New Zealand consists of two main islands, the North and the South Islands. A third "main" island, Stewart Island/Rakiura sits off the bottom of the South Island. Along with those three, there are approximately 600 other off-shore islands that are worth exploring, including some that are easy day trips from the main cities and more remote destinations that require a few days to explore. Some are inhabited while others are nature reserves that can only be visited during the day. Whether you're looking for deserted beaches, rare wildlife, clear night skies, or fine local wine, there's a New Zealand offshore island for you.
The Poor Knights
The Poor Knights group of islands lie north of Whangarei in Northland province and are considered to be one of the best places in the world to go scuba diving. Like much of Northland, the islands are the remains of ancient volcanoes, and the underwater world of caves, tunnels, arches, and cliffs host an enormous variety of sea life. The islands are a marine reserve so fishing isn't allowed here, but if you don't dive you can also enjoy a variety of other water activities such as snorkeling, paddleboarding, swimming, and even just touring by boat. Organized tours to the Poor Knights can be arranged from Auckland, but Whangarei and the Bay of Islands are closer and more convenient.
Great Barrier Island (Aotea)
Great Barrier Island is in the outer Hauraki Gulf, off the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula and north-east of central Auckland. It's New Zealand's sixth-largest island and can be reached via a 4 to 5-hour ferry ride, or a short flight. The remote island is a popular summer holiday spot among Aucklanders. Seventy percent of the island is a protected conservation park, the sea around it is a marine reserve, and it is one of only ten Dark Sky Reserves in the world. That means Great Barrier Island offers great stargazing, despite its proximity to bustling Auckland.
Goat Island (Te Hawere-a-Maki)
The Goat Island Marine Reserve is focused around small Goat Island, which sits just 300 feet offshore from the mainland, near the small town of Leigh, on the coast north of Auckland. The warm, shallow waters are great for snorkeling, or even just watching fish swim around your feet from above the surface. Scuba diving is also available, including lessons for beginners. The Goat Island Marine Reserve was New Zealand's first marine reserve, and is especially popular with day-tripping Aucklanders in the summer.
The unmistakable volcano that can be seen in the Auckland harbor is Rangitoto, Auckland's youngest volcano, believed to have emerged around 600 years ago. You can catch a quick ferry to Rangitoto from the Downtown Ferry Terminal to enjoy walks on the island's well-kept trails. The walk to the summit and back takes about two hours, passing along boardwalks and through pohutukawa forests and lava fields. The views of Auckland city and the Hauraki Gulf from the top are impressive. There are no facilities on the island so bring food and drink with you, and be sure to wash your shoes before heading to Rangitoto as it is a pest-free reserve.
Also in the Hauraki Gulf, Tiritiri Matangi is a wildlife sanctuary, and one of New Zealand's most important conservation projects. The island was farmed for over 100 years, destroying most of its natural plant life. From the 1980s, great efforts were made to replant the native bush, and now Tiritiri Matangi is comprised of around 60 percent forest and 40 percent grassland. Rare tuatara lizards and takahe birds thrive here, as there are no mammal predators on the island. You can reach Tiritiri Matangi via ferry from downtown Auckland.
The most developed of the islands on this list, Waiheke is home to about 10,000 residents, many of whom commute to Auckland for work via regular ferries. Just 12 miles from downtown Auckland, it's an ideal day trip or overnight destination. A major attraction is the island's many wineries (there are around 30 dotted around the hilly island), as well other producers of local food such as olives and honey. Other attractions include the beaches, nature walks, and sailing adventures. If you're traveling in the summer, book accommodation in advance as Waiheke is very popular with locals.
Off the Kapiti Coast that runs north-west of Wellington, Kapiti Island is an easily accessible island nature reserve. Only approved operators are allowed to take visitors to the island, and trips are dependent on the weather. Bird lovers will especially enjoy visiting Kapiti as coastal birds like shags and gulls, and forest birds like tuis, bellbirds, kaka, and kereru can be found. There are various walking trails on the island too, and the walk to the summit of the 1,700-foot peak is particularly worthwhile as the views are great.
D'Urville Island (Rangitoto ki te Tonga)
D'Urville Island is off the north-western tip of the Marlborough Sounds, at the top of the South Island. It's separated from the mainland by the infamous French Pass, a narrow channel of shallow, fast-flowing water that was especially problematic for early sailors in the area in wind-powered vessels. The journey out to D'Urville Island is part of the fun of visiting. The French Pass-Croisilles Harbour Road branches off the highway at the Rai Valley, and is one of New Zealand's most scenic roads. Views across the Marlborough Sounds to the east and to Tasman Bay in the west are spectacular. Travelers can cross over to D'Urville Island itself by small vehicular barge from the tiny settlement of French Pass. D'Urville is New Zealand's eighth-largest island, and is particularly fun for mountain bikers, hikers, and keen fisherfolk.
Rabbit Island (Moturoa)
Barely separated from the mainland and connected by a vehicle bridge and a ferry from Mapua, 5-mile-long Rabbit Island is a popular beach and cycle destination close to the city of Nelson. Pine forests provide shady spots for summer barbecues, and the waves are gentle but a little more vigorous than those found at nearby Tahunanui Beach. Bikes can be taken on the small ferry from Mapua, just west of Rabbit Island, and can also be rented from shops in Mapua.
Ulva Island (Te Wharawhara)
Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara is a small wildlife sanctuary that sits off Stewart Island (Rakiura), south of the South Island. There are easy walking tracks around the island that suitable for various ages and abilities, and it's one of the best places in the country to go for a chance of spotting the elusive, nocturnal Kiwi bird in the wild. Ulva Island can be reached by water taxi or on a private tour, and it's just a couple of miles offshore from Oban, Stewart Island's town. But keep in mind, you can't stay on the island overnight.