Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, New Zealand

Photo: Anthony (http://uncoqchezleskiwis.com/la-cote-tutukaka/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
You probably don’t need another excuse to plan a trip to New Zealand. The list is already at least a mile long. It’s hard to resist to a new, nonstop route, though. That’s right. As of November, you’ll be able to fly from Chicago to Auckland—it’s a 16-hour flight—without making any connections. So it’s time to revisit that huge list.

The new flight is bound to be popular, but you don’t have to stick with the crowds once you arrive Down Under. Few people know about the Poor Knights Islands, so they certainly haven’t added them to their bucket list yet. The gorgeous volcanic islands are home to the world’s largest sea cave, unique species, and pristine scuba diving. Jacques Cousteau, the famous underwater explorer, once named them one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. Yes, the entire world. They’re even on UNESCO’s pending list for World Heritage status. So they probably won’t remain a secret much longer.

So where are these secret islands? The Poor Knights Islands are part of the Far North—what the Kiwis call the Northland. The two main islands—Tawhiti Rahi and Aorangi—plus smaller islets, lie 23 kilometers of the eastern Tutukaka Coast. This is an area you’d want to visit for its stunning beaches anyway. You won’t find beaches after a quick boat ride from Tutukaka, though. But you will find dramatic cliffs and arches, sea caves and tunnels. They’re all part of the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve.

The Poor Knights Islands are technically off-limits to visitors. The islands have been uninhabited since the Ngātiwai, a Māori tribe, departed in the 1820s. The marine reserve was established in 1981 to keep it that way. Permits are usually only granted for scientific research. Most of it focuses on Poor Knights lilies, whose exposed red flowers look like toothbrushes, and Buller’s shearwaters, which fly from the Arctic Circle to breed here. But that doesn’t stop boats from visiting as long as they don’t dock.

Rikoriko Cave is always the first stop. It’s where light reflecting off the water seems to dance on the cave’s roof. Nursery Cove and South Harbour are popular, as well. The diving spots feature clear water, kelp forests, gorgonian fields, and more than 125 types of fish. Stingrays mate in the warm water. New Zealand fur seals bask in the sun on the rocks. While tuataras, reptiles that descend from dinosaurs, are only found on the offshore islands. Do you have enough excuses yet?

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