Great Barrier Island (Aotea)

Guide image

Overlooking Awana Beach, photo credit: vwnz from Flickr Creative Commons

Lying 90kms northeast of Auckland, Great Barrier Island is a natural sanctuary for native birds, flora and fauna, as there are no possums, mustelids, brown rats or deer here. Over 60% of the island is managed by the Department of Conservation, who maintain great tramping tracks, campsites and help protect native birds such as kaka, pateke, black petrel and 13 species of lizard.

These days the resident population is about 850 people, and farming and tourism are the main industries. Despite being much more accessible than it once was, the Barrier still feels remote, so much so that BBC One filmed a Castaway series here!  Great Barrier has no street lights, no mains electricity, no secondary schools. There’s an old-school, self-reliant feel, with residents using generators, solar or wind power for electricity. Roads might be unsealed and cars sometimes unwarranted, but drivers wave to each other and pick up hitch-hikers.

The coastline is spectacular. On the east coast there are long, white sandy beaches, with the waves sweeping in from the Pacific at popular surf spots such as Medlands, Whangapoua, Kaitoke and Awana Beaches. The west coast is a mass of sheltered bays and coves, perfect for kayaking, sailing and diving. You can fish from the coast, or take a big game fishing charter further out.


Aotea, island of the white cloud, is the name given by the Ngati Rehua hapu of Ngati Wai, who have lived here for centuries. Great Barrier Island received it’s English name from Captain James Cook in 1769 - as the island forms a protective barrier between the Pacific Ocean and the Hauraki Gulf.

Coastal pa sites, middens and storage pits from early Maori inhabitants can still be seen. From the mid eighteenth century European settlers exploited the rich natural resources on Great Barrier, mining for copper, gold and silver ore, and logging the kauri forests, catching whales and fish.

What to see and do

Hike through regenerating kauri forest to white sandy beaches, hot springs or the remnants of the kauri driving dam on the Kaiaraara Stream. For fantastic views of the rugged interior and the Hauraki Gulf, walk to Windy Canyon Lookout, or climb to the summit of Hirakimata, Mt Hobson, at 621m. On the Kotuku Peninsula, above Port Fitzroy, Glenfern Sanctuary is a predator-free haven for native birds such as the Brown Teal and North island Robin. You can experience how the bush used to be on the Glenfern Trail, and take a swing bridge into the canopy of a 600 year old kauri tree.

Getting there

Visitors can fly to Great Barrier in about 35 minutes, catch the Fullers passenger ferry which takes about 2 hours, or the Sealink passenger and car ferry, taking four and a half hours. - Sealink passenger and car ferries - Flights to Great Barrier

Where to stay

Great Barrier Island baches and holiday homes

More info - Great Barrier Island information - Glenfern Sanctuary - DOC walks and activities - Aotea Surf School

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"Over 60% of the island is managed by DOC, who maintain great tramping tracks, campsites and help protect native birds such as kaka, pateke, black petrel and 13 species of lizard."

To dos

  • Walk to Kaitoke Hot Springs
  • Hike to Windy Canyon Lookout
  • Take a fishing charter for big game fish
  • Visit the native birds, flora and fauna at Glenfern Sanctuary
  • Go diving or kayaking in the sheltered bays of the west coast
  • Catch the surf on the east coast
  • Climb to the summit of Hirakimata/ Mt Hobson
Great Barrier, Medlands Beach Medlands Beach. Photo: Isaac Kendall, Aotea Surf School
Glenfern Sanctuary, Great Barrier Island Port Fitzroy. Photo: Glenfern Sanctuary
Cook's Petrel chick at Glenfern Sanctuary Cook's Petrel chick. Photo: Glenfern Sanctuary
Piwa perched