Billy Connolly once joked that he went to New Zealand and there was nobody there. Obviously, the day the Scottish comedian visited, everyone was out on a boat, probably on Tīkapa Moana (Hauraki Gulf). If so, they had set off from Auckland, the perfect place to start your exploration of the Hauraki Gulf’s 50-plus islands.
Kawau Island is a 25-mile sail from Auckland, passing through the Tiritiri Matangi channel and past Moturekareka and Motuketekete Islands before entering the sheltered, clear waters of Kawau’s Bon Accord Harbour.
About 12 miles from Kawau Island, Tiritiri Matangi Island is a Jurassic Park for birds, many only just surviving extinction, but now thriving in their predator-free forest. At the honey baths, tuis, fantails, robins, bellbirds and saddlebacks flit in and out to take their turn in a pecking order that makes sense only to them.
Aotea (Great Barrier Island), 60 miles from Auckland, is defined by its isolation. The main entrance to Rarohara (Port Fitzroy) is Port Abercrombie, but threading a yacht through Man O’ War Passage instead is always a thrill. Great Barrier is the first island in the world to be designated a Dark-Sky Sanctuary. It’s also famed for its green-lipped mussels, while the fishing is excellent among the surrounding Broken Islands.
At Smokehouse Bay, accessible only by boat, you can smoke your catch and soak in a woodstove-heated bath. The décor is a simple, rustic structure on a tiny beach. The sea around the island teems with life. Snorkel among demoiselle, snapper, tarakihi and parrot fish, with conger eels poking out from rock crevices. Like the birds, the best way to observe them is to stay in one place.