A guide to the Hauraki Gulf islands

The islands of the Hauraki Gulf all have their own distinct personalities and unique histories, from the earliest Māori settlers to the present day.

Some of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Park can be visited on an Auckland harbour cruise; others lie further out to sea. As you cruise around the Hauraki Gulf islands you’ll see abundant wildlife – watch flocks of seabirds skimming over the water, feeding on schools of fish. Dolphins and whales are also frequent visitors to the wider Gulf area.

Here is a quick guide to some of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf.


Formed by a series of volcanic eruptions around 600 years ago, Rangitoto Island dominates the harbour with its distinctive cone shape. It’s become an icon of Auckland city and is well worth a visit. Visitors to Rangitoto can walk or hike through beautiful native forest to the summit or take a four-wheel drive road train. Along the way there are volcanic rock formations including lava tunnels, historic holiday homes or ‘baches’ and a range of walking trails around the whole island.


Motutapu sits right next to Rangitoto but is a much older island. The two are linked by a causeway so visitors can explore both islands in one day. Archaeological findings show evidence of several Māori settlements on Motutapu over 100 years before Rangitoto erupted. After Europeans settled in New Zealand it was mostly cleared for farming although it was also a popular destination for picnics and camping. In the lead up to World War II, a military battery was set up on the island to help defend Auckland’s harbour against invasion. Today Motutapu offers a range of walking trails, farmland, family-friendly beaches and a campsite. A reforestation project is helping to regenerate native forest on the island.


The beautiful little island of Motuihe lies between Motutapu and Waiheke Island. Its picturesque sandy beaches, coastal forest and Norfolk pines, sheer cliffs and calm bays make it an irresistible spot for picnics and day trips.  Motuihe was once settled by Māori and there are two pā (fortified village) sites on the island. In the late 1800s a quarantine station was set up on Motuihe, and during World War I it was used as a prisoner of war camp, with the German naval officer Count Felix von Luckner being its most infamous occupant – until he made a daring escape! 

Conservation efforts have made Motuihe a pest-free island and endangered New Zealand birds like the saddleback, kākāriki and kiwi now live there. You can see Motuihe on a Hauraki Blue overnight cruise.


Stunningly green with smooth hills, Browns Island may look small and insignificant compared to some of the larger Hauraki Gulf islands, but it too has an intriguing history. It is one of the best preserved volcanoes in the Auckland Volcanic Field, although it is not known when it erupted.

Browns Island was occupied by Māori in pre-European times and many artefacts have been found there. Later it was an early British settlement and in the early 20th century was owned by the Devonport Steam Ferry Company, who abandoned several paddle steamer ships off on end of the island. The company operated a ferry service for picnickers to the island for many years. 


Waiheke is the jewel of the Gulf, its second largest island and a paradise for holidaymakers. Only a short ferry ride or cruise from Auckland, Waiheke has several thousand permanent residents who enjoy its relaxed lifestyle and beautiful beaches. Around every headland on Waiheke there’s another surprise: rocky coves, golden sandy beaches fringed with native trees, vineyards, miraculous sculptures, luxury holiday mansions or a quaint old-fashioned Kiwi bach.

Popular beaches on Waiheke Island include Oneroa Beach, Palm Beach, Surfdale Beach and Onetangi. There are also Waiheke beaches accessed only by boat, like beautiful Garden Cove.  Due to its tropical microclimate Waiheke is well suited to grape growing, and there are many vineyards and wineries based on the island offering wine tastings and quality cuisine, as well as functioning as wedding venues. A Waiheke wine tour is a great way to see the island and sample the local produce.

Waiheke is also known for its creative and artistic residents. There are art galleries and studios around the island and its Sculpture on the Gulf exhibition is extremely popular. History buffs can visit Stony Batter Historic Reserve to see World War II tunnels and gun emplacements.


Situated on the far side of Waiheke Island, Rotoroa and Pakatoa were purchased in the early 1900s by the Salvation Army, who operated alcohol and drug rehabilitation facilities on the islands (men on Rotoroa and women on Pakatoa). Pakatoa is still privately owned but Rotoroa has recently been turned into a conservation park and reopened to the public, offering walking trails, sculpture, a bird sanctuary and intriguing architecture.


On the far side of Waiheke Island, this island is privately owned by farming families and is also the site of a youth camp. As well as endangered kiwi, Ponui is the home of the only donkey breed in New Zealand – the Ponui donkey, established from a feral herd released here in the 1880s.


Hilly, tree-lined Rakino Island can be found northeast of Motutapu. Once owned by Sir George Grey, governor of New Zealand, it now has a few permanent residents and was the proud owner of the world’s first solar-powered telephone! Rakino has beautiful beaches that are great for swimming, snorkelling, diving and fishing.  Just northeast of Rakino are The Noises, a group of small islands including Otata, Motuhoropapa and Orarapa. These are privately owned, uninhabited islands offering excellent fishing and diving.


North of Rangitoto, off the coast of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, Tiritiri Matangi (meaning “tossed by the wind”) is an open wildlife sanctuary, home to many endangered New Zealand species including kiwi, takahe, kokako, bellbirds, stitchbirds and the tuatara. The small island is worth a visit for nature lovers and a walk to the lighthouse at the top is very pleasant. 


Further north again, off the coast of the Mahurangi Harbour entrance, is Motuora Island. Once used for farmland, Motuora has been restored and replanted and is now a pest-free nature reserve.


Just south of Kawau Island are Moturekareka and Motuketekete islands. In the first half of the 20th century they were owned by a reclusive former sheep farmer, Charles Hansen, who bought the hulk of a ship called the Rewa and scuttled it to create a breakwater off Moturekareka – this is still a feature of the bay.


At the northern end of the Hauraki Gulf, opposite the Tawharanui Peninsula is Kawau Island, a beautiful island best known as the home of Sir George Grey. You can visit his Mansion House and see the artworks and objects he collected in his international travels, and walk around the grounds of his private zoo and gardens. The beaches and bays on Kawau are great for swimming, fishing and boating. The old copper mine is also worth a visit. Kawau Island can be visited on a Hauraki Blue charter cruise.


Little Barrier is a specially protected nature reserve, which can only be visited with a permit. Situated close to Great Barrier on the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf, it is a refuge for rare animals and plants.


Further out to sea lies Great Barrier Island, the largest of the Hauraki Gulf islands. Called Aotea by Māori, the English gave it the name Great Barrier as it forms a natural protection for the rest of the Gulf . The eastern side of the island is exposed to the open sea and offers wide surf beaches  and sand dunes, while the sheltered west coast has a myriad of small, secluded bays and coves. Inland you’ll find wetlands, rugged hills and native forest.
Early settlers found many natural resources on the island, mining for gold, copper and silver and logging. There was also a whaling station on the island. Great Barrier has been the site of several shipwrecks, and some of the casualties were buried in two small cemeteries on the island.  Today Great Barrier has several hundred residents and is a popular holiday destination for its isolation and beautiful scenery. Enquire about a charter cruise to Great Barrier Island.

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