Go off the grid – literally – at Great Barrier Island, a tiny isle off the east coast of New Zealand, known for incredible things to do outdoors: surfing and snorkelling at pristine beaches, exploring nature hikes and exceptional star-gazing.
It’s four hours by ferry from Auckland – just 30 minutes if you choose to fly – but Great Barrier Island has a rare lost-in-time feel. There are no streetlights or ATMs, the entire island is powered off the grid and more than 70 per cent of the land is administered by the Department of Conservation.
Head to one of the island’s beaches – perhaps Medlands or Harataonga – to float in a natural rock pool or grab your snorkel and explore the seaweed forests and underwater rock formations. If you find the water a little too chilly, venture inland to enjoy a soak in the Kaitoke Hot Springs.
Hikers have a range of options to stretch their legs. For a short walk, there’s the 30-minute Whaler’s Lookout Track starting at Johnson’s Bay – one of the best places on the island for spotting whales – or the Te Ahumata Track, which follows an old mining trail (allow an hour one way). Or go a little harder with the Mount Hobson Summit Walk, a three-hour trek that leads you to the island’s highest point, from where you can take in the panoramic views.
If all that walking whets your appetite, good news – the local food scene is a sophisticated one. At Pa Beach Café (82 Blackwell Drive, Tryphena; +64 9 429 0905) order eggs Benedict for brunch or head to Swallow (Main Road, Claris; +64 9 429 0226) for sensational burgers (try the pork belly). There’s even a local micro-brewery, Aotea Brewing, an eco-conscious enterprise situated near Medlands Beach. As for accommodation, the charming Trillium Lodge has six suites and looks out to the coast.
But don’t plan on getting an early night. Great Barrier Island is one of New Zealand’s Dark Sky Sanctuaries and the stargazing here is astonishing. Join one of Good Heavens’ tours to discover the secrets of the night sky, including the Magellanic Clouds and the glittering swathe of the Milky Way.
3 more great places to see the stars.
Explore the dark skies of the North Island’s Coromandel Peninsula, about a 2.5-hour drive from Auckland, with Stargazers Astronomy Tours. You’ll be introduced to various planets and nebulae and also learn the science behind the beauty, including how stars are born and die.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Set amid towering mountains, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s best one-day hike. For those prepared to skip a bit of sleep, it also offers some extraordinary astro-tourism. You’ll need to rise at around 2am to take part in the sunrise hike offered by Adrift Tongariro. The pay-off – apart from watching the new day dawn from the rim of a crater – is the thrill of walking beneath a blanket of stars so close you’ll feel like you can touch them.
Head to Bob’s Peak, high above the lights of Queenstown, for an astronomical experience with Skyline Queenstown. Using high-powered 11” Celestron telescopes, your guide will highlight some of the most distinctive features of the Milky Way, as well as recount the tales the Māori shared about the stars.
Medlands Beach image credit: Scott Venning