A wonderful place to spend a day walking and exploring, the Matiu/Somes Island Scientific and Historic Reserve lies in Wellington Harbour approximately 8 km (5 miles) from the city. The island has lots of walking trails, great beaches for swimming, good picnic spots, and opportunities to see whales, dolphins, penguins, and other birds (sharp eyes may also pick out assorted small lizards on the paths). Because the boats carry a limited number of passengers to the island at a time, it's never crowded.
Although the 62-acre island was opened as a DOC reserve in 1995, it has an interesting history. From the early 1880s until 1980 it was used as a quarantine station for both humans and animals—including dogs, cattle, sheep, llamas, and other livestock—on their way into the country. During the world wars, it was also used as a place of internment for aliens considered a security threat.
In 1981, Matiu/Somes Island became a project of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. Volunteers began planting trees that year to replace vegetation that had previously been cleared to allow grazing for quarantined animals. Many other native plants that flourished before the arrival of Europeans have also been replanted, and native insects (such as the giant, wingless wetas) reintroduced. The island is now a breeding ground for a variety of seabirds.
This is strictly a place to enjoy natural beauty. The few man-made structures on it today include the old quarantine station and gun emplacements from World War II—which were never used, and which remain on the southernmost summit of the island. An automated lighthouse built in 1900 to replace the original structure from 1866 also still sends out its southward beacon to ships traveling from Wellington Harbour.
The island can be reached by the Dominion Post ferry service; multiple round-trip runs are made from Wellington Harbour per day.