Words by Julie Miller
Located on the outer fringe of Hauraki Gulf, a four-hour ferry ride or 40-minute flight from Auckland, Great Barrier Island is an off -the-grid outpost home to just 900 residents. It’s sleepy and laid-back, and when evening falls, there’s not much to do. In fact, most people are tucked up in bed by 9pm, leaving the island in pitch darkness.
But that’s when things get interesting. Look up, and a whole universe is revealed in startling clarity, from the Milky Way to galaxies far, far away.
Great Barrier Island is officially one of the world’s darkest places. In 2017, it became the first island to be awarded Dark Sky Sanctuary status by the International Dark Sky Association.
This designation has increased awareness of Great Barrier’s sensitive nightscape through public education, but most significantly it has provided the island with a new tourist attraction – one that doesn’t cost a cent to enjoy.
Capitalising on this, local tour company Good Heavens started stargazing tours led by local astronomy enthusiast, Hilde Hoven. She arrives at a local beach (for group tours) or your accommodation (for private tours) armed with a monster telescope, comfy chairs and boundless knowledge.
As a Dark Sky Ambassador, Hoven’s mission is to share the wonders of the nightscape with visitors, educate them, and inspire further exploration. “People don’t go outside anymore, and if they do, they rarely look up,” she says. “But when they do, it’s amazing – there’s so much more to it than little twinkles.”
If you’re planning on stargazing, it’s advisable to book at least two night’s accommodation, just in case the weather is inclement.
Best time to travel:
Great Barrier Island is a popular summer destination, though the night sky is at its most brilliant in winter.
Beach combing and hiking:
Great Barrier Island is a nature-lover’s paradise, with unspoilt, deserted beaches and some challenging hiking trails – including the breathtaking Windy Canyon climb and the three-day Aotea Track, which covers more than 40 per cent of the island.
Soak it up:
A popular short hike along a boardwalk and easy track leads to the secluded Kaitoke Hot Springs, a natural thermal pool surrounded by umbrella ferns and pohutukawa trees. Night-time star treks to this relaxing location are also available.
Arts & craft trail:
Great Barrier Island is home to many artists and craftspeople, with an art trail showcasing some of their talents. Make sure you stop off at the island’s café, My Fat Puku (‘puku’ meaning belly in Maori), for fresh, organic fare and good coffee.
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