For an island escape so close to a big city, Aotea, or Great Barrier Island, feels remarkably untouched and remote. There are no ATMs or street lights, all electricity generation is off the national grid, and two-thirds of the island is managed by the Department of Conservation.
Despite the isolation, there's a sophisticated focus on sustainable lifestyles, with innovative and locally owned tourist operators shining a solar-powered light ahead on a possible future for New Zealand's tourism industry.
Designated a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2017, Great Barrier is a superb location to observe the night sky. Setting up their powerful telescope amid sand dunes near quiet beaches, Good Heavens' Dark Sky ambassadors identify and locate celestial attractions including Saturn, Jupiter and Magellanic Clouds. Booking ahead for your first night on the island is recommended to allow for flexibility with weather conditions.
Contact Star Treks for enjoyable forest walks led by friendly Benny Bellerby, born and bred on Great Barrier, and a passionate advocate for protecting the island's natural and historic heritage. Options include the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track and exploring a former whaling station on Whangaparapara Harbour.
And because this is super-sustainable Aotea, there are also organic and homebaked treats to enjoy en route.
Crazy Horse Trike Tours
Longtime island resident Steve Billingham and his motorised custom trike provide an excellent exploration of the island. Look forward to stellar views overlooking Aotea's best beaches and plenty of entertaining stories about the island's diverse and interesting history.
Hooked on Barrier
Book a marine excursion on the Sundancer, an excellent opportunity for island sightseeing from the water. Lunch tours of Great Barrier's historic and rugged west coast are on offer, and fishing trips include the opportunity for solo travellers, couples and small groups to join half-day departures.
The chatty Seagar at Motubikes rents sturdy electric motorbikes that are both loads of fun and equally adept at tackling Great Barrier's sealed and unsealed roads. The bikes can be rented with a normal driver's licence and Seagar can arrange delivery and pick-up of the bikes at visitors' accommodation. Bikes are recharged sustainably using solar power.
Paddles & Saddles
Contact Pete and Lucy at Paddles & Saddles for good-value budget accommodation at historic Tryphena House. Two outdoor hot tubs provide views of Tryphena Harbour, and birdlife, including kākā and kererū soundtracks occasional sightings of orca and dolphins. Lucy also runs the Great Barrier Instagram page @greatbarrierislandofficial, and Pete rents out kayaks, paddleboards, and snorkelling and fishing gear.
With a clifftop location on the island's southwest coast, Xspot's modern and spacious one-bedroom apartment offers sensational ocean views. One of Great Barrier's best accommodation options also incorporates solar and wind power. Rent a 4WD as the property's access road is steep.
Swallow Burger Shack
From a humble caravan near the airport in Claris, the friendly Michelle turns out overflowing island wonders including a roast lamb burger with minted aioli and onion rings, and a beef burger with blue cheese and caramelised onions. It's the kind of place you'll return to at least twice.
My Fat Puku
Homemade pies and the island's best coffee are standouts amid the easygoing Kiwiana style of My Fat Puku, and during the height of summer, the cafe's relaxed garden setting offers the combination of frosty beers and wood-fired pizza.
Great Barrier's very own craft beers are brewed in a sustainable, off-the-grid brewery a short drive from the sweeping arc of Medlands Beach. Hoppy brews such as the Solar Powered American Pale Ale are available on tap at the Currach Irish Pub and The Rocks bottle store, and the brewery also delivers beer around the island in refillable flagons.
Check their website for when their rustic taproom reopens.
Currach Irish Pub
Brilliant island hospitality is on tap at the Currach where wood-fired pizza and good Malaysian curries combine with a concise selection of craft beer, often including hoppy brews from Aotea Brewing. Check out the Currach's Facebook page for events at Great Barrier's main social hub including occasional live music and quiz nights.
Crafted by former ad agency creative director Andi Ross, Island Gin incorporates sustainable island ingredients including triple-filtered rainwater, and local bush botanicals, lemons and honey. Buy at The Rocks bottle store or online, or try in a G&T at the Currach. Andi's plans include opening a tasting room for summer.
SeaLink vehicular ferries run from Auckland's Wynyard Wharf (around five hours) sealink.co.nz
Renting a car, ideally a 4WD, is recommended. Contact Go Great Barrier Island for packages incorporating flights, car rental and accommodation. greatbarrierislandtourism.co.nz
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com/dosomethingnew