Ferry Yourself to The Island of Wine
Ever since the ferry service from Auckland improved in the 1980s, visitors to Waiheke Island have steadily increased, as have the vineyards. Its nickname ‘The Island of Wine’ says it all. With over 30 wineries, and award winning wines to boot, Waiheke Island has earned a reputation as one of New Zealand’s quality wine producers.
Waiheke’s close proximity to Auckland, just 35 minutes by ferry, makes it a popular place for local or international visitors to undertake a day or weekend trip, especially during the warmer months. With a temperature always just a couple of degrees higher than the mainland, this island paradise is just waiting to be explored. The real beauty of Waiheke is that its array of pristine beaches, walking tracks, wineries, restaurants and cafés are all situated within a relatively compact area. Those pressured for time can pack a lot of activities into a short space of time if they really have to but, like any fine wine, the Waiheke Island experience is one best savoured.
Water and Wine
In terms of size, Waiheke isn’t the largest of New Zealand’s off-shore islands, but it is the most populated. Million dollar holiday homes, boutique hotels and fine dining restaurants have sprung up all over the island as a result of the wine tourism industry that’s taken off over the last thirty years. Not bad for an island that still relies on tank water. Waiheke means ‘descending waters’, which is ironic as during the dry, hot summer months rain on Waiheke is sometimes a rare commodity, and water has to be ordered in. But luckily for vintners, this is a climate grapes thrive in.
The vineyards themselves on Waiheke may be small, but they consistently produce award winning wines that knock the competition out of the water. Red wine grapes especially do well here, as the popularity of Stonyridge’s “Larose” Cabernet Merlot 2010 can testify. This Bordeaux-varietal has a ripe fruity flavour and lingering savoury notes and has been judged amongst some of the best red wine New Zealand has ever produced. Stonyridge’s wines have become so popular that they are sold ‘en primeur’, which means they’re allocated to wine stockists before they’ve even left the barrel.
Other popular Waiheke wineries that have made a splash in the international wine scene are Kennedy Point, Cable Bay, Casita Miro, Te Whau, Passock Rock Wines and Goldie Estate. With so many great wineries on Waiheke you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to wine tastings. The best and cheapest way to see as many as possible is to book a ticket on the Vineyard Hopper bus. The price of the bus ticket includes the ferry and you can hop-on and hop-off as you please. Its loop covers around eight wineries including Cable Bay, Stonyridge, Castia Miro and Jurassic Ridge, with a stop off at Charlie Farley’s Bar and Restaurant in Onetangi Beach.
Waiheke Food: Farmers Markets and Winery Restaurants
Living on an island is sometimes all about making do, especially when it comes to the essentials like food and water. Much of Waiheke’s food, is imported from the mainland but it still relies heavily on locally grown produce. Weekend farmers markets, like the one in Ostend’s War Memorial Hall every Saturday morning, are a great way to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables if you’re renting a holiday home for the weekend and don’t want to lug them over from the mainland.
On the other end of the scale, Waiheke offers a selection of gourmet restaurants who also take advantage of the fresh local produce. Waiheke food is definitely no longer what it used to be. Rising from essentially a place where you’d pick up a half decent packet of fish & chips, to award winning boutique restaurants, the island’s reputation for fine dining, like its wines, is slowly but steadily gaining momentum.
High on the list of deliciousness are the winery restaurants of Cable Bay Vineyard, Casito Miro and Te Whau Vineyard. A meal and a glass of Waiheke wine at any one of these, and you’ll go home happy. Just make sure you book in advance to avoid disappointment.
Mudbrick and Stonyridge Vineyards in Oneroa and Onetangi respectively, are consistently popular restaurants, especially if you’re seeking a decent but affordable meal. For something a bit different try Red Crab Thai Cuisine in Oneroa for spicy and flavourful seafood, fresh ingredients and a good selection of Waiheke wines and Thai beers.
Outdoor Activities on Waiheke
Waiheke Island is a year round holiday destination but since quite a few of its attractions centre around outdoor activities, the spring, summer and autumn months are the best times to visit. Still, choose a clear, crisp winter’s day and there’s nothing better than being curled up in a boutique hotel (say The Boatshed in Oneroa) with good wine and food on hand and a view of the waves rolling in.
At any other time, Waiheke is a must if you love the outdoors. Since it is a relatively hilly place mountain biking is very popular here, and there are several well-marked rides on the island that range from one to four hours. Some even take in a winery or two along the way! Bikes travel free on the ferry and you can pick up a trail map from the information centre in Oneroa.
If you prefer walking then Waiheke also has a good selection of short and long walks you can do. There are eight featured walks which range across the island from Matiatia Bay, where the ferry comes in, to the more remote Te Matuku Bay in the west part of the island. Hiring a car, or bringing your own across on the car ferry, will probably make accessing some of the walks easier than catching the local bus.
Beaches are also a big reason to come to Waiheke. Any activity in summer – biking, walking, wine tasting – is all the more pleasurable when you can finish off with a refreshing swim in a big, clean golden sand beach. The north side of the island has the best safe swimming beaches as it’s more sheltered including Oneroa, Little Oneroa, Palm Beach and Onetangi Beach. The south side is best for kayaking and kitesurfing. Locals consider Cactus Bay to be Waiheke’s best beach but it is only accessible by kayak or boat as there is no land access.
Get Festive on Waiheke
If there’s one thing Waihetians know how to do it’s throw a party. In summer some of the wineries open up their grounds for dance parties, festivals and annual food and wine events.
Early February sees the arrival of the Food and Wine Festival which attracts ferry loads of foodies from the mainland. Then there’s the popular Jazz Festival normally held round Easter for three days; wine and food flow freely here too. The Waiheke Olive & Artisan Food Festival weekend takes place in late November and features free tastings of products from ten artisan food producers, olive oils at festival prices and live music.
Every two years in February Waiheke Island also hosts the Headland Sculpture on the Gulf above Matiatia Bay. Not only is it New Zealand’s biggest outdoor sculpture event, it also shows off Waiheke’s stunning coastline and promotes works from talented local and New Zealand sculptors.
The exhibition underlines the fact that Waiheke Island, despite its burgeoning millionaires, is still a haven for artistic types – sculptors, writers, musicians and potters. It’s a place that’s essentially more laid back than loaded but now offers the best of both worlds. You can wine taste in the morning, partake of fish & chips for lunch, walk on the beach in the afternoon and then enjoy fine dining in the evening. And what can be better than that?