Missing 'overseas' holidays? Visit the sparkling gems of Auckland's gulf, writes Thomas Bywater. We ask seasoned skippers and touring kayak guides for their top spots in Auckland's marine conservation parks
Sitting on Kohimarama beach, planning a kayak trip, it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by choice. The waters of the Hauraki Gulf are full of hundreds of islands. Even those within a couple of hours' paddling distance read more like the plot of Gulliver's Travels than a list of real places.
There are magmatic caves, isolated beaches, island sanctuaries of exotic life. In the Gulf you'll find pockets of re-introduced takahe, ancient tuatara, peacocks and Ponui donkeys. For those looking for a substitute for cancelled plans to Australia, I've even been told there's even the odd marsupial. Kawau Island and its wallabies are as exotic as any overseas trip. Though, in their own way I suppose all these islands are "overseas". If only a few hundred metres at a time.
Whether on a guided kayak trip or on the top deck of a ferry, they're accessible to all. Here are the best spots to visit in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, according to guides who know it best:
Auckland Sea Kayaks
The gentle sloping cone of Browns Island is frustratingly close to the eastern suburbs, yet few Aucklanders have ever set foot on it.
"It's a bit of a hidden gem, about an hour's paddling from St Heliers beach," says Nic. "If you've got a reasonable sense of balance you can get here quite easily."
Climbing to the trig point offers a "360 views over the city and marine park", which you'll not get anywhere else.
While you can hardly miss the volcanic lump of Rangitoto, there are still plenty of experiences and adventures hidden on the island. Such as Gardiner Gap, between Rangitoto and Motutapu. "You come through the mangroves and see Tiritiri Matangi in the distance. It's absolutely awesome and something you can only do by kayak at full tide."
Sometimes seeing a familiar sight at an unfamiliar hour can be an adventure in itself. The company runs sunset trips to Rangitoto's summit - a "very popular date night" says Nic.
It's a fair distance in a double kayak, but almost anyone can do it. So says Nic, who took his 83-year-old grandmother on the trip. Returning in the dark, in a convoy of illuminated boats is not something you do every day.
The Noises are a hoot, says Scott. "I haven't kayaked there but have been many times on my boat from Waiheke. There is an enclosed pool surrounded by rocks on one of the islands," he says, which was almost made to be jumped in. Originally named the Noisettes or "Hazelnuts" by French navigator Dumont D'Urville, they were renamed Noises or "Noiseys" by Anglophone Aucklanders.
You won't find any nuts of these on the islands, but you will find geckos, thousand-year-old pōhutukawa and giant wētāpunga as big as your hand. Eek!
Today they are privately owned by the Neureuter family who are keen conservationists. www.thenoises.nz
Another privately owned island is Pōnui /Chamberlins Island. Apart from being one of Auckland's oldest farms - still managed by the same family since 1852 - it is also home to the white Ponui donkeys. "On previous trips we have been able to see the wild donkeys, while we were paddling round the southern bays," says Scott.
Though there is no public access for travellers there is one campsite on the island, run by the Christian youth camp Scripture Union NZ.
A survey by Massey University found a population of 1500 kiwi on the island, giving it a greater density of the birds than Stewart Island/Rakiura.
Fullers 360 Skipper
"Travelling to hidden gems around the Hauraki Gulf each day is a privilege," says Karl.
For the past 35 years he has been taking ferry passengers from Auckland to Tiritiri Matangi, Rakino Island and even on the Waiheke shuttle - however if Karl had to pick a favourite route it would be Auckland to Coromandel.
Allowing passengers to "skip the traffic and travel to Coromandel by ferry", the route is the longest run by Fullers. At $103 return, it's a valuable service to know about as the roads out of Auckland clog up in the build-up to Christmas. However, the main reason it stands out for Karl is one of the stops on the way, just past Waiheke.
"Rotoroa Island is one of those hidden gems you've heard of but may not have visited yet," he says. With only the one scheduled daily ferry, Rotoroa is your private island for the day.
Once a rehabilitation camp run by the Salvation Army, it's now meticulously run as a conservation area by the Rotoroa trust.
The sandy Ladies and Mens bays are "only a few minutes' walk across the island, perfect for a picnic" says Karl.
Although the service has been paused since the March Lockdown, Fullers will be operating routes to Rotoroa and Coromandel from October 24.
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