There seems to be no end of wonderful things to do in Wellington, the windy capital of New Zealand situated on the southernmost tip of the North Island. We live in Wellington at the moment and returned in early January after spending the holidays with my family, ready for more work, travels and most importantly, adventures!
Wellington Anniversary Day is celebrated on the Monday closest to January 22nd each year, commemorating the arrival of the first settler ship to New Zealand on January 22nd, 1840! In honour, we all get a day off work and get to go and spend this extra long weekend out enjoying the best parts of Wellington.
We spent our Wellington Anniversary Day on Matiu/Somes Island, the large island in the middle of the bay near Wellington Harbour. Expecting a nice day out wandering the island, we were pleasantly surprised by how much there is to do! Give yourself three hours or so to properly explore all the island has to offer.
History of Matiu/Somes Island
With reports of Maori tribes occupying the island as far back as the 18th century, this island has always held important significance. As an island, it was easy to secure and defend. The Te Atiawa tribe that moved in during the 1820s assumed mana whenua or primary authority of the land, a role they have maintained ever since. The island was named Matiu by Polynesian explorer Kupe in honour of his two daughters; a neighbouring island was named Makaro.
In 1839, the island was assumed by the New Zealand Company along with most of Wellington and the surrounds at which time the island was renamed Somes Island after the company's deputy governor. In 1997, the New Zealand Geographic Board renamed the island Matiu/Somes Island to honour the joint and extensive history.
How to Get to Matiu/Somes Island
East by West Ferries operate between Queen's Wharf in downtown Wellington, Seatoun and Days Bay shuttling passengers around the harbour. At the time of writing, there are three daily ferries to Matiu/Somes Island from Queen's Wharf at 10am, 12pm and 2:05pm. Check the latest schedule here. As we went on a public holiday, there were more sailings throughout the day.
You'll need to book your return time when you buy your ticket - I recommend taking the first sailing out there at 10am and returning on the last sailing departing the island at 3:30pm in order to make the most of your time!
At the time of writing, an adult return trip ticket to the island from Queen's Wharf cost $25. Entrance to the island itself is free of charge as it is owned and managed by the Department of Conservation.
Upon arrival on Matiu/Somes Island, all visitors are required to pass through Whare Kiore to be checked for pests; the island has been pest and predator free since the late 80s.
Things to Do on Matiu/Somes Island
Spot the Kakariki
Once a common bird across New Zealand, this brightly coloured red and green parakeet now exists only in isolated populations, including this island. You can hear them singing merrily in the trees as you walk from the wharf up to the centre of the island and spot them flying briskly overhead.
Read About the Island's History at the Visitor Centre
A small visitor's centre on the island gives a brief overview of the colourful history of the island including the animal quarantine facility, the prisoners of war interned here, the navy degaussing station and the lighthouse.
Animal Quarantine Station
Considered the best facility of its kind while in operation, it was absolutely fascinating to wander about the abandoned building where incoming imported cattle and livestock to New Zealand were quarantined until it could be guaranteed they were disease free.
WWII Gun Emplacements
Along with the island being a camp for 'enemy aliens' that posed a threat to New Zealand during World War's I and II, five massive gun emplacements were built as protection against enemy ships and aircraft - they were never needed.
It is here that you'll also find the best view of the surrounding harbour and back towards Wellington.
Originally built in 1866 to guide ships in the harbour and operated by burning oil, the current lighthouse was built in 1900 and later automated - it still runs to this day! If you look closely, you can still see the remains of the rail that carried fuel and supplies from the beach below up to the lighthouse and the keeper's cottage (no longer exists).
On the walk back towards the wharf, The Lookout provides excellent views across the harbour as well as over Te Papa o Tara or Shag Rock, home to the resident little penguin population of the island! They can nest and raise their young safely here without any predators threatening them.
During WWII, the WRENS (Woman's Royal Navy Service) operated a degaussing station which is the process by which ships are made 'invisible' to underwater mines by changing the magnetic signature of their outer metal hulls. It was fascinating to read the stories of the women who were a crucial yet not well known part of the safety of getting ships safely into port in Wellington.