The star quality of New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island

The off-grid island 90km off the coast of Auckland is a Dark Sky Sanctuary ideal for star gazing – and the views by day are heavenly too

I was glad I had such terrible jet lag. Wide awake at 3.30am with my nine-year-old daughter on our lodge balcony, I stared for hours at the most incredible night sky I’ve ever seen before the dawn slowly started to rub out the stars on the horizon and the multiple shooting stars faded away.

We were going to my girlfriend’s big family reunion in Auckland, New Zealand, but when we found out that Great Barrier Island, just off the coast, had been recently awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status – a typically remote area that has an “exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights” – we thought it would be the perfect place to unwind before our busy schedule. It’s the first island and only the fourth location in the world to achieve this (along with Chile’s Gabriela Mistral, the Cosmic Campground in New Mexico and Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah).

After a 28-hour flight with two travel-sick children, our hearts sank when we saw the tiny twin engine 10-seater that was to take us the 90km across the Hauraki Gulf to Great Barrier. But we needn’t have worried. Whether it was the g-force of the ascent or the noise of the plane (we had to wear headsets), it put our three-year-old daughter instantly to sleep until we bumped down on the grass at Claris airport. Our first empty sick bag against all the odds… Things were looking up.

Surf and sand dunes at Medlands Beach, Great Barrier Island.
Surf and sand dunes at Medlands beach, Great Barrier Island. Photograph: Alamy

Great Barrier is off-grid and the 950 people living there (though only about half permanently) rely on solar and wind energy, and bottled gas for cooking. There are no streetlights. There are no cash machines or banks. The police force comprises a husband and wife, and there’s one postie. It’s not just the lack of light but the lack of noise that’s so blissful on this unique and stunning little idyll. It was first discovered by East Polynesians about 700 years ago and the Maori name for the island is Aotea (canoe). Captain Cook gave the island its European name, because it acts as a barrier between the Pacific and the Hauraki Gulf.

The climate here is subtropical like Auckland’s, but it’s windier and more rugged; a beautiful wilderness with lush forests, glorious, unspoilt sandy beaches and plenty of bays and a few mountainous areas where there are good walking tracks among the wetlands and gorges, including the three-day Aotea Track. You can birdwatch, snorkel, surf and kayak. The best beaches are on the eastern side of the island where the surf is better, too. The sheltered western side is where you’ll find the best diving and boating. Lots of people come here for the fantastic fishing spots around the island – snapper, squid, cod. Like a lot of spots in New Zealand, there are dolphin and whale-watching trips and you might just catch sight of hammerhead sharks.

It’s rare to find an island that really does feel undiscovered – but this is it. When one of my girlfriend’s relations, who comes here regularly, found out that we’d been, he whispered to us, only half-joking: “Shh – don’t tell anyone!” (He’s a former All Black, so I might be in a bit of bother.) The locals are a relaxed and friendly bunch – a lot of them told us that it’s like Waiheke Island (now in effect a suburb of Auckland) was in the 70s when it was a hippy commune and full of artists and people wanting to escape the city. Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman lives on Great Barrier and Veronica Lake’s daughter, the artist Anae Swan, also lives here.

The Milky Way at Great Barrier Island.
The Milky Way as seen on Great Barrier Island with the Good Heavens telescope. Photograph: Mark Russell/Sophi Reinholt/The Renegade Peach Project

Our guide for some of our stay was the inestimable Hilde Hoven, a dark sky ambassador who runs Good Heavens with Deborah Kilgallon and Orla Cumisky. They bring their 8in Dobsonian telescope, binoculars and beanbags (it’s hard work staring up wide-eyed in wonder without neck support) and, my elder daughter was glad to hear, hot chocolate to wherever you are on the island. “It’s odd but when the light readings were done,” said Hilde, explaining how the island was awarded its special status, “they found there was more light pollution on the northern side coming from Fiji, which is about 3,000km away, than Auckland to the south. It’s pretty dark!”

Beginning their celestial PowerPoint demonstration using a green laser pointer, Hilda and Orla showed us the Messier 4 globular cluster with white dwarf stars, Saturn and its rings, the Southern Cross and the Milky Way, which stretched across the sky. My daughter was especially taken with Hilde’s recounting of the Maori myth of Māui’s fish hook to explain the shape of Scorpius. In the fable, Māui hauled the North Island of New Zealand (Te Ika-a-Māui, which means the Fish of Māui) from the bottom of the ocean with his hook.

Mount St Paul Estate, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand.
Mount St Paul Estate, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand Photograph: PR

We stayed at Mount St Paul’s Estate, a luxurious lodge run by the genial Chris and Teara, both from Canada. Teara used to be a chef at the Langham in Auckland and so dinner, eaten around a huge circular kauri table (made of one of the most ancient trees in the world), was every bit as mouth-watering as you’d expect; seared scallops with a wasabi pea purée and braised lamb shanks with a garlic and maple reduction. Tucking into pancakes on the wraparound verandah overlooking the pristine white sandy beach was a great way to start the day.

Another highlight was an hour-long walk to Kaitoke hot pools in the centre of the island, through wetlands and a kānuka forest, where we spotted fern birds and fantails and whiled away a good hour sitting in the pools shaded from the heat by layers of delicate umbrella ferns.

the mermaid pool at Medlands beach Great Barrier Island
Chris Hall’s daughter Zarify, nine, in the mermaid pool at Medlands beach. Photograph: Chris Hall/The Observer

We also loved visiting the potter Sarah Harrison, who showed us round her studio at Shoal Bay harbour, and her many pots and jugs, plates and bowls and colourful mosaics. She also uses a lot of found materials in her work, such as her driftwood chairs. My elder daughter loved the gorgeous hidden mermaid pool at Medlands beach where the water is separated from the sea in a secluded rock pool. Other high points were the gnarly, ancient pohutukawa trees; and the stunning panoramic views of Okiwi Basin and Whangapoua beach from the top of Windy Canyon, just a 10-minute hike through a gorge up some steep wooden steps on the eastern side of the island. Apparently the island council turned down Paul McCartney’s application to buy a property at Great Barrier because of the unwelcome attention he would have brought. You can see why he wanted to come here; equally, the island knows exactly what kind of star watching it prefers.

Way to go

Chris and his family stayed at, Great Barrier Island. Rooms are £99pp per night. They flew from Auckland to Great Barrier with, return fares from £40. Cathay Pacific flies between the UK and Hong Kong, and onwards to more than 190 destinations globally. These include five flights daily from Heathrow, and daily from Gatwick and Manchester. Return fares to Auckland in economy are from £1,024, (0800 917 8260). Star gazing with starts from $50 for children and $90 for adults.


Chris Hall

The GuardianTramp

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