Great Barrier Island (Māori name: Aotea) is in the outer Hauraki Gulf in northern New Zealand. It lies east of the Northland Peninsula and directly north of Coromandel Peninsula. It is 90 km north-east of central Auckland. It is the 4th largest island in the main New Zealand archipelago and has a population of nearly 1,000. Largely covered in regenerating native forest, with some rare native species, a network of hiking trails across the island and beautiful beaches and inlets, it attracts those who enjoy the outdoors, whether hiking, swimming, surfing or enjoying the natural environment. You can get there by plane, sea ferry or private boat.
At 285 km2, Great Barrier is the 4th largest island in the main New Zealand archipelago, significantly smaller than Stewart Island, the 3rd largest at 1,683 km2. It is also smaller than the 900-km2 Chatham Island, which is outside the main island chain. Great Barrier is also the centrepiece of its own small archipelago, and some of the smaller islands, such as Kaikōura Island, near Port Fitzroy, can also be visited.
The island's basement sedimentary rocks are overlain by ancient volcanic rocks that give rise to jagged pinnacles, cliffs, bluffs and ravines. It was named Great Barrier Island by Capt James Cook because it formed a barrier between the Hauraki Gulf and the Pacific Ocean – it is not a "barrier island" in the usual sense of a long sandy island close to the mainland.
Copper, gold and silver were once mined on the island and there are relics of this and other past economic activities. A whaling station at Whangaparapara caught humpback whales from 1956 to 1962, and was New Zealand's second-to-last whaling station.
From the 1880s to the early 1930s much of the kauri forest on the island was logged. Parts of the island were turned into farmland, though to a lesser degree than happened on the New Zealand mainland. Now, much of the island is in regenerating native forest, dominated by kauri trees, with a few areas of original, unlogged kauri forest, mainly in the far north. The kauri are unfortunately under threat from kauri dieback disease, and it is important for hikers to stay on the tracks, keep off kauri roots, and to clean footwear before and after visiting an area of forest. More than 60% of the island is conservation land managed by the Dept of Conservation.
While the island has introduced predators – two species of rats, mice and feral cats, dogs and pigs – it thankfully does not have some of the other pests that are common on the mainland, such as stoats, weasels, ferrets, possums and deer. This means there is slightly less pressure on endangered native species, including kākā (parrot), brown teal (duck), black petrel (seabird), chevron skink, Hochstetter’s frog and rare plants.
The island has a resident population of close to 1,000. The main employment is in tourism, farming and service industries. There is no reticulated electricity and most houses use solar panels and a battery bank to generate and store power. Wind and water turbines and solar water heaters are also used. The island is administered by Auckland Council as part of the Auckland Region.
Destination Great Barrier Island has online visitor info and an information centre in the Claris aerodrome.
A Sealink ferry carries vehicles, freight and passengers from Central Auckland to Tryphena. It runs 3 or 5 days a week, depending on the season, and even 7 days for about 4 weeks around Christmas. It leaves Auckland at 8AM, then from the island at 3PM, and trips take 4½ to 5 hours.
- 1 Great Barrier Aerodrome (GBZ IATA), Claris. Barrier Air flies from Auckland Airport (domestic terminal) and North Shore aerodrome. Sunair provides a service from Hamilton, Tauranga, Whangarei and Whitianga. Air Auckland sometimes operates flights from Auckland and Waiheke Island.
- 2 Okiwi Airfield, Okiwi. No scheduled flights but you might be able to arrange a charter flight.
There is no public transport service. You can hire a vehicle or use one of the shuttle services that operate around the island. It is best to book shuttles before you arrive – in summer it's essential. You can also bring your own vehicle to the island on the vehicular ferry. Most roads are sealed, but some side-roads and more remote roads are unsealed
- 1 Aotea Car Rentals, 39 Medland Rd, Tryphena. Has a depot at Claris as well. From $60/day.
- 2 Bikes on Barrier, 85 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris (near the aerodrome). Daily 10AM–3PM. Hire a 50cc moped-class scooter. (Airport Rentals, for car hire, is at the same address.) Scooters $70/day.
- 3 Go Great Barrier Island Passenger Transport, 172 Gray Rd, Kaitoke Creek, ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. An island-wide taxi and transfer service specializing in airport and wharf transfers. Offer hikers a convenient track pick-up and drop-off service. They have 10-seat 4WD vans, station wagons, and also run a 22-seat bus for larger group transport requirements.
- Great Barrier Wheels Car Hire & Shuttle. Cheapest cars are rough old Mazda 121s. From $50/day.
- Medlands Rentals, 66 Blackwell Drive, Tryphena. Cars from $55/day.
- 4 Motubikes, 67 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris (near the aerodrome). Hire a New Zealand-made UBCO electric motorbike. They have a range of about 70 km, or up to 120 km if it's easy riding on the flat. You need only a ordinary full driver's licence, not a motorcycle licence, as they are classed as mopeds. $20/hr; $75/full day, which includes overnight (until 10am).
- People & Post, 39 Medland Rd, Tryphena, ☏ 0800 426-832 (domestic), , email@example.com. Bus leaves Tryphena M–Sa 9:45AM for Port Fitzroy, from where it departs at 11AM for the return journey. Passengers $25.
Take in the view from above. Being an island, long views are spectacular on Great Barrier.
- 1 Glenfern Sanctuary, 20 Glenfern Rd, Port Fitzroy. Daily from 10AM. A forest and wildlife reserve surrounded by a predator-proof fence. Walk the 2-km Glenfern Loop Track through remnant, regenerating and replanted forest, with wide views of the Hauraki Gulf and the bird life. A highlight is a climb up into the crown of a mature kauri tree. You can also visit the manicured grounds surrounding the accommodation, including the 1901 Fitzroy House. Free.
- 2 Milk, Honey and Grain Museum, 47 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris. Run by a hobbyist, but it has interesting exhibits about the history of the island. Gold coin per person.
- 3 Okiwi Park, 1616 Aotea Rd, Okiwi (next to the school). There's not a lot to see in Okiwi, but this is a lovely park with grassed areas, large native trees, a lovely stream, artworks by children illustrating the flora and fauna, a gas barbeque, a cycling trail for children and a toilet at the Mabey Rd end. Great place for a picnic or a 30-minute wander.
The island has beautiful beaches, with long sandy surf beaches on the ocean-facing east coast and sheltered bays and coves on the west coast.
- 4 Awana, Aotea Rd. One of the top surf beaches.
- 5 Harataonga, Harataonga Rd. You can walk down from the campground (where the locals camp) either on the right side of the creek, over the bridge and through the paddock, without getting your feet wet, or on the left side, crossing the creek twice.
- 6 Kaitoke Beach (from Ocean View Rd in the middle of the beach or Sugarloaf Rd at the southern end). Will you love the combo of dark mountains looming in the background of this sparkly white beach? Spot mermaid pools in the rocks at the southern end. Has consistent surf.
- 7 Medlands Beach, Sandhills Rd. If you like solitude, this could be just the ticket. It is one of the busier beaches, but many visitors are lucky enough not to see another soul during the good hour it takes to walk from one end of the beach to the other. If you want a shorter walk, drive to the northern end of the road, cut through the dunes and walk north to the creek, beyond which is the Sugarloaf. Spot the blowhole in the rocks. Even shorter is a hop over the dunes in the middle, taking a look at Memory Rock, or climbing up if you are nimble footed, and having a look at the mermaid pool on the seaward side (low tide). Has reliable surf conditions.
- 8 Okupu Beach, Camerton Rd. A lovely west-coast beach where there's often dolphins close to shore. There’s a public BBQ – bring your own meat and drinks for an epic sunset. Generally not a surfing beach.
- 9 Palmers Beach (keep walking from the creek at the northern end of Kaitoke Beach). Hammerhead sharks can sometimes be spotted, usually from the plane.
- 10 Whangapoua, Mabey Rd. A long sandy beach. Graves from the Wairarapa shipwreck of 1894 are at the northern end of the beach, and there are some interesting rock pits approx. 500 m south of the dune crossing.
Kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, and coastal cruises are all generally recommended.
- Good Heavens Dark Sky Experience - this island is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. Good Heavens guides will take you on a whirlwind tour of the universe.
- Get into the spirit at the sacred waterfalls in Port Fitzroy or Whangaparapara (Kauri Falls)
- Shrin Yogu nature walk with Vicky Kyan.
- Trike tour with Go Great Barrier
There are numerous tramping tracks. Here is a selection.
- Harataonga coastal walk (from Whangapoua to Harataonga, or the reverse). About 5 hr one-way. Hitch or book a transport to get you to the start of the track.
- Harataonga loop walk. A hike with beautiful views into bays, including old Maori pa site. The last bit of the track is very steep downhill. About 1 hr long.
- 1 Kaitoke Hot Springs. An easy and attractive walk 30-45 min one way from Whangaparapara Rd to the main pool, where there are seats, a picnic table and a toilet. Five minutes further upstream there are more pools, which are hotter. Take care – they can be quite hot.
- Kowhai Track. Walk from the top of Rosalie Bay to the Medlands Beach. About 1½ hr one way, mostly downhill.
- 2 Mt Hobson (Hirakimatā). The island's highest point at 621 m. There's 360-degree views at the top. On a clear day it offers spectacular views ranging from the Mercury Islands to the Poor Knights Islands, and the Hauraki Gulf. Take a 4–5 hr return hike to the top via Windy Canyon (itself an attraction) and Palmer's Track. You can also take a slightly longer route from Kaiaraara (3–3½ hr one way), or a much longer one via the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track and Peach Tree Track (5 hr one way).
- Old Lady Track. Check if this track in Port FitzRoy is really for old ladies. An hour each way.
- 3 Ruahine Lookout Track (from the end of Cape Barrier Rd). 3-hr round trip to the 402-m peak at the southern end of the island.
- Station Rock Lookout (from the top of Medland Rd). Great views for a relatively short climb. 20 min each way.
- 4 Te Ahumatā (White Cliffs). A track runs between Blind Bay Rd and Whangaparapara Rd, with a side track to the 398-m summit. It's 30 minutes from either end to the junction and another 30 to the summit. Nice aerobic walk (gradual descent/ascent). 360-degree view at the top.
- Windy Canyon. Take a 20-min hike up the steps for amazing views, both north over the Okiwi Basin and south over the coast all the way to Medlands Beach. Perhaps the best short walk on the island.
The Mt Whangaparapara Peak and Whangaparapara Pack tracks are permanently closed due to kauri dieback risk.
Groceries can be more expensive than on mainland New Zealand because of the cost of freighting them to the island. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, bread, meat and general groceries at the local stores. Local crafts, products and souvenirs are available. There are several art galleries. Barrier specialties include manuka honey and locally brewed beer.
In addition to these listings, see also the 'Drink' and 'Sleep' sections for places to eat.
- 1 Claris Store, 129 Hector Sanderson Rd, Claris. Groceries and fuel. Handy when you're in Claris, but Stonewall Store in Tryphena is cheaper and has a bigger range of stock.
- 2 Mulberry Grove Cafe & Store, 1 Mulberry Grove Rd, Tryphena. 7AM–7PM, last meal orders 6:30PM. Breakfast, lunch and takeaways, groceries and fuel.
- 3 Pa Beach Cafe, 82 Blackwell Drive, Tryphena. Tu–Sa 8AM–3PM.
- Port Fitzroy Burger Bar, Port Fitzroy (near the wharf). Daytime hours several days a week.
- 4 Port Fitzroy General Store, 2070 Aotea Rd, Port Fitzroy. Groceries and fuel.
- 5 Stonewall Store, 82 Blackwell Drive, Tryphena. The biggest grocery store on the island, though small by big town standards.
- 6 Angsana Thai Restaurant, 63 Gray Rd, Claris. Also does takeaways (Su–Th 5–8PM).
- 7 Barrier Social Club, 21 Medland Rd, Tryphena. W, F, Sa 4PM–12:30AM. Restaurant and bar.
- 8 Great Barrier Island Sports & Social Club, 19 Whangaparapara Rd, Claris. W F Sa. Bar open from 4PM, meals 5:30–9PM.
- 1 Currach Irish Pub, 78 Blackwell Drive, Tryphena. Th–Tu from 4PM. Pub with accommodation, restaurant and takeaway food.
- 1 Great Barrier Lodge, 735 Whangaparapara Rd, Whangaparapara. Includes a restaurant that's open most days for lunch ($12-20) and dinner (from $20).
- 2 Medlands Beach Backpackers & Villas, 9 Mason Rd, Medlands. Dorm beds, private rooms and self-contained villas. Chickens range free, so you may have to put up with their droppings outside your door. Less than 10 min walk to the beach. From $45 for a bed and $95 for a room.
- 3 Stray Possum Lodge, 64 Cape Barrier Rd, Tryphena (less than 1 km from Shoal Bay Rd), ☏ , toll-free: . Backpacker hostel. A little rough and ready, but a good setup in a great location. Has a fully licensed bar & a restaurant serving delicious pizzas and steaks – bookings essential. Camping $18, bed $35.
- 4 Tipi & Bob's Waterfront Lodge, 38 Puriri Bay Rd, Tryphena. Mostly 4-berth units, with one double only and a 6-berth cottage. Restaurant and bar are open Fridays only with a limited menu. Accom from $220 for 2 people.
There is free Wi-Fi at Barrier Social Club and Claris Airport. Free Wi-Fi, computers and printers at Auckland Council's public library at Claris. Computer at Great Barrier Lodge, Whangaparapara. Mobile phone coverage: Vodafone around Claris, Port FitzRoy, Okiwi and at least parts of Okupu, and Spark at Claris, Tryphena and at least parts of Okupu. Other places coverage is limited or non-existent.
If you have a boat, Leigh is one of the nearest harbours on the mainland.