Local Escapes

Great Barrier Island | The Ultimate First Timer’s Guide

By Lauren Sanderson
22nd Feb 2022

Two people taking a break on the Aotea Track, Great Barrier Island

If you're looking to escape the big city and rid yourself of life's stresses then we know just the place. Pack your bags and head to Great Barrier Island—a tranquil oasis that's surrounded by lush bush, epic tramps, crystal clear water and heaps more. Being off-grid with no mains electricity on the island, it's one of the few places left in Auckland that you can (and totally should) completely unplug. Be aware that as soon as you arrive, you'll be on island time, so take the opportunity to relax and accept that things will happen as they will and in their own time. In a word, It's absolute bliss. 

Here’s everything you need to know for your first time on Great Barrier Island.

How To Get To Great Barrier IslandA view from Barrier Island of Medlands beach looking sublime.

Getting to the Barrier is all part of the adventure. In fact, some of the best views come from travelling to Great Barrier Island. You can choose to take a 30-minute flight from Auckland with Barrier Air, where you can kick back on a little commuter plane and take in the stunning scenery. If you have good sea legs then you can take a four and a half-hour ferry with Sealink where you’ll likely spot dolphins playing and whales on the horizon, be warned though—as one would expect from a barrier island—it can get choppy.

How To Get Around Great Barrier Island 

Although the island may appear small, it's actually deceptively big at nearly 45 kilometres long and 285 square kilometres so with no regular public transport on the Island you're going to need a whip of some kind to get around. There are plenty of companies that you can hire cars from such as Aotea Car Rentals and if a moped is more your style then grab a scooter from Bikes on Barrier. If you'd enjoy the more eco-friendly way of travelling then visit MotuBikes for electric motorbikes and Paddles and Saddles for normal cycling bikes. Alternatively, hitchhiking around the island is a great way to meet islanders from all walks of life and get the lowdown on where the action's happening that day.

Where To Stay On Great Barrier Island 

1940s Caravan Willis perched overlooking Tryphena harbour.Willis - A 1940s Caravan

Say hello to Willis, a retro caravan that's nestled amongst native bush and packed with heaps of character. If you’re looking for something fun and funky then Willis is your guy. Having been handcrafted in the 1940s, Willis is still in top-notch condition and even offers all the 21st-century luxuries. Decked out with a retro Smeg fridge, classic American style booth seating and even an old-school valve radio—he’s pretty rad. If you’re looking for a quirky little space to kick back in on Great Barrier then look no further. 

Fantail Stories

This place is almost too good to be true. Picture this, a cute wee cabin submerged in the beautiful subtropical native bush of Great Barrier. Fantail Stories is a glamping experience like no other, where you can unwind and indulge in all that nature has to offer. If you’re an avid bird watcher then kaka, tui, morepork and fantails reside here and if stars are your thing then don’t get us started on the stargazing. Take your bathing to the next level, with an outdoor shower and a luxurious ceramic bath that is truly out of this world. Can life get much better? We think not.

A bach looks out over the water.XSPOT Cliff-Top Eco-holiday Apartment

If it’s serene views you’re after then The Barrier is home to some of the best views around. Pack your bags and check into XSPOT cliff-top holiday apartment, which offers stunning 270-degree panoramic views over the Hauraki Gulf. Not only do they serve views for days, but they also have everything you need at the eco-retreat, so you don’t have to worry about a thing. There’s even an outdoor swimming pool for you to take a refreshing dip in after exploring the island. 

Allom Bay Cabin

Escape the hustle and bustle of city life and treat yo’self to an off the grid stay at Allom Bay Cabin, a little slice of magic that offers the ultimate remote accommodation with stunning views and a tranquil environment. Now that’s a vibe. Accessible only by water, you’ll truly be in the sticks and at one with nature. So, switch off from the daily grind and tune in to good old mother nature. 

The view from the deck at Jack's Sanctuary on Great Barrier Island.Jacks Sanctuary Luxury Boutique Lodge

If you're looking for a little luxury for your stay look no further than the sublime two-bedroom Jacks Sanctuary in Tryphena where your every need will be more than met. Boasting an insane view overlooking Pah Beach with an expansive deck out front and a long candlelit table in the gorgeous garden complete with hammock, fairy lights and outdoor bath (for those stargazing nights) and shower in the back. A three-minute walk to the Irish pub, cafe, local store and most importantly, the beach, you'll feel close to the action and yet worlds away.

Camping On Great Barrier Island

If you like being in the great outdoors and living your best tent life, then there are plenty of camping options on Great Barrier Island. Hit reset and get back to basics at some of the island’s D.O.C campsites or treat yourself to a privately-owned site—either way, you'll enjoy the best that Great Barrier has to offer, without breaking the bank. 

Where To Eat (And Drink) On Great Barrier Island

When heading to The Barrier it's a good idea to bring some staples with you, as being an island the store prices can be a bit of a sting. That being said, you should absolutely pick up some bits and bobs from the local stores and also treat yourself (and support local) with a few meals from one of the following great outposts around the island.

Currach Irish Pub

If you’re after a real authentic taste of Ireland then look no further than the Currach Irish Pub. This is a fave amongst locals as they’re known for their range of craft beers, their hearty homemade grub and for their great craic, of course. Dishing up some classic woodfired pizzas, freshly caught fish, BBQ ribs and tasty specials, sit back and relax in the beer garden with a nice cold pint in hand or get your jam on at their (highly-recommended) open mic night.

Someone digs into a pizza at My Fat Puku on Great Barrier Island.My Fat Puku

Pizza has to be up there with one of our fave foods, it has the ability to warm the soul like nothing else and lucky for us My Fat Puku is serving up some of the best pizzas in town. These bad boys aren’t just your ordinary pepperoni slice, they’re filled with healthy and hearty ingredients and cooked in an authentic, woodfired Pompeii oven. Yum! If pizza isn’t your thing, there’s also a variety of tasty cabinet food for you to sink your teeth into.

Pa Beach Café

Known for their impressive cabinet selection, Pa Beach Café is a must-visit while you’re on the island. Whether you’re a sweet or savoury fan, the cabinet is beaming with food for all—think homemade pies, twisters, brioche, doughnuts, lamingtons, brownies and heaps more. If you’re after something a tad healthier then there’s also a variety of fresh salads and sarnies to choose from. Whatever you choose, be sure to grab a few treats to go—trust us, you’ll need them to restore your energy. 

A child looks at the goodies on offer at Baked On Barrier.

Baked On Barrier

As Kiwis, a love of pies is practically in our DNA. These hearty pastries have been keeping us fuelled for generations and are the perfect meal for lunch, dinner, or even a cheeky brekkie so be sure to check out Baked on Barrier for your much-needed pie fix. The Double Happy, a devilish creation of two sausages in one pastry enveloped with cheese inside—like a sausage roll on steroids—is also well worthy of your attention.

Aotea Brewing 

Swing by to pick up a sustainable beer brewed right on the island at Aotea Brewing. Check their website for the next dates for their legendary Sunday Sessions, which is always a good time. Good brews with good tunes? Count us in.

Swallow Burger

You just can’t beat a good burger, it’s salty, it’s satisfying, it’s what hungry dreams are made of, especially after a long day of hiking or exploring the island. Whether you want fresh fish burgers, veggie burgers or a classic cheese Swallow Burger will sort you right out with their mouth-watering selection. Rumour has it, the roast pork belly is to die for. 

Things To Do On Great Barrier Island

People stargaze the night sky with Good Heavens.

Stargaze At The Dark Sky Sanctuary

New Zealand is blessed with clear night skies and next to no light pollution, which means the stargazing options are next-level and up there with the best is Great Barrier Island. Fun fact—Great Barrier was the first island in the world to become a dark sky sanctuary. Unleash your inner astronomer and book yourself a tour with Good Heavens, where you will sit under the stars on Medlands beach wrapped in cosy blankies and sipping on hot cocoa, while the guides share their knowledge of the night sky, telling Māori stories throughout. Look through your binoculars or the giant telescope for the ultimate view of the glittering constellations. Alternatively, take a day or twilight trek with Star Treks or if you're a keen photographer, book an astrophotography adventure with Carol Comer for detailed instruction on how to snap out-of-this-world pics of the celestial night sky.

A couple frolic amongst the hot Springs.Soak In The Kaitoke Hot Springs

If you love a hot pool as much as we do then sit back, relax and have a bath in a natural hot pool in the middle of a serene forest. Take a walk along the Kaitoke Hot Springs Track, where you’ll wander through beautifully lush New Zealand bush along the edge of the Kaitoke Swamp, and cross the Kaitoke Stream. Dammed at a fork in the Kaitoke Creek, among low-hanging trees and smooth rock clusters, you’ll find a series of shallow hot pools awaiting your visit. Go further up the track after the first pools to find small waterfalls amongst which to bask. Pack your togs.

Immerse Yourself In The Local Art Scene

With such an abundance of natural beauty, it's no wonder that the islanders have a creative streak! In fact, the Community Art Gallery in Claris represents 100 island artists. Take a tour of the Island art centres for a wholesome day out, and don't forget to pick up a one-of-a-kind art piece to take home.

The view from the top of Station Rock Road Walkway looking towards Medland beach.Go For A Hike... Or 12

Great Barrier is a hikers' paradise as it is home to heaps of hiking tracks to choose from for all levels, so lace up and head out on a good old tramp— after all, there’s nothing better than exploring the great outdoors and breathing in the wonderfully fresh air. If a short walk takes your fancy then try the Harataonga loop walk, it’s not only one of the easier walks on the Island but is easy on the eye too. If you want to challenge yourself then take on the four summits while you’re there, Mt Hobson, White Cliffs, Ruahine Lookout Track and Station Rock Lookout (view pictured above). Alternatively, the legendary Aotea Track which takes two to three days will elevate your tramping experience to the sublime.

The stunning Kaitoke Beach on Great Barrier Island.Explore The Beautiful Beaches

New Zealand has no shortage of spectacular coastlines and Great Barrier is home to some of the best. You'll be spoilt for choice with everything from wild, rugged surf to tranquil, calm shores. It would be a crime not to explore the beautiful beaches that the island has to offer, whether that's by foot, kayak, paddleboarding or surfing. Hire some paddleboards or kayaks from Paddles and Saddles and get up close and personal with the marine life or tackle the waves at gems like Okiwi, Awana, Kaitoke (pictured above) or famous surf beach, Medlands Beach.  

Take A Tour By Boat

Explore the beautiful Barrier the Kiwi way on an epic boat adventure with Hooked on Barrier. Get your much-needed fix of sun-kissed skin, windswept hair and salty smiles as you soak in the views from a 11.2 metre ex-fishing boat. Choose from a variety of sightseeing tours, where you can explore the coast, dine in hidden coves, go for a dip and even test out your paddleboarding skills where you can spot stingrays, fish and if you’re lucky, dolphins. 

Fancy something a little closer? Here's everything to see and do on Waiheke Island.

Image credit: Aotea Track by Auckland Unlimited, Barrier Air by Armelle Frimpong, Willis by Airbnb, X-Spot by Bookabach, Jacks Sanctuary by Armelle Frimpong, My Fat Puku, Baked On Barrier by Armelle Frimpong, Good Heavens stargazing by Auckland Unlimited, Kaitoke Hot Springs by Todd Eyre, View from Station Rock Walkway by Armelle Frimpong, Kaitoke Beach by Scott Venning.

Editor's note: Urban List editors independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. Urban List has affiliate partnerships, so we get revenue from your purchase.

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