The ferry churns the water into a roiling mass of white foam as we pull away from the Downtown Ferry Terminal and the Auckland skyline diminishes behind us. Small yachts bob around us on the deep-blue water as we course south, past picturesque headlands and beaches, with verdant Rangitoto Island – Auckland’s youngest volcano – peaking gently on our left.
After 40 minutes we reach our destination, Waiheke Island, renowned for its laid-back, alternative lifestyle – Kiwis everywhere are laid back so you can imagine how easygoing the pace of life is here – as well as its fine wine dining scene and gloriously accessible vineyards. Aucklanders love to pop over to the island for a wine tasting followed by some seriously good food cooked in vineyard restaurants with views stretching away down vine rows to sparkling bays.
Our ferry docks in beautiful Matiatia Bay at the western end of the island, which stretches a dozen miles west to east, but whose coastline is over 80 miles long thanks to a host of inlets. I’m due to meet up with a guide at one of the nearest vineyards, but I’ve arrived early so I can walk a section of the southern coastal path. The weather is kind, and as I set out, first passing kayaks pulled up on the beach, then climbing through indigenous forest onto the headland, the sun breaks through cotton wool clouds, shafts of light illuminating the city way off on the horizon across a cerulean sea.
It’s a exhilarating hike, undulating around the coastline, dropping from ridges to black-sand beaches and passing idyllic homesteads fronted by verandas with panoramic views to die for. All the way I’m thrilled by the exotic nature of Waiheke’s flora, from tussock grass so spongy you sink into it like the softest mattress, to intricate hanging seed pods and tree-sized ferns.
I pass through a silent, overgrown “Middle-Earthen” wood and come out beside an alpaca farm that leads to a winding country road across the top of the island. On both sides thick woods give way to farmland and huge sloping fields filled with rows of grape-laden vines covered by netting.
Strolling along, I soon come to Cable Bay Vineyards, whose large building houses a wine tasting room called The Cellar Door, a fine dining restaurant and an alfresco area with a broad, west-facing lawn where visitors sit at long tables or lounge in bean-bag chairs, wine glass in hand, chatting and taking in the stunning scenery.
Jenny McDonald, owner-operator of Ananda Tours, is waiting for me. A typical Kiwi with a sunny disposition and can-do attitude, she worked in the office sector for many years before realizing that she knew as much about her island home as most tour guides, and consequently started her own operation.
“We’ve just under 9,000 people living on Waiheke now, with about 3,000 commuting to the city for work,” she says. The alternative lifestyle is a big draw – there are 25 miles of beach here, and surfing and sailing are major activities. Remnants of the old hippy culture still exist, seen in the New Age and surf shops in the main town of Oneroa, but it’s the success of Waiheke’s wineries that are its defining feature these days.
Jenny drives me to an even more picturesque viticultural haven called Mudbrick Vineyard. Surrounded by terraced potager gardens, its barrel-filled tasting room is buzzing with people trying the vineyard’s award-winning wines, and the dining room is equally full, its hand-hewn mud-brick floor and walls supported by richly textured wood beams. (Oh, and the views are beautiful here too.)
We drive down the main street of Oneroa, the island’s largest “town,” where everything is done at a leisurely pace, pass the sweeping sand beach where sun- and sea-worshipping tourists cavort, then stop at a viewing point that looks down on pretty Palm Beach, whose well-spaced houses hint at a genteel lifestyle. Jenny has an obvious love for and pride in the many charms of her chosen home, as she reveals one breathtaking vista after another to me, from remote bays to cozy camping grounds next to calm waters.
We stop at a final small vineyard – one of Jenny’s favorites – called Obsidian Wines, where I taste a range of wines, from a sophisticated Cabernet Merlot blend to a powerful Syrah and a delightful Reserve called “The Mayor.” Introducing each wine is a knowledgeable lady named Lyn, who tells me of a recent Malaysian visitor: “He spent ages here, and loved our flagship wine
‘The Obsidian’ so much he bought up our entire stock of the 2010 – a great Waiheke vintage.”
(Waiheke’s vineyards can ship crates of wine to Australia, the US, UK and Asia through a company called NZWine Home, nzwinehome.co.nz.)
On the boat back to Auckland I consider what a wonderful place Waiheke would be to retire to – close to a vibrant capital city but an inspiring natural playground, with a benign climate and a truly great gastronomic scene.
The following day I’m up early and waiting to be picked up for a day trip exploring Auckland’s environs with award-winning tour company Time Unlimited. My guide for the day is Ceillhe Sperath, one of its founders. Half Maori, half Irish – a formidable but joyous combination – she is hugely knowledgeable about the city’s history and culture. She begins by telling our group, a genial mix of US, Australian, British and Chinese tourists, that the reason New Zealanders are considered so friendly is that they understand and appreciate anyone willing to make the journey to this far-flung corner of the world.
“Let’s face it – we’re a long way from most places, so if
you’ve spent the time and money in planning a trip to come here, you must really want to experience our beautiful country,” she says. “We love that so much. To us it makes you a friend before we even know you, so welcome to you all! Kia ora! [Be well!].”
After a drive along eastern Auckland’s picturesque Pohutukawa Coast, named after the magnificent red-flowering trees that fringe its shoreline, we stop at Achilles Point, a headland with gorgeous panoramic views, and here we are introduced to another Maori ritual greeting: the hongi, or touching of the nose and forehead. For those not used to physical contact with strangers it can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s actually a very meaningful and inclusive act, symbolically sharing the “breath of life” with someone.
We cross Auckland Harbor Bridge and visit the peninsular district of Devonport, lunching in one of this serene suburb’s excellent restaurants before ascending the small hill known as Mt. Victoria, site of an ancient Maori fortified village, then a gun battery created in 1885 to protect Auckland from a perceived threat by the Russian Pacific Fleet. It never materialized, but today a huge WWII gun remains on the summit, and the view south across the harbor to the city skyline is picture-perfect, as is the northeastern vista towards Rangitoto’s cone-shaped volcano, elevation 850 feet.
Our final destination is the west coast, only 45-60 minutes away. We drive out through the western suburbs and rise through thick forest into the Waitakere Ranges
Regional Park, stopping at the Arataki Visitor Center
for yet more endless views, this time east towards the city and west to Manukau Harbor and the Tasman Sea. A massive Maori totem pole looms over the entrance to the visitor’s center, its grimacing characters welcoming tourists and school trippers inside to learn about the natural wealth of the area.
The four-day hiking track called the Hillary Trail – named after the renowned climber of Everest fame – passes through here, but the native rainforest of Waitakere also offers easy walks to refreshing waterfalls such as Kitekite, or gigantic ancient kauri trees, which once covered northern New Zealand but were so popular for building that only 5 percent remain today.
Our last stop is the spectacular Piha Beach on the west coast. Imposing cliffs look down on a black-sand beach that is a magnet for surfers – and everyone else, it seems. Ceillhe finishes our tour with a honey tasting, allowing us to sample half a dozen honeys harvested from hives whose bees garner nectar from different flowers. The range in color, scent and flavor is astonishing – we all know Manuka honey, but there are many more from which to choose. It’s a lovely way to end our day, leaving us with sweet memories as we head back to town.
Ananda Tours is a Waiheke Island specialist: ananda.co.nz; Time Unlimited Tours offers a range of Auckland and broader tours focused on the culture and natural beauty of New Zealand, timeunlimited.co.nz