Text by Thomas Jones
Images by Thomas Jones & Jimmy Mack
Each year when I visit New Zealand for Christmas, my friends and I try to find somewhere new to go and rent a holiday home for a week over New Year’s Eve. Somewhere we can load up with food and wine and totally chill near a beach under the hot Kiwi summer sun. This year we chose Great Barrier Island, a large and remote island four hours by boat from Auckland City, or 30 minutes by air, with very few people, even fewer cars, loads of great beaches, awesome scenery, great fishing, and best of all, sublime solitude.
Our car ferry left from downtown Auckland at 8am on a beautiful sunny day and we were able to start on the suntans straight away as we passed the many islands that Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf is blessed with, drinking cold beer in the sun and encountering sharks, dolphins and whales along the way. The Barrier, as it is affectionately called, has a permanent population of only about 900, but this swells in summer to about five times as much.
There are plenty of homestays, B&Bs, hotels and campgrounds to choose from as well as many private rental homes on the island. Our four-bedroom house was right above the sand at Medlands Beach, a huge, white sandy bay in the southeast corner of the island, with deep blue water and sand dunes that protect the homes from the ocean breeze. Upon arrival, we unpacked the van, filled the cooler box with goodies and bottles and all headed straight to the beach for a swim and to take in our new surroundings.
Great Barrier Island lies on the outer edge of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, an area of over 1.2 million hectares of coast, sea and islands. 56 kms long and 16 kms wide, the island was named by James Cook in 1769, as he circumnavigated the newly-discovered New Zealand, due to it forming a natural ‘barrier’ from the Pacific Ocean and protecting Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf from the extremes of wind and wave.
The island has a rich history and has been continuously inhabited for over 1,000 years; first by local Maori and then by European settlers who came in search of copper, whales and the huge kauri logs that the forest provided free of charge. They became the mainstay of not only the settlement of New Zealand, but also for the expansion of the British Navy during the great race between the French and English in the late 17th Century. And we all know how that panned out, don’t we? Australia and New Zealand don’t speak French.Click to view slideshow.
Having a car is essential if you want to get out and explore the island’s many different beaches and forest walks. One big highlight of the season is the annual Mussel Fest, a celebration of the humble but delicious bivalve, which forms a big part of the aquaculture economy for the island and takes place in the deep-water port of Fitzroy near the top of the island.
It was a sunny day when we drove up to join in the festivities but we were a little dismayed by what NZ alcohol licensing laws had done to the party. Because drinking alcohol is illegal in public areas, the powers that be had decided to have two venues; one on the esplanade down by the water for the non-drinkers and the other up the hill at the non-descript yacht club, which has an alcohol license. The music down at the first site was good, but with half the people up at the yacht club drinking beer and wine it really let the whole atmosphere down. Oh well, never mind; the mussel fritters were worth the drive.
Great Barrier Island lies on the outer edge of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, an area of over 1.2 million hectares of coast, sea and islands.
Later in the afternoon, after stopping by for a couple of swims on the return trip, we were happily ensconced in our holiday home once again and contemplating catching some fish on the low tide. Unfortunately, one of our party fell on the rocks and broke her arm during the fishing trip resulting in a hurried trip to the local clinic in the township of Claris. It was after hours but after a quick phone call on a phone borrowed from a friendly local, the doctors were soon on site X-raying and setting the arm. Doc suggested taking the helicopter back that night to Auckland hospital, but after having only been on the island for two days, the plucky camper said ‘no way’ and we carried on business as usual with some great New Zealand red wines helping to ease the pain.
A backbone of volcanic ridges runs the length of Barrier and run down to the wild exposed sandy coast to the east, and the more sheltered deep water coves to the west, providing for great swimming and boating. Native forest, farmland and wetland fill most of the lowlands, offering visitors a huge amount of bush walks, ranging from a few hours up to several days. We weren’t up for much exertion, this was a slow relaxing holiday after all, so we took a walk to the Kaitoke hot springs for a soak. It’s only a 40-minute walk from the road through native forest, and since everyone on the island is in a lazy mood at this time of year, it one of the most popular walks on the island.
The island’s remoteness and diligent work from the government means that the island is relatively pest-free making it a haven for migrating sea birds and native birds, including the kiwi itself, the iconic symbol of the nation, and can be heard at night rummaging through the forests as it feeds. We also had the chance to see many other beautiful native birds whilst driving the roads and walking in the forest, things we seldom get to see on the mainland these days.
A word of warning; prices on the island are high so it’s always a good idea to get one’s supplies in Auckland and ferry them over. Lucky for us we had a large vehicle, which we were able to pack to the gunnels with a seven-day supply of food and alcohol. Despite feeling like we had hugely overspent we still had to make a couple of emergency runs to the bottle store for more wine and beer after a few days, such is the habit of the Kiwi summer social life.
One of the many advantages of living abroad is that when you do go back home for a visit you get to play at being a tourist in your own country, allowing you to see it through fresh eyes and gain a perspective like never before. When that country is New Zealand and you head off the beaten track to a place like Great Barrier Island, it’s even better.
Air New Zealand flies direct to New Zealand May thru October, and Garuda, Virgin and Jetstar can be used all year round.
Best Time To Visit.
December thru April.