An old charmer
Yes, you’ll need to drive through the hell that is the Warkworth-Matakana Road intersection, but you’ll forget all that as you slip off right to Sandspit wharf and catch one of the frequent Kawau Cruises or water taxis to Kawau Island. Think of it as Waiheke 40 years ago. Most jetties belong to private baches and you can find ones to rent on BookaBach. Join the daily mail run cruise that circuits the island and stop by the historic Mansion House for tea and views of those much-photographed peacocks and wallabies. Flexible water taxis give you time for burgers and beer at Bon Accord Bar & Bistro at the Kawau Boating Club, where there’s a great garden bar and a local or a boatie with a great yarn. You could make it a fancy weekend at the boathouse-style lodging and dining at The Beach House in Vivian Bay, or if you can rustle up 49 friends (or up to 60 at peak season) you can share the old-school camping delights of Camp Bentzon.
An Auckland icon
It’s pretty much a requirement of citizenship for Aucklanders to make the hot and rocky hike to Rangitoto’s summit. And there’s no excuse for not doing so, with regular ferries stopping at Rangitoto and adjoining Motutapu Island. The Department of Conservation campsite at Home Bay on Motutapu is pretty basic (no showers, but there are flushing loos), but that’s how we like it. Make a magical evening of it with a guided kayak tour to the island, then hike to the summit for sunset views of the city, eat a barbecue dinner, and paddle back as the city lights sparkle across the harbour. Vintage buffs should time their visit to check out Bach 38 Museum, and amble along the coast to see some 1920s gems still in use.
Cute, tiny and off-grid
The tiny holiday community of Rakino, just east of Motutapu, feels like a holiday destination in the 1930s and 40s: Fewer than 80 baches with a handful for rent, completely off-grid, tracks and paths to gorgeous clear beaches and only three kilometres of road. In summer, the regular Belaire ferry is timed for a sweet weekend day trip (leaving the city at 10am, back at the end of the afternoon). Beaches are within a short walk of the Sandy Bay jetty – you can walk around to the rickety pier where Governor George Grey first established himself, or up and over the hills to the other bays.
Great Barrier Island
Hot springs and hikes aplenty
You can dodge the Ponsonby-by-the-sea that Medlands Beach and surrounds have become, and dig into the old-school character of the Barrier. Hardy types take the five-hour car ferry: the bonus is watching the crew loading trailers and cars to the centimetre, and the double bonus is spotting pods of playful dolphins that might accompany you over. The alternative: An easy flight (getting to the airport can take longer than the flight itself) is less than $100 each way. Once you’re there, there are shuttles and tours, but for complete freedom, rent a car. Accommodation ranges from cold-tap campgrounds to $1000-a-night lodges, and the cafes are small-town friendly. The Curragh Irish Pub is legendary, as are the Kaitoke Hot Springs, and there are walks and hikes aplenty. Our favourite: The Wairarapa Graves tracks, featuring the prettiest gravesite in Auckland built for victims of the 1894 SS Wairarapa shipwreck. Complete with picket fence, it sums up the stories (and legends) of the Barrier.
A stone’s throw away
Strictly speaking, it’s in the upper Waitematā Harbour rather than the Gulf, but this marine reserve sort of counts as the closest island to the city. Cyclists on the northwestern motorway will recognise this wee slip, accessed around Traherne Island on the southern side of the motorway, edged by Rosebank Peninsula and Waterview. At mid-high tide you can potter down from the reserves on side roads off Great North Road and there’s kayak or dinghy access off the boat slip at Walker Road in Point Chevalier. Birdwatchers can spot gulls, terns, godwits, sandpipers and oystercatchers making the most of the shellfish in the tidal estuary.
Since the dawn of The Oyster Inn and the love lavished by Monocle magazine, Waiheke has been on the top of every cool visitor list. There’s nothing wrong with eating, drinking wine, or lounging on a beach, but if you want a more active view of the island, take a guided kayak trip from Oneroa Beach to explore sea caves, rock gardens and bits of the coastline that you’d only see if you had a millionaire buddy with a beach house. You can hike off-road to Palm Beach, bus back to the ferry or stop on the way for some well-deserved eats. There are guided eco-walks, or the adrenalin-and-eco combo of the zipline.
A native sanctuary for all
Funded by one of the country’s quietest benefactors, the Rotoroa Island Trust began restoring the former Salvation Army rehabilitation facility for alcoholics in 2009. Ripping out pine trees, planting over 400,000 native trees and partnering with Auckland Zoo to re-introduce native wildlife, the trust is creating a sanctuary for conservation education. Get a group together to stay in one of the retro-styled (but all mod-cons) baches, or bunk down in the dorm-style Superintendent’s House (you can travel solo; it sleeps up to 18). The zoo runs a conservation summer series on Saturdays throughout March, with talks, family planting days and guided walks. Pretty Home Bay is great for swimming, and there’s a stylish visitors’ centre with a great history of the island.rotoroa.org.nz
Back to nature
With regular ferries and a gorgeous Department of Conservation campsite, this is the closest you’ll get to a Robinson Crusoe-style holiday, only 45 minutes from the city. The white-sand beach and clear swimming waters are the stuff of postcards, and you might be able to spot kiwi and tuatara on a native bush walk. The island is pest-free, thanks to the Motuihe Island Restoration Trust restoring the land after decades of use as a farm, quarantine station, prisoner-of-war camp and naval training base. Join Sunday guided walks and planting days throughout the year to learn more from the good souls working with iwi, the Department of Conservation and Auckland Council to restore and protect the island. If you have the energy, Nic Mead of Auckland Sea Kayaks is the only operator licensed to guide kayak camping trips.
Those with good sea legs can hire a Red Boats or Auckland Sea Shuttles charter which runs around your favourite islands in one day. Depending on weather and winds, you can stop at Rangitoto, Rakino, Motutapu and Motuihe to swim or barbecue, or do a spot of fishing.