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NEW ZEALAND

The wild and beautiful Hauraki Gulf islands

Just short ferry ride from Auckland lies a string of islands rich in natural beauty, kooky creatures and solitude.

January 17, 2010|By Rosemary McClure
  • Boats ride at anchor at Waiheke Island, which is easily accessible by ferry from Auckland. Popular with locals and visitors alike, the island is known for its views, galleries, gourmet cafes and wineries.
Boats ride at anchor at Waiheke Island, which is easily accessible by ferry… (Rosemary McClure )

Reporting from Great Barrier Island, New Zealand — I walked along a wild, isolated beach, my bare feet sinking into damp sand as I listened to waves tumbling onto the shore. A lone surfer was catching foaming swells and then disappearing into the sea, popping up later in another place with his board. I had seen no one else in the two hours I'd been walking.

Earlier that day, a nine-passenger twin-engine Islander had deposited me here, bumping down on the grass runway at Great Barrier Island, 65 miles and a world away from Auckland, New Zealand. Great Barrier is part of the Hauraki Gulf islands, which dot the waters off eastern Auckland.

Some travelers crave cities; others love historical places. I'm obsessed with islands -- in the U.S., the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, wherever. The Gulf islands are my latest find. They range from islets so small they're basically just rocks rising from the sea to others large enough to have communities of thousands of residents. Less well known than New Zealand's Bay of Islands to the north, they nonetheless would win a paradise-of-the-Pacific award for their balmy seas, beautiful coastlines and unique flora and fauna.

"Down under isn't like anywhere else," Steve Billington, my guide, said as we drove through a stand of gargantuan native trees on Great Barrier Island.

I didn't argue; the trees had unfamiliar names, such as kauri and pohutukawa, and their extreme height and girth left me nearly speechless. Other examples of the country's odd species are legendary, including goofy birds such as the kiwi -- a bird that doesn't fly -- and the kakapo, the world's heaviest parrot. Too fat to fly and too stupid to remember it can't, the kakapo spreads its wings and falls like a rock.

New Zealanders safeguard their odd birds, giant trees and wild and beautiful places. That's one reason 70% of Great Barrier Island is protected by the Department of Conservation.

The more than 50 Hauraki Gulf islands are part of a maritime park the agency administers. Some of the islands, such as Great Barrier, offer recreation and can be explored by visitors; others are off-limits.

The islands closest to Auckland can be reached by ferry in about half an hour. Before coming here, I had soaked up the ambience for a few days at Waiheke Island, the most popular -- and most populous -- of the Gulf islands. I walked a few blocks from my downtown Auckland hotel to Fullers Ferry Terminal, where I paid $23 round-trip, hopped aboard a boat and eavesdropped as other travelers talked about their plans for the day. Most involved sipping a little -- or maybe even a lot -- of wine.

Waiheke, known for its wineries, galleries and gourmet cafes, is a million miles removed from the untamed beauty of Great Barrier. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, especially the tasting rooms offering Cabernet Sauvignon.

Waiheke's scenery and laid-back vibe draw domestic and international visitors alike. The 36-square-mile island, once considered the outback, has turned into a pricey suburb of Auckland, with nearly 8,000 residents who commute to work by ferry.

But its green hills, white sandy beaches and stunning hilltop views of Auckland and the gulf make it a natural stop for visitors too. The bonus? It has become one of New Zealand's trendiest boutique wine regions, with more than two dozen wineries, many of which offer free tasting. I spent most of my time on the island enjoying the spirited ambience of places such as Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant and Stonyridge Vineyard & Veranda Café.

But I also explored the sunny beaches between Oneroa and Onetangi bays and took a bush walk to photograph the Auckland skyline in the distance. Then I collapsed at the Boatshed, a Nantucket, Mass.-inspired lodge with a three-story lighthouse suite overlooking the sea. (Accommodations in Waiheke range from about $22 a night for backpackers to high-end $500-a-night luxury digs.)

The other Gulf Island on my itinerary was Rangitoto, site of the area's largest volcanic cone. (Despite its rep, I wasn't worried; the last eruption was 600 years ago.) Fullers ferry again offered transportation ($18 round-trip), this time to a moonscape of rugged rock formations and lava tubes set off by 200 species of moss, plants and trees. The eerie landscape alone is worth the trip, and the steep, strenuous hour-plus hike to the summit (2,952-foot elevation gain) offers another spectacular view of the gulf and Auckland.

Back in the city, I stopped off to meet John Banks, Auckland's mayor, who described himself as "America's biggest booster in the city. I'm unashamedly pro-American," he said.

And he wouldn't mind seeing a few more U.S. and Canadian tourists spend time in his city -- or the nearby Gulf islands. "We don't have world-class nightclubs here, but we do have spectacular water and islands and offer open, fresh-air experiences."

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