In an age when many of us are longing for a simple life, there is one place where the wider world drifts far from mind. It's an island. On it, solar-powered lights are switched off early, banks and ATMs are non-existent and many roads are still unsealed. Locking cars is optional and the locals (about 930 of them) bliss out on life's simple pleasures. This laidback beauty is Great Barrier Island. Lying 90km northeast of Auckland, it sprawls across 285sq m of mountainous green, fringed in sweeping beaches and cosy bays. Escape here and you could happily kick back in a beachside bach and pretend it's still 1975. Alternatively, you could muster up some energy and explore the island's many treasures.
Claris and Medlands Beach
For those who fly in, Claris is the first port of call. This little settlement - virtually opposite the airport - is considered the island's main service centre with a general store, petrol station, post office, bottle store and pharmacy. Excellent food can be found at My Fat Puku, a bar and cafe serving cakes, wraps and wood-fired pizzas from its outdoor oven. Drive south for five minutes and you'll hit Medlands Beach, one of several main tourist areas yet still noticeably undeveloped. Apart from offering a delightfully long sweep of white sand, it's also a prime surf spot with reliable conditions for most of the year, and if you've brought your boat over there is also vehicle access for easy launching.
One of the perks of limited development and living off the grid is having an unsullied night sky. As a result, Great Barrier has earned itself classification as an official dark sky sanctuary, recognised and protected for its exceptional quality of starry nights. I spent an evening on Medlands Beach with guides Good Heavens, peering skywards through binoculars and a telescope at twinkling stars and the swirling gas and dust of distant nebulas. Galaxy guide Deb Kilgallon points out key players such as diamond-bright Sirius, the red supergiant Betelgeuse, and Omega Centauri, a cluster of about 10 million stars, 10-13 billion years old. It's a rare opportunity to understand the night skies and you're bound to walk away with a head full of mind-boggling insights.
Windy Canyon & Mt Hobson
Follow a winding road into the cool and forested peaks of the island's interior and you'll reach a small car park from where it's only a 15-minute walk to the spectacular Windy Canyon, formed during volcanic activity at the end of the last ice age. Towering sheer rock faces, carpeted in green, dwarf the narrow flights of steps that squeeze between them, and several lookouts provide excellent views across the island to distant bays. If you're up for a bit of a climb, keep walking another 2.5 hours to reach the island's highest point, Mt Hobson (Hirakimata) at 627m. A small platform at the top provides a great place to linger with a picnic and soak up the views.
And if you keep on walking (which I did) you'll follow a stunning circuit draped like a crown on the island's mountainous centre. Aotea is the island's Māori name - meaning "white cloud" - and the 25km Aotea Track takes you up into its misty heights. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of wooden stairs zig-zagging through moss- and fern-laden rimu and kauri forest, before descending to nīkau palms and easier paths. Kākā screech between rocky spires that pierce the forests, and it's a great way to get immersed in the island's wild nature. Two DoC huts break up the journey, with Mt Heale Hut offering commanding views across to Little Barrier Island - spectacular at sunset.
Great Barrier was part of the Coromandel Peninsula before sea-level rise separated it from the mainland, and the harbour at Port Fitzroy, on the island's west coast, is an indented fiord. Steeply flanked by emerald forest, this small town is popular with yachties, and tucked up the far end of Rarohara Bay you'll find the Port Fitzroy Boat Club - super casual and with a spacious deck overlooking the water. From here, it's only a little further to drive to Motairehe Marae; pretty much as far north as you the roads will take you on the island.
If Great Barrier feels like a step back in time, Glenfern Sanctuary winds the clock back even further. This 240ha fenced property in Port Fitzroy is gradually returning the Kōtuku Peninsula to its original glory via tree planting and pest eradication, encouraging the return of native birds. Once inside the gates, visitors are greeted by dense forest and the screech of kākā. You can explore a forest trail on your own but the guided night tour is absolutely brilliant, with guides pointing out things you'd never find without their assistance, such as petrel chicks hiding in tree hollows (the island is an important breeding site for black petrels), wētā, eels, glow worms and much more. Historic cottage accommodation is available on site and there's even a private jetty for those arriving by boat.
Kaitoke Hot Springs
Forget slick commercial pools, these hot springs have been created by several small dams in Kaitoke Creek. Park the car at Whangaparapara Rd and walk 45 minutes via a well-graded path that skirts the edge of the Kaitoke wetlands and kānuka forest. At the end of the track, a few bench seats flank the main pool. On my first dip, I found the water a smidge too hot to enjoy, but I returned a few days later after a little rain to find the temperature just right. It's worth walking five minutes further up the creek, away from the main spring, to find a cosy nook fed by a small cascade. It is surrounded by fern-covered rock walls and when conditions are good there can be few more idyllic places to relax.
The island's most happening little town sits in a sheltered bay on the southwest, edged by hills and mountains and perfectly situated to enjoy the sunset. Tryphena has half a dozen or so cafes, bars and restaurants, plus a pub and a couple of art galleries. Lovely beaches offer clear, shallow water, perfect for swimming and watersports (equipment can be rented through Paddles and Saddles). You can also hire electric bikes and scooters to explore scenic windy roads - head up the hill to the Station Rock trailhead from where it's a 30-minute walk to a lookout with excellent views to both east and west coasts. Tryphena is also where the ferry comes in and fishing charters head out.
Fly My Sky operate daily flights from Auckland to Claris (30 mins). flymysky.co.nz
Sealink operate ferries from Auckland to Tryphena (4.5 hours). sealink.co.nz
Take your own car on the ferry or hire one on the island. airportrentalsgbi.co.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com