Amid the natural splendour of New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island, a writer discovers a community of entrepreneurs weaving sustainability into everything they do. Text by Ellen Falconer; photographs by Kieran E. Scott
The first thing I noticed about Great Barrier Island was all that green. This diminutive stretch of forested land—just 285 square kilometres in size—popped against the azure waters of Hauraki Gulf, which stretches from Great Barrier to New Zealand’s North Island. As our plane descended, distinct features gradually revealed themselves: rocky pinnacles reaching skyward, rugged slivers of beach with windswept foliage, and, lastly, a few clusters of low-lying buildings.
Fellow Kiwis who’d visited told me the setting was magical. Yet I was caught off guard by the island’s almost primaeval beauty. Though roughly 1,000 people call Great Barrier home, there’s little development, as two-thirds of the land is protected by conservation law. Te Motu o Aotea, as it’s known in the Maori language (or, informally, Aotea), doesn’t have water mains. And in the absence of an electrical grid, it relies largely on solar power.
Here, sustainability is less of a buzzword and more of a necessity. Residents consider themselves guardians of the land and feel a deep responsibility to protect it. Their work is paying off. One case in point: in 2017, Aotea was named a Dark Sky Sanctuary—a certification that has only been given to 13 remote areas with minimal light pollution.
Even newcomers who have moved here from other parts of the country to adopt a slower lifestyle have built businesses designed to support Aotea’s ecosystem. Recently, a growing number of travellers have begun to recognise its appeal as an easy, off-the-grid getaway—just a 40-minute flight from Auckland. Travel within New Zealand had normalised by last August, so in November, my friend Chloé and I decided to hop over for a four-day trip to rekindle our appreciation for the great outdoors.
I woke early on our first morning to hear an ebullient warble: a tui, a bird with a distinctive white pom-pom ruff, was feasting on the nectar of harakeke flax flowers outside the bedroom window. Chloé and I were staying on the western coast at XSpot (doubles from INR 15,432), a cliff-top vacation rental we’d chosen for its unimpeded gulf views. In keeping with the ethos of the island, the minimalist one-bedroom property is fully solar-powered.
We began the day with breakfast at Pa Beach Café (entrées INR 805–INR 1,097; 82 Blackwell Dr., Tryphena; 64-09-429-0905), a casual spot that quickly became our favourite for comfort-food staples made with ingredients from local farms. Sitting at an outdoor table, we shared a spread that included Pa Beach’s fluffy scrambled eggs, which Chloé declared the best she’d ever eaten.
Multiple people we chatted with encouraged us to follow a coastal road toward Tryphena Wharf to find Shoal Bay Pottery (64-09-429-0455), a ceramics studio and shop run by Sarah Harrison. Her stock changes constantly as she experiments with various forms and materials, including wrecked-boat wood she finds on beach walks. We each scooped up a small bowl and two miniature sea urchin figures.
As storm clouds rolled in, we drove a half-hour north to Island Gin to meet owner Andi Ross for a tasting and tour, available by appointment. The former creative director, who had been vacationing on Great Barrier with her family for nearly two decades, decided to permanently settle here in 2017, leaving behind the urban pleasures of Melbourne for the chance to start her distillery. With raindrops echoing on the tin roof, Ross poured samples of three gin flavours: original; the high-proof navy strength; and a tangelo-laced special edition. To anchor the spirits with a deep sense of place, she sources manuka honey from local beekeepers and combines it with native botanicals, including lemon verbena and coriander. When I noticed the unusual texture of her bottles, she explained that it was a nod to the kina, one of New Zealand’s endemic sea urchins.
Late that afternoon, we met up with Benny Bellerby of adventure operator Star Treks, who led us on a 45-minute walk to Kaitoke Hot Springs, a set of geothermal pools hidden in the middle of Aotea. Flanked by wetlands on one side and dense bush on the other, they are said to have been favoured by early Maori for their restorative properties. We arrived at the temperate mainspring just as the light started to fade. Chloé and I quickly slipped off our shoes, eager to get in and wade through the stream-connected ponds.
As evening turned to full-on night, Chloé and I uncorked a Pinot Noir and relaxed in the balmy shallows. While Chloé had one last dip in the warmest pool, I wrapped up in a towel and helped myself to a minty tisane Bellerby made for us from kawakawa leaves and manuka honey. As I tipped my head back to down the last sip, I spotted Mars twinkling through the trees.
The next morning we headed 30 minutes north from XSpot to check out Motubikes(motubikes.co.nz), an electric-motorbike rental company near the airport on the eastern coast. We found owner Seagar Clarkson poring over some kind of manual. As it turned out, the former naval officer was studying to join the Rural Fire Brigade because “everyone helps out with a few bits and pieces.”
Normally, visitors rent Clarkson’s single-seater bikes to zip around the island. I don’t have a driver’s licence, but Chloé, who does, jumped on one just to give it a whirl. After a couple of steady laps around the gnarled trunk of the pohutukawa tree in Clarkson’s yard, she proved proficient enough for a quick test run on the road. She returned 15 minutes later with a cheerful toot! toot! and a grin on her face.
The following morning, we returned to the same area to visit Aotea Brewing. Sarah Bowman and Caleb Clarke’s microbrewery—marked only by a vintage truck—features several upcycled shipping containers. It’s currently open to the public only on Saturdays, but Bowman pulled tasters for us to try anyway. As I sipped the Solar Charged American Pale Ale, she explained, “It’s a celebration of New Zealand hops, which have a fruity, aromatic punch.”
She went on to explain that many of the brewery’s manufacturing components are onto their second or third life, including the fermentation tanks, some of which came from a nearby dairy farm. “It’s about taking full responsibility for everything on-site—where it comes from, how you appreciate it while it’s here, and where it goes,” she explained.
That night we arrived at Medlands Beach for a stargazing tour with Deborah Kilgallon of Good Heavens. The clouds had been patchy all day, but we lucked out and spotted Jupiter and four of its moons through a telescope before the sky turned overcast. Kilgallon said that in better weather we’d have been able to see the constellation Scorpius, which in Maori tradition is the fishhook the hero Maui used to bring the North Island up from the ocean.
Before heading to the airport the next day, Chloé and I stopped back at Medlands. We’d hoped to squeeze in one last swim, but the ocean was still too wild after a storm that had passed through two days earlier.
As we walked back to the car barefoot, I started thinking of an ad we’d heard on the local radio station, urging listeners to take everything with us and leave nothing but footprints. It reminded me of all the people we’d met and their inspiring commitment to this special place.
Chloé and I looked back at the gusty dunes one last time and realised our own footprints had all but disappeared.
Multiple carriers operate flights to Auckland, from where you can reach Great Barrier Island by air or sea. There are regular flights from Auckland Domestic Terminal to Claris and Okiwi airfields. The flight takes around 30 minutes while a Sealink ferry takes four and a half hours but offers sea views replete with sightings of dolphins and whales. Water taxi services are available as well.