Once a facility for recovering alcoholics and addicts, Rotoroa Island has reinvented itself.
Imagine you're standing on the shores of Waiheke Island, or on one of the many marvellous beaches on Auckland's North Shore. Now subtract the shops, the suburban sprawl, the roads and the rumble of traffic behind you.
Remove, too, most of the people, and all the cats and dogs and mice and stoats, then add a few endangered native birds and hundreds of thousands of freshly planted native trees. This is Rotoroa Island.
It's a cute wee thing - 80-odd hectares in the shape of a misshapen crab's claw, just a couple of kilometres east of its big sister Waiheke in the Hauraki Gulf, which is why the sand and sky and general topology feel the same.
But Rotoroa's unusual history - 100-odd years as a Salvation Army facility for "inebriates" then recent reinvention as a private conservation estate funded by the philanthropic Plowman family - mean it is wonderfully, magically quiet in every way.
There aren't many places to stay, and that's part of the appeal. Families and small groups have a choice of three former staff cottages on the slopes surrounding "Home Bay", each named after one of the boats that once served the island's drying-out alcoholics and addicts and the Sallies who looked after them. Larger groups can hire the larger, dormitory-style "Superintendent's House", which sleeps 18. Camping isn't allowed.
THE KIT AND THE COMFORT FACTOR
The four of us (me, the missus and our two kids) stayed in "Mahoe", which we were told had better views than the similarly sized and outfitted "Serenity" and "Oranga".
It's a four-bedroom brick cottage that's cosy and warm inside and has been recently refurbished with cool retro 1970s furniture, brand new appliances, shiny bathroom fittings, comfy beds with expensive-looking linen and the rest of it.
There's excellent wifi, a stereo, a TV and a bluray player, but really, if you're looking anywhere it should be out the windows at the fantastic views of the island and the Hauraki Gulf beyond that, and the best soundtrack is the silence, broken only by the squawking of the weka that run about threatening each other on the front lawn. Saddlebacks (tieke) and whiteheads (popokatea) were recently reintroduced to the island, but they seemed to be laying low when we were there.
FOOD AND DRINK
This is totally up to you. There are no shops of any kind on Rotoroa and the only permanent residents are a couple of caretaker families (plus the occasional visiting conservation worker or zoologist). So if you forget (as I did) to pack the Vogels, you'll just have to go without.
Still, the cottage has a huge fridge and an excellently outfitted kitchen (complete with "essentials" such as olive oil and balsamic vinegar) so as long as you bring plenty of chilly bins, there's no excuse not spend a bit of time in there, gazing out across the water as you sauté and deglaze and blanch. If you can't cook, take a friend who can.
It wasn't always like this. Between 1911 and 2005, over which time 12,000 people were either voluntarily or involuntarily committed for treatment on the island, the island was nearly self-sufficient, with vegetable gardens, orchards and a working farm - and plenty of fish in the sea.
Even the booze was home-grown: The Evening Post of October 1914 reports that inmates had been caught getting "hopelessly intoxicated" after manufacturing a wine of "considerable strength" from root vegetables.
They were busted after a detective was hired to watch the movements of the home and "found many of them keenly interested in gardening and unusually interested in the cultivation of parsnips". "Needless to say," the newspaper noted, "the new industry was promptly suppressed, and Rotoroa has resumed its reputation for dryness".
Nowadays drink is allowed on the island, but there's a gentle suggestion in the welcome pack that you respect the island's history by not overdoing it.
WORTH STEPPING OUT FOR
For a little island, Rotoroa has a lot of history. At Home Bay there's an excellent new museum/gallery covering its years as a rehab centre, and some of the old buildings have been preserved if you want a look around - a tiny jail, a chapel and a schoolhouse.There are also new changing sheds, showers, toilets and barbecues, which are available to daytrippers as well as overnight visitors.
Though it was mid-winter we chanced upon a freak three-day spell of sun, so we rugged up and took a few strolls along the beaches (there are four) and through the easy walking trails. The island's 400,000-odd newly planted natives are only just getting started, so the island feels quite domesticated compared with older, junglier conservation islands such as Tiritiri Matangi. Besides the young bush there are still lots of smooth grassy hills, which turn out to be excellent for running down and falling over.
Our longest excursion was following the signs to a headland where sculptor Chris Booth has built a vast three-fingered stone artwork that points out into the Gulf. That took a couple of hours, but in summer you'd want to pack a lunch and make a day of circumnavigating the entire island.
Several times a year, there are volunteer tree-planting days, where you turn up with a packed lunch and your boots and get handed a spade, some gloves and a few hundred seedlings. For information about future volunteer days, email email@example.com.
This is an extraordinary place. It's no further from central Auckland than the suburb we call Waiheke Island and not especially hard to get to, yet it feels like the middle of nowhere. The island itself is serene, and the accommodation is excellent yet unpretentious.
The ferry from downtown Auckland takes about 75 minutes. Over winter the service runs weekends only - out in the morning and back in the afternoon. From November the service increases to five days a week. Return fares are $49 (adults); $29 (children); $127 (2 adults + 2 children). The service also calls at Orapiu wharf on Waiheke. See 360discovery.co.nz or ph 09 307 8005 for details.
"Mahoe" cottage: $375/night for up to four people off-season, $490/night peak-season (Dec 20 - Jan 20). Extra people $40/night. For prices of all cottages, see rotoroa.org.nz.
The writer was a guest of Rotoroa Island Trust and 360 Discovery Cruises.
- Sunday Star Times