10 Islands in New Zealand Every Backpacker Has to Explore

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Explore the Islands in New Zealand

New Zealand is known for its two mainland islands, the North Island and the South Island. However, did you know there are hundreds of more islands off the coast of New Zealand? It might just be for this reason why getting out on the water is such a huge part of Kiwi life. There’s so much to explore in New Zealand’s waters. So what island in New Zealand do you need to check out?!

While some islands have a little population of people of their own, other islands are more likely to be the home of New Zealand’s native wildlife. If seeing the fascinating birdlife is part of your New Zealand bucket list, then exploring these islands is where you will get your best chance. Even if it’s not on your bucket list, you don’t know until you have tried, and we suggest you try!

The islands we have listed below are all reachable by boats and flights operating on the mainland. And once you have explored every island of New Zealand, take a trip to one of the nearby tropical islands in the South Pacific.

1. Kapiti Island

This huge island off the Kapiti Coast is a wildlife hot spot. The emblematic kaka parrot is playful and will not hesitate to steal your lunch, while the rare spotted kiwi can be seen at night in the wild if you know where to look. Organise your trip there by taking a ferry from Paraparaumu or with Kapiti Eco (more info on Viator and Tripadvisor) or Kapiti Nature Tours (on Viator and Tripadvisor).

Location: Kapiti, Wellington, North Island

Tony on Flickr© Tony on Flickr

2. Stewart Island

“New Zealand’s third island”, as Stewart Island is often referred to, is an underrated spot for backpackers in New Zealand. The island is 80% national park and home to one of the Great Walks, the Rakiura Track. Stewart Island is one of the best places in the country to spot a famous kiwi bird in the wild.

Location: Access is via ferry from Bluff, Southland, South Island.©

4. Great Barrier Island

One of the jewels of the Auckland Hauraki Gulf, Great Barrier Island features golden sand beaches, natural hot pools, rugged peaks, thick forest and a variety of wildlife. The island has become more popular each year amongst travellers, especially because you can see most of the island’s highlights on the multi-day Aotea Track.

Location: Auckland Hauraki Gulf, Auckland, North Island©

5. Ulva Island

This island, just off the coast of Stewart Island, shows what is possible without predators. The result is an abundance of native New Zealand species no longer hunted by introduced predators. See the likes of weka, kaka, kakariki, tui, bellbirds, wood pigeons, fantail, saddleback, rifleman, Stewart Island robin and more! There may be even a chance to glimpse the Stewart Island brown kiwi.

Location: Access via water taxi from Halfmoon Bay or Golden Bay, Stewart Island. Alternatively, transport and guided walks are available on Viator and Tripadvisor.©

6. Poor Knights Islands

Located on the Tutukaka Coast, the Poor Knights Islands are world-renowned for its diving options. The most popular one is a shipwreck dive where you can explore two sunk navy ships, the Waikato and the Tui. When diving to and through the wrecks you will be able to explore the guns, the control areas, the engine room and much more.

Location: Off the Tutukaka Coast, Northland, North Island. Access is by boat from many different ports in Northland and the Bay of Islands, including Leigh, Whangarei and Tutukaka. Book your dive from Tutukaka on Viator or Tripadvisor.©

7. D’Urville Island

Lodged in the quiet Marlborough Sounds, D’Urville Island (or Rangitoto ki te Tonga in Maori) is a slice of heaven. Featuring campsites, resorts, hiking trails, mountain biking tracks and fishing opportunities, it is the best place to unwind and reflect on your New Zealand gap year. Look for WWOOFing opportunities on the island to stay at low cost. Learn more about visiting D’Urville Island in our French Pass and D’Urville Island – Guide for Backpackers.

Location: Marlborough Sounds, off the north coast of the South Island.©

8. Rangitoto Island

Auckland’s most popular volcano is an island of its own. Lava fields, lava caves, a crater, wildlife and stunning 360-degree views of the Hauraki Gulf can all be experienced on a day hike. Catch the ferry from Auckland Central early morning to save money, pack some food and water, then enjoy this volcanic island. You will not regret it! Check out our full guide to Rangitoto Island.

Location: Access is a 25-minute ferry from downtown Auckland, North Island. Alternatively, guided kayaking trips to Rangitoto Island are available on Viator and Tripadvisor.©

9. Chatham Islands

We challenge you to make it this far off the beaten track! Located about 800km (500 miles) from New Zealand’s main islands, the Chatham Islands are known as New Zealand’s fourth populated island. The islands are home to only 600 New Zealanders but compensate with a huge wildlife population of seals, dolphins and many bird species. Also, check out its famous basalt columns and tree carvings.

Location: 800km (500 miles) east of New Zealand between Wellington, North Island, and Christchurch, South Island.

Ville Miettinen on Wikipedia© Ville Miettinen on Wikipedia

10. Urupukapuka Island

The island is the largest of the 144 islands that make up the Bay of Islands. As it is one of the most popular islands too, it features three equipped camping grounds so you can extend your stay in paradise. Three things to do here: kayak on crystal clear waters, swim in Otehei Bay and walk the archaeological track.

Location: Access is via water taxi at Paihia and Russell, Bay of Islands, North Island. Alternatively, day cruises (on Viator and Tripadvisor) stop by Urupukapuka Island.©

10. White Island

[Update: Following a major eruption, tours on White Island have been suspended until further notice.]

The huge active marine volcano is an iconic sight in New Zealand. Visitors are taken by helicopter or boat to explore the crater, the remains of its sulfur factory, and its prehistoric history. It is also a popular dive location too. The island is definitely a must-do when visiting or working in Whakatane or Bay of Plenty area.

Location: Off the coast of Whakatane, Bay of Plenty, North Island.©


The information in this guide has been compiled from our extensive research, travel and experiences across New Zealand and the South Pacific, accumulated over more than a decade of numerous visits to each destination. Additional sources for this guide include the following:

Our editorial standards: At NZ Pocket Guide, we uphold strict editorial standards to ensure accurate and quality content.

About The Author

Laura S.

This article has been reviewed and published by Laura, the editor-in-chief and co-founder of NZ Pocket Guide. Laura is a first-class honours journalism graduate and a travel journalist with expertise in New Zealand and South Pacific tourism for over 10 years. She also runs travel guides for five of the top destinations in the South Pacific and is the co-host of over 250 episodes of the NZ Travel Show on YouTube.

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