New Zealand’s Secret Islands

August 3, 2015 by Hazel Plush

It’s not just the North and South islands, you know. New Zealand has lots of secret plots just waiting to be discovered – from far-flung volcanic spots to quaint fishing village isles. Here are six you shouldn’t miss:

White Island

When is an island not really an island? When it’s a volcano – an active one, 30 miles off the coast of the South Island. Most of the volcano is underwater, so you’ll step from the boat straight onto the crater complex, an explosive landscape of bubbling acid pools, towering steam vents, and hot volcanic streams. Watch your step!

You’ll have to wear a gas mask to protect against White Island’s ever-present sulphurous fog (it smells very eggy), but a hardy bunch of wild animals thrive where we gingerly tread. You can’t miss the vast population of Australasian gannets (they’re a raucous lot), plus the waters around the island are busy with dolphins and whales.

White Island (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

White Island (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

How to get there: Book a boat trip to the island with White Island Tours – though be warned, the crossing can be rough. For a smoother experience, try White Island Flights, who land directly on the volcano.

Kapiti Island

The whole of Kapiti is a protected nature reserve – just 50 visitors per day are permitted to visit the island. Today, it’s one of New Zealand’s greatest conservation success stories, a protected enclave for native birds such as the North Island robin and little-spotted kiwi.

But Kapiti hasn’t always been such a haven for animals: when whaling was commonplace in New Zealand, many whalers were stationed here – and pests such as rats, possums and stoats decimated the bird life. But now it’s an idyllic spot, with an ever-growing population of rare native critters.

Kapiti Island (Image: Shutterstock)

Kapiti Island (Image: Shutterstock)

How to get there: Only approved vessels are allowed to land on Kapiti, so book through a recommended tour operator like Kapiti Marine Charter or Kapiti Tours. Pest animals and plants can invade the island by stowing away in your clothing or bags, so expect your belongings to be inspected before you hop on board.

Urupukapuka Island

Lush emerald forest, idyllic white sand beaches, crystal clear water… it’s hard to describe Urupukapuka Island without resorting to clichés. But there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this paradise spot in the Bay of Islands – sure, New Zealand is renowned for its natural beauty, but  Urupukapuka is as gorgeous as it is gets.

It’s a birdwatching haven, the campsites are wild and wonderful, and the scuba diving off the east coast is some of the best in the area (high praise indeed). For those in the know, Urupukapuka also boasts great walking routes: you can happily spend a couple of days wandering its spectacular coastal trails, bumping into just a handful of equally smug hikers.

Bay of Islands (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

Bay of Islands (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

How to get there: Access is by boat only. Tours of the island run every day (try a day trip with Explore Group), and you can catch water taxis from Russell or Paihia.

Stewart Island

There aren’t many better places to uncork a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon than the South Sea Hotel Restaurant on Stewart Island. It’s not a luxury hotel, but its views are five-star: peer out at the sailing boats bobbing on Halfmoon Bay, the sea lapping the golden sand, and sooty shearwaters wheeling overhead. It gets even better when you order a bucket of ‘big glory’ mussels.

Once you’ve wined and dined, totter along one of Stewart Island’s beachy walking trails, or explore the coves in one of those pretty sailing boats. There are fishing trips, kayak rentals and birdwatching tours available too – we’d recommend stopping here for at least two idyllic nights.

Stewart Island (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

Stewart Island (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

How to get there: There are ferry and helicopters from the South Island (hop on at Bluff), and fixed wing flights from Invercargill Airport. Boats take one hour, flights take 15-20 minutes.

Kawau Island

Sir George Grey, former Governor of New Zealand, had the right idea. In 1862 he bought Kawau Island as a private retreat, a lovely little bolthole just off the North Island’s northeast coast. Today, there are a few more inhabitants, but real estate is still a premium: the properties have wide sea views and each has its own private dock.

Fancy living the high life for a day? Take a boat tour of the island and visit the Governor’s former abode – the Mansion House, no less – which is now a restaurant. Grey introduced wallabies and possums to the island, both of which have gobbled up much of the native fauna, but the island is still very picturesque. If you look hard enough through the forest undergrowth, you might even find some wild kiwi birds…

Kawau Island (Image: Kawau Cruises)

Kawau Island (Image: Kawau Cruises)

How to get there: Kawau Water Taxis runs shuttles, charter services and day trips to the island. Journey time is roughly 30 minutes.

Waiheke Island

After the North and South Islands, Waiheke is the third most populated NZ isle – home to over 8,500 lucky souls who enjoy 24 miles of wild beaches, quaint port towns, and more daylight hours and sunshine than Auckland. What’s not to love?

Over the summer and Christmas periods, the beach-side holiday homes fill up with festive visitors from the ‘mainland’ and the whole place comes to life. Travelling out of season? Waiheke feels pretty quiet – and it’s all the better for it. Spend your days vineyard hopping, feasting on seafood, and playing beach Top Trumps. Cactus Bay – accessible only from the sea – is a pretty impressive contender, and well worth the trip in a rented kayak.

Waiheke Island (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

Waiheke Island (Image: New Zealand Tourist Board)

How to get there: There are regular passenger and vehicle ferry services from Auckland; the trip takes around 50 minutes. Not got your sea legs? Book a flight to Waiheke Island Aerodrome.


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About Hazel Plush

Drawn to places that most people dismiss, I love digging out juicy stories in off-beat locations – whether that's poking around the furthermost corners of Europe, travelling overland in East Africa, or venturing beyond the malls and beaches of Dubai. I've travelled all over the world on assignment, but still haven't mastered the art of packing lightly. Tweet me @hazelplush