If you think you have explored all the hidden gems of New Zealand, you may want to add the Chatham Islands to your list of places to visit – it’s truly a hidden gem and quickly becoming a hot spot for people looking to get off the beaten track.

Before we dig into how amazing the Chatham Islands are and all the amazing things to do on the Chatham Islands, let’s first tell you a little more about the place as many Kiwis don’t know exactly where the Chatham Islands are located and for international visitors, they don’t feature on many itineraries.

The Chatham Islands form a small archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, around 800 kilometres off the coast of the South Island. There are approximately 11 islands that form the archipelago with just two of those being inhabited – Chatham Island and Pitt Island.

Getting there

Air Chathams plane
Image credit: Tourism Chatham Islands

Despite being one of New Zealand’s most remote tourist destinations, getting there is surprisingly easy. It’s a short 2-hour flight from Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch airports. Air Chathams are the domestic airline for flights to the Chatham Islands and operate regular weekday flights from those three major airports.

If you want to fly on to Pitt Island, you need to take an internal flight, once again operated by Air Chathams – a small 6-seater plane that doubles up as the islands’ freight plane.

Air Chathams has the same baggage allowance as Air New Zealand flights – 23kg for checked baggage and a further 7kgs for carry on.

Quick facts

Mt Chudleigh and Wharekauri Station
Image credit: Tourism Chatham Islands

If you are looking for some quick info about the Chatham Islands, here are some of the things you need to know before you start booking your flights:

  • There is no mobile phone coverage on the Chatham Islands – for many, this is a big appeal but if you can’t live without your phone, the Chathams might not be for you.
  • The currency on the islands is the New Zealand dollar so no need for any currency exchange before you fly out.
  • Passports aren’t required to get to the Chatham Islands – the Chathams are part of New Zealand, so you won’t need to pack your passport.
  • There are no taxis on the islands – you can arrange transport through your accommodation provider so it’s important to plan out the things you want to do.
  • WiFi is also in short supply on the islands. Some accommodation providers will offer WiFi, however, expect slow speeds and don’t plan on binge-watching your favourite Netflix shows when you’re on the islands.
  • The islands get around 2,000 visitors every year and this is growing each year – the most popular time to visit is February – the warmest month on the islands.
  • All goods, including food and fuel, must be shipped or flown to the islands so expect higher prices for many items than you would pay on the mainland – it’s well worth it though.

Hopefully, these quick facts help to make your mind up about visiting the Chatham Islands – we have never met anyone who has been disappointed by their trip, and we love hearing from GO Explorers who have made the trip. Accommodation and transport are limited on the islands, so you do need to be super-organised and book everything well in advance. A bit of research and planning will go a long way and the residents on the islands are usually super-accommodating and helpful.

History of the Chatham Islands

 

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The Chatham Islands were first inhabited by the Moriori people in around 1400 AD. They had no contact with any other people for around 400 years and in that time, they developed their own unique culture.

In 1790, an English ship, the Chatham, was blown off course and landed on the main island and later, European sealers, settlers and whalers arrived.

Māori from the New Zealand mainland invaded the islands in 1835 and despite the Moriori welcoming the Māori to the islands, they were conquered with around 200 Moriori killed and the rest enslaved.

It is believed that the Chatham Islands were named by Lieutenant William Broughton, commander of the tender Chatham. Whether he named the islands after the boat or the Earl of Chatham, William Pitt, is still an area of debate but it seems likely to be the latter given the naming of two of the islands.

Descendants of Moriori still live in the Chatham Islands and a visit to the Kopinga Marae (see below) will give you a great insight into the history and culture of the Chatham Islands.

Things to do on the Chatham Islands

Those planning a trip to the Chatham Islands will not be disappointed by the wide range of things to do. Despite the relatively small size of the two inhabited islands (Pitt Islands is just 7.7km²), you can pack a lot into a trip to the Chatham Islands.

1.      Explore the great outdoors

 

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As you might imagine, one of the main reasons people visit the Chatham Islands is to explore the stunning and remote outdoors. Whether it’s exploring the unique plant and birdlife, or relaxing on one of the golden sandy beaches, the outdoors is where it’s at on the Chatham Islands.

There are some amazing walks on the islands and Chatham Island is home to a few crackers including Awatotara Bush Coastal Walking Track where you get up close with some of the native birdlife as well as enjoying spectacular views of the rugged coastline.

The Henga Scenic Reserve is another great walk and the 1.5-hour return trip will take you to a lookout with views over a huge sand-dune system and Petre Bay.

2.      Basalt columns

 

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The basalt columns are one of the most popular attractions on the islands. They sit on private land at Ohira Bay so you will need to organise a tour in advance, but you will not be disappointed. The basalt columns were formed from lava flows from the Southern Volcanics that erupted around 80 million years ago. The columns are reminiscent of the famous Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

3.      Visit the Kopinga Marae

 

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As we touched on above, the Kopinga Marae is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about the history and culture of the Chatham Islands. The Marae was opened in 2005 by Prime Minister Helen Clark and local Moriori Elder, Whaea Polly Brown. Today, the Marae is used as the base for the revival of the Moriori language, cultural traditions and wananga, as well as acting as a community space for locals.

4.      Climb Mount Hakepa

 

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Whilst it is not the highest point in the Chatham Islands (that honour goes to Maungatere Hill at 294 metres), a climb up Mount Hakepa is a must for any visitor to the Chatham Islands. There is much debate about the first place in the world to see the sunrise, and Mount Hakepa has definitely thrown its hand into the ring.

Situated 45 minutes east of mainland New Zealand, residents of the Chathams get to see the sunrise 45 minutes before the ‘mainlanders’ and is a bucket list experience for most visitors.

There is a very cool sculpture at the top summit, crafted by Polish-born artist Woytek to mark the new millennium. The views up here are spectacular and if you are lucky enough to make the trip for sunrise, it’s a very powerful experience.

5.      Tours and excursions

 

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Given the remote nature of the islands and the lack of transport options, tours and excursions are usually the most practical way of getting around and ensuring you don’t miss any of the highlights on either Chatham or Pitt Island.

There are several operators on the islands including Chatham Island Charters, Chatham Island Tours, geology excursions, and Owenga Charters. From fishing trips to visits to museums and gardens, tour operators know the islands inside out and will help you to pull together an itinerary for your visit to the Chatham Islands.

Where to stay on the Chatham Islands

The number of beds available on the Chatham Islands every night is limited to around 150 and this includes hotels, hostels, lodges, guest houses and private properties that can be rented through sites like Airbnb.

In an average year, the Chatham Islands typically welcome around 2,000 visitors, most of them Kiwis. In 2020, however, demand far outstripped supply due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With New Zealanders unable to travel overseas, a trip to the Chatham Islands really felt like you were getting away and so demand really peaked and 2021 has followed a similar trend.

As we head towards the summer of 2021/22, and with no sign of international travel in sight, the Chatham Islands will once again be a popular destination for Kiwis looking to get away.

You can discover more about the accommodation options on the Chatham Islands on the official website of the Chatham Islands.

Chatham Islands FAQs

Hopefully, you have found our guide to the Chatham Islands useful, and it has helped to convince you to book your trip. We also did a quick Google search to find out some of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to visiting the Chatham Islands and this is what we found:

How many people live on the Chatham Islands?

We’ve already touched on this, however, there are approximately 660 permanent residents on the Chatham Islands. It’s definitely a commitment to a certain way of life and everyone that lives on the Chatham Islands is committed to the sustainability and long-term future of the islands.

What is the time zone in the Chatham Islands?

Despite being part of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands sits on a different timeline to the mainland and find themselves 45 minutes ahead in time. Geographically, the Chatham Islands actually sit on the other side of the International TimeLine, however, they were moved in line with New Zealand to make things easier all around.

The fact that they are 45 minutes ahead of New Zealand mainland means that they are the first part of the country and the first place in the world to see the sunrise every day. The Chatham Islands sit at GMT +12:45 and in the summer months when daylight savings are observed, GMT +13:45.

Whan is the best time of year to visit the Chatham Islands?

The Chatham Islands are a year-round destination depending on what you are looking for from your holiday. The summer months of December to February tend to be the warmest with average daytime temperatures reaching 19-20°C and nighttime temperatures falling to 12°C.

Autumn is another popular time to visit, and the sea is still fairly warm for swimming as temperatures can reach 18°C, dropping to 8°C at night. The winter and spring months are the coldest, but they are still great times to visit the islands, with changing landscapes and wild seas making for a truly off-the-beaten-track adventure.

Is there WiFi on the Chatham Islands?

There is very limited WiFi on the islands which you will find at some accommodation providers and the airport. All WiFi comes via satellite so there are strict data limits and speeds are pretty slow. It’s easier to plan for no WiFi on your trip and that way, you can really plan to get ‘off the grid’ for a few days.

Is there mobile phone coverage on the Chatham Islands?

There is absolutely no mobile phone coverage at all on the Chatham Islands and this, for many, is one of the benefits. Being able to truly get away from the world is becoming trickier as the world becomes more connected, however, on the Chatham Islands, you will find a small corner of paradise with very little outside communication, leaving you plenty of time to get back to nature.

What shops are found on the Chatham Islands?

There are a few shops, cafes, restaurants, and gift shops on the Chatham Islands but don’t expect to be going on a shopping spree. In Waitangi on Chatham Island, you will find two shops: the general store and Dough N Go which both supply food, produce and general stores.

There are a number of gift shops in Waitangi as well as a hardware and gardening store.

Where can you eat out on the Chatham Islands?

The Den Kitchen is one of the most popular eateries on the Chatham Islands and opens daily from 9am-2pm and again from 5pm to 7pm. Outside of that, Hotel Chatham has a restaurant for evening meals and cabinet food throughout the day. There is also the Waitangi café and River Onion Gallery.

Are there any banks on the Chatham Islands?

There is one bank on the islands and two ATMs. The bank is an ANZ and occupies a shared space with the post office in Waitangi. The other ATM is located at Hotel Chatham.

Add the Chatham Islands to your summer itinerary

Hopefully, you are now armed with all the information you need to go ahead and book your trip to the Chatham Islands. It’s a truly magical location that is often overlooked by both Kiwis and international visitors but those who do visit come home with memories that will last a lifetime.

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