctuary of Great Barrier Island. People told me the Island had an "off the grid" lifestyle that's truly unique (houses generate their own power, so no hairdryers, but charging your phone is fine). But, it's not until you step off the plane, that you begin to really appreciate what a treat you're in for.
Flying to the island is an experience all of its own. We flew Barrier Air on a 13-seater aircraft - the largest servicing the island - and offering every passenger full window views. It's the closest many of us will get to a private jet experience, so it's a shame it's all over so quickly.
Despite being a short flight, the views make you feel like you're en route to somewhere exotic. Shortly after take-off, the islands of the Hauraki Gulf come in to view gleaming beneath you, each a gem leading you to the crown jewel of Great Barrier. Your first glimpse of the island, coming into land at the teeny Claris Airport, is of a forest of green with golden beaches icing the edges. I was itching to explore and had 48 hours to do so.
The best way to see the island is to hire a car – get something grunty - and head off on your own adventure. According to the locals, it takes an hour and a half to drive the length of the island, but it takes visitors a little longer to get used to the windy roads, especially with regular stops for photos of the jaw-dropping views. The main routes are sealed, but any detours are usually gravel only, with the sort of corners you're hoping have no one coming the other way.
Get ready to start waving as well. In the island's north especially, it's rare to bump into another soul, so motorists embrace the full hand wave as they pass. It's a reminder of simpler days, and couldn't be further removed from "peak hour" traffic in our major cities.
People come to Great Barrier Island for a multitude of reasons, but top of the list has to be nature. There are walks for all ability levels and timeframes, so we chose to tackle a couple of the shorter (but not necessarily easier) options. Heading to Glenfern Sanctuary at Port Fitzroy, we trekked up to Sunset Rock for some of the island's most picturesque views. Glenfern is behind a predator fence line cutting off the peninsula to create a safe haven for birdlife. Sadly, the track to the Kauri swing bridge was closed on our visit, but catching our breath at Sunset Rock high above the island, gazing out across the sparkling water with birdsong in surround sound quickly made up for that.
Another short but rewarding walk is through Windy Canyon. It's on one of the highest stretches of the island, beneath the peak of Mt Hobson. You work hard to earn such a view though. To reach these lofty heights, your legs will burn up flight after flight of steep stairs that creep over sheer volcanic rock, which also towers above you. But the pain is forgotten within 15 minutes of leaving your car when you're treated to a bird's-eye view of the island gazing down from coast to coast. Plus, it's a lot easier going back down.
After being teased by the sight of the beaches from above, it makes sense to get down there and explore them. One of the most beautiful we discovered, which was accessible by car, was Harataonga Bay. At the end of a steep gravel road, you emerge at a camping site that is surely one of the most idyllic in the country, and a short stroll through a farmer's paddock has you arriving at water as blue and clear as any I've seen abroad, and inviting you to venture in with every gentle wave. Further south is Awana Bay, more of a surfers' paradise, but worth a stop even if you haven't packed the surfboard.
One final beach activity: make a note of low tide, and stop in for a dip at the mermaid pool on Medlands Beach. The pool tucked inside a rocky outcrop fills up at high tide and when the weather's on your side, warms up throughout the day. It doesn't get the sunset views, but it's a great way to end a busy day.
If you've always dreamed of having a white sandy beach all to yourself, Great Barrier is the destination for you. But how about a natural hot spring? New Zealand has an abundance of geothermal activity, a lot of it commercialised to exploit every single vent. Kaitoke Hotpools couldn't be more different. Official signage nearby proclaims: "We love the hot springs being so low key – and will keep them this way." For the cost of two hours of your time (the easy 45-minute Hot Pools Track meanders alongside the Kaitoke Wetland), you can bathe in the heart of the island. If you're lucky enough to reach the pools on a quiet day, don't stop at the large one at the bottom, but follow the stream. You'll know you've reached the most magical spot when you step into something commercial spas pay big money to emulate – a deep pool, nestled among the native bush, a waterfall trickling in the corner and tūī and fantail flitting overhead. The temperature of the spring water varies, so stick a toe in first to check.
We spent two nights on the island and split our time between the exquisitely located Great Barrier Lodge on the waterfront at Whangaparapara and the heart of the island's social life, Tryphena's Currach Irish Pub.
Whangaparapara is a former industrial hub, and you can still find remnants of its whaling and logging days. A small shed at the end of the wharf even has an exhibition documenting the area's history – and will point you in the direction of further exploring. The lodge itself has a licensed bar and truly divine food that you can enjoy while taking in the stunning setting. If you eat there, make sure to leave room for the dark chocolate "pineapple lump" brulee for dessert.
The Currach is situated in the largest settlement on the island – Tryphena. It's the first stop for many who come by ferry, and as a result has everything you'll need, with cafes, artist studios and groceries. When we stayed, it was open mic night, where you don't know who will turn up to entertain the enthusiastic crowd. It's a definite drawcard for visitors and locals alike, who pack into the small pub and spill out on to its newly built back deck. A true suntrap, it's the ideal spot for an afternoon drink and a bite to eat while you watch kākā parrots careening overhead.
When I told people I was visiting Great Barrier, the majority split into two camps – those who had been years ago and loved it, and those who had always wanted to go but had never quite made it. Not one of those people had a bad word to say about the place. I can see why. Coming from a world focused on the pandemic and the US election, the only reminders of these were the QR codes at doorways, and a yellow sign labelled "Donald Trump", which pointed to the island's landfill site.
We had limited cell phone reception for the majority of the trip, and while Wi-Fi was available at our accommodation, it was nice to have the option. It pays to book well ahead in order to not be disappointed because, with no public transport and limited accommodation, it can be a challenging trip to do on the fly.
Heading to the airport on our final day, it seemed fitting to again see four different people we had met across the island in our short stay. Looking down on the land as we wheeled away, it was a reminder of everything we'd done but also an alluring reminder of why we should return with a bit more time to explore. With its multitude of walks, hidden bays and a nostalgic glimpse of a time gone by, Great Barrier Island is a treasure hidden in plain sight.
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 7 December, 2020