Your guide to New Zealand’s incredible islands

October 6

Like Australia, Aotearoa is an island nation, and it’s a paradise for all you islomaniacs, whether what you want from islands is nature, beauty, heritage, history, culture or the chance to search out a secluded bay far from human contact.

From Waiheke Island, to Great Barrier Island, to Quarantine Island / Kamau Taurua, to Stewart Island New Zealanders love their islands, and you will too.

What are the main New Zealand islands?

Aotearoa New Zealand is known for its two main islands, Te Ika a Māui (Māui’s fish in te reo Maori) or the North Island, and Te Waipounamu (waters of greenstone in te reo Maori), the South Island.

What separates the North and South Islands of New Zealand?

The North and South Islands of New Zealand are separated by the Cook Strait. The Strait links the Tasman Sea with the South Pacific Ocean.

How far apart are North and South New Zealand?

At its narrowest point, the strait is about 22 kilometres wide, but the ferry trip is further, and takes about 3.5hours.

The strait is services by two local car ferries – the Interislander Ferry and the Bluebridge. It’s a beautiful trip that crossed what is essentially open ocean.

A some points the ferry is open to weather coming in from the Tasman and Pacific, and the ride can get pretty wild on a windy day. Sharing stories of rough Cook Strait crossings is a bit of a national pastime in New Zealand.

Which New Zealand island is most beautiful?

Both of New Zealand’s main islands are stunning in their own ways – whichever island you head to, you’ll find the kind of scenery and nature people travel from countries all over the world to see.

Hot to trot: the North island

The far north of the North Island of New Zealand is has a South Pacific vibe, with bright blue water, white sandy beaches and incredible nature like the gorgeous ‘New Zealand Christmas Tree’, the red flowered pohutukawa, which puts on a brilliant display of crimson every summer. They bloom in almost every bay at the right time of year.

New Zealand’s North Island is also volcanic. Visit Rotorua to see this in action in the form of bubbling mud pools, geysers and a range of local naturally-heated hot pools and beaches.

Or walk the Tongariro Crossing to take in three volcanoes up close – there are bright green and blue high-altitude lakes and colourful layers of rock – nature has painted them red, yellow, white and orange with the minerals within.

Capital in the far south

The capital of Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington, is at the bottom of the North Island. It’s the the world’s southernmost capital city.

Big beauties: the South Island of New Zealand

In the South Island of New Zealand, it’s the the size of the landscapes that impresses. The island is bisected by the mountainous spine of the Southern Alps, pushed up by the intersection of the two tectonic plates that form the country of New Zealand. From above, the alps look like a bit snowy zipper that cuts the island in half.

Mighty Aoraki Mount Cook

Head to Mount Cook National Park so see this natural history in action – witness huge glaciers calving up close, or land right on a glacier by helicopter or ski plane.

Fantastic Fiordland

Further South, Fiordland serves up a wonderous menu of dense bush, spiky peaks, towering waterfalls and remote lakes. The whole place looks Jurassic, in a good way. Dinosaurs not included.

Looking for Lord of the Rings?

The South Island of New Zealand was the filming location for some of the most iconic scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The backdrop for The Gates of Argonat and the river Anduin was Queenstown’s Kawarau River, and Arwen met the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen – actually Skippers Canyon, behind Queenstown.

Which islands are part of New Zealand?

There are a lot more than the main two islands in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand actually has more than 600 islands, and island life is part of the national culture. They are the above-water remnant peaks of an ancient land mass that is now submerged under the ocean, or they are islands inhabiting the hundreds of lakes found across New Zealand.

Islands near Auckland

Some offshore islands are very close to the mainland of New Zealand and easy to reach. Three islands right off Auckland are easily accessed by ferry: Rangitoto Island, Waiheke Island and Tiritiri Matangi.

Rangitoto Island rocks

Rangitoto Island is a young example of a landmass formed by a volcano – it rose out of the of the sea only 600 years ago. The Maori people living in the region at the time saw it happen! It’s a very cool island for a walk.

There are volcanic features like lava tunnels and lava fields on Rangitoto Island, and if you aren’t too tired from the walking, you can take a sea kayak trip across the Hauraki Gulf back from Rangitoto Island to the city in the evening and watch the sun set over Auckland.

Wonderful Waiheke Island

Near Rangitoto, Waiheke Island is New Zealand’s most populated island. It’s a prime day trip, especially for wine tours, arts, nature, menu and culture experiences, as well as Waiheke walking and sailing tours. The Waiheke ferry to the island takes about 35 minutes and leaves from central Auckland regularly.

Terrific Tiritiri Matangi

But it might be Tiritiri Matangi that is the most special of Auckland’s nearby islands. The whole island is pest free, and a wildlife sanctuary for New Zealand’s native birds. You can see 71 species on the island, including the endangered flightless takahē, which was though to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1948.

Aotearoa’s other islands

Great Barrier Island is… great!

Further afield, the pace of life is slow on Great Barrier Island, which sits on the edge of the Hauraki Gulf. The best way to get to Great Barrier Island is to take a 30-minute scenic flight, and once you’re there, the best thing to do is relax.

Great Barrier Island has a population of 950, but a lot of them live off the grid, and many places on the island don’t have Wi-Fi or mobile phone coverage. But who cares. Great Barrier Island highlights include nature like the Kaitoke Hot Springs and forests of Nikau Palms, and, at night, incredible views of the stars. All of Great Barrier Island is a Dark Sky Reserve.

Deep dives at the Poor Knights Islands

Twenty three kilometres off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Poor Knights Islands are world famous diving destination. The underwater topography – including caves and giant underwater cliffs – and the marine life like sponges, urchins, stingrays and subtropical fish are hard to beat.

Jacques Cousteau called the Poor Knights Islands one of the world’s top 10 dive spots.

First to see the sun – the Chatham Islands

Even further out to sea in the Pacific Ocean, the Chatham Islands are as incredible as they are remote. There are two main islands in the Chatham Islands: Chatham Island and Pitt Island. They were originally populated by Moriori, who called islands ‘Rekohu’, with Eurpoean settlers coming as part of the whaling and sealing industries.

Today you can get to the Chatham Islands with Air Chathams. It’s a destination famous for its nature, especially its unusual birdlife and plants, like the lovely blue Chatham Islands Forget-me-not.

Fun fact: Pitt Island is the first place in the world to see the sunrise each day.

Southern stunner: Stewart Island

Below the South Island of New Zealand, Rakiura, or Stewart Island, is home to a significant population and is a population visitor destination. Most residents live in the charming town of Oban, which has a charming pub, some of the best fish and chips in New Zealand, and a cool wee movie theatre.

The best part of Stewart Island, though, is the wilderness. It’s a tramper’s paradise. From stunning day walks like the  four-hour Horseshoe Point Track, to challenging routes like the multi-day North West Circuit Stewart Island is the place to get into some real New Zealand wilderness.

Stewart Island is also one of the best places in New Zealand to see Kiwi birds in the wild. Take a guided kiwi spotting tour, or head out after dark at one of hut huts on the island, like the Mason Bay Hut.

Hosting history: Quarantine Island

In New Zealand’s South Island, places like Quarantine Island / Kamau Taurua, near the head of the huge bay that is Dunedin’s Otago Harbour, are an easy day trip with a fascinating heritage.

Quarantine Island was one of New Zealand’s four early quarantine stations from 1863 to 1924. Passengers and crew off ships that arrived from across the Pacific Ocean carrying diseases like smallpox had to isolate in the island’s facilities before they were allowed on the mainland.

The island on the lake on the island

And Mou Waho Island on Lake Wānaka has an unusual claim to fame. It’s home to a lake, which is on an island (Mou Waho Island), which is in a lake (Lake Wānaka), which is on an island (the South Island of New Zealand), which is in an ocean (the Pacific Ocean) – is there anywhere else in the world that can make the same claim?

Join us…

Delivering a unique reading experience, 1964: mountain culture / aotearoa works with more than thirty artists, including photographers, writers, woodworkers, welders, creatives and makers for each issue. We advocate for and support Aotearoa’s artists.