New Zealand's Main Islands Are Stunning. But These 8 Smaller Ones Shouldn't Be Missed.
Drink some wine, see some penguins, then hang out in an active volcanic crater.
Setting down in New Zealand, it doesn't take long to realize the majority of the country is divided between two large landmasses. The North Island offers more urban adventures in big cities like Auckland and Wellington, plus hot springs, geysers, and seemingly never-ending beaches. The South, meanwhile, is an adventure capital where heli-hiking and bungee jumping reign supreme among glaciers, fjords, and the Southern Alps.
As someone who feels an intense urge to see and do everything, deciding how to divide my time between the North and South Islands was tough as I prepared for a yearlong stay under a working holiday visa. Then, upon arrival, I discovered these two main islands aren’t even the only islands you can, or should, visit.
As if New Zealand needed any more help proving itself as a paradise on Earth, there are a number of other smaller islands dotting its waters that demand to be visited, each offering unforgettable experiences. Perfect for day trips or weekend excursions, here are some other places in New Zealand to pencil into your itinerary.
About a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, Waiheke has more wineries dotted across its 36 square miles than you can reasonably visit in a weekend. You could, however give hitting all 20+ a reasonable run thanks to the island's easy-to-use bus system and bike rental options.
f you need a break from wine tasting, relax a little at one of the island’s beautiful beaches like Oneroa—a popular choice conveniently located in the main village— and Onetangi, the island’s longest (and most blindingly white) stretch of sand. Waiheke is also known for its art community, so check out some of the galleries while you’re there. Or just spend all your time drinking wine—no judgment here.
Hop on a ferry from the Aukland's downtown terminal and just 25 minutes later you'll end up at Rangitoto Island, a volcanic island that emerged out of the water around 600 years ago. The highlight on this day-trip destination is hiking the summit track, which takes you through native pōhutukawa forest—the largest of its kind in the world—to the peak, where you’ll get great panoramic views of the Hauraki Gulf from 259 meters above sea level. As a fun little side trip, follow the signs to break off the walk and explore some lava caves (just remember to take a “torch,” which is “flashlight” in Kiwi slang).
Since there are no shops to be found on this little island, be prepared and pack your own food and water. There’s very limited accommodation that needs to be booked in advance, so keep an eye on when your return ferry departs, lest you really need that torch.
Tiritiri Matangi Island
Tiritiri Matangi (Tiri for short) is an open wildlife sanctuary and a magnet for birdwatchers—and it's a scant 75-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland. The island has been restored after decades and decades of farming, thanks to the eradication of all the introduced pests and the replanting of hundreds of thousands of native trees. That brings us back to the birds: This conservation work helped make it possible to release threatened native bird species back on the island to great success.
Some birds to look out for include the takahē, korimako (bellbird), kōkako (blue wattled crow), tīeke (saddleback), hihi (stitchbird), and pāteke (brown teal). Tiritiri Matangi is also home to some little blue penguins, which are officially the smallest species of penguins in the world and absolutely adorable. Bring your binoculars, enjoy the birdsong, and see how many different birds you can spot.
Poor Knights Islands
Exploring Poor Knights Islands—a protected marine and nature reserve—is a little different ballgame, given the fact that it’s forbidden to step foot on any part of them. Instead, all the adventure and fun takes place under the water. World-renowned for its diving and snorkeling, the Poor Knights earned themselves a spot on famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s top 10 dives in the world.
Ancient volcanos have left a complex wonderland to explore underwater, made up of caves, tunnels, and cliffs. There’s the incredible biodiversity with over 125 different kinds of fish, plus all the other amazing marine life like corals and sponges that inhabit the area. The easiest way to get to the Poor Knights Islands is to take the 35-minute boat ride from the Tutukaka Harbour in the country’s Northland region. Dive! Tutukaka can set you up with everything you need.
Great Barrier Island
Making the trip out to Great Barrier Island/Aotea delivers you to a remote, rugged paradise, a majority of which has been named a protected reserve. The grid is nowhere to be found: the island runs on solar and generator power and there’s limited phone/internet connection. While you’re on your mini digital detox, hike, fish, ride horses, paddleboard, kayak, surf, and dive to your heart's content. Great Barrier Island is also one of just 13 certified dark sky sanctuaries in the world, which means that it’s an exceptional place to stargaze.
To get there, catch a cruise from Auckland, which will take around four and a half hours. If being on the sea for that long isn’t your idea of fun, go for a scenic 30-minute flight from Auckland instead.
Also called Te Puia o Whakaari in Māori, White Island is a live volcano and privately owned scenic reserve in the Bay of Plenty that’s open to visitors. You can’t go on your own, though: You’ll need to be on a guided boat or helicopter tour, which you can get on starting from Tauranga, Whakatane, or Rotorua.
“But what about safety?” you might ask. Oh sure, there’s always going to be some level of risk involved with visiting a live volcano. But this one's eruption alert level generally hovers around one or two out of five, according to the official tourism website for New Zealand. And you’ll get a hard hat and gas mask for your tour, too. So you should be cool.
The small risk is rewarded with otherworldly landscapes and awesome geothermal activity like steam vents, volcanic streams, bubbling mud pools, and a vivid acidic lake. You’ll also get the rare opportunity to walk inside the actual main crater. If you really want to incite some travel envy in your friends back home, this should do the trick.
Ulva Island (or Te Wharawhara) feels practically untouched by humans. A pest-free open sanctuary, it's alive with birdsong, which echoes through unspoiled rainforest courtesy of a variety of birds, including, potentially, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. Despite the kiwi being a symbol of the country, spotting one in the wild is no easy feat, but they have been known to wander around Ulva during the day.
It takes some effort to get to this small, pristine island. Ulva is located in an inlet that’s part of Stewart Island (or Rakiura), which is New Zealand’s third-largest isle found all the way down south. You’ll first need to take a ferry or flight to Stewart Island, and then grab the 10-minute water taxi to Ulva. Well-maintained tracks around the island make it easy to explore, or you can book walking tours in Oban, the main settlement on Stewart.
Mou Waho Island on Lake Wanaka
OK so, there’s an island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island in the ocean. I’ll let you sit on that for a minute. Here’s how it all breaks down: In the South Island of New Zealand, on the picturesque Lake Wanaka, there’s Mou Waho Island. Then, near the peak of Mou Waho Island, there’s a small hidden lake left by glacier activity also called Arethusa Pool. And finally, in that little lake is a small rocky island. Got it?
To see this unique, hidden natural wonder for yourself, first take a water taxi or tour cruise to Mou Wahu Island from the town of Wanaka. When you land, go on the short bush walk to the top where you’ll be able to snap a picture of how all these islands and bodies of water fit together. The mountain and lake views you get aren’t too shabby, either. As a protected nature reserve, there's also a good chance to see weka, which are large, flightless, famously curious birds native to the country.