By Clair Morton
Published: Wednesday, July 31, 2019
A 40-minute ferry ride away from Auckland lies an idyllic landscape of unspoilt beaches, rolling green hills, award-winning restaurants and more wineries than you can poke a stick at. This is Waiheke, a destination rated the fifth-best in the world by Lonely Planet in 2016.
When my great, great grandfather settled the first block of land on Waiheke Island’s Palm Beach – under its namesake tree – it cost a princely sum of 21 pounds and 10 shillings.
These days the location’s a little more sought after – houses and properties rarely go for less than $1 million, and once you arrive it’s easy to see why.
Whether you’ve got a week to kill or just a single day, there are plenty of reasons to jump on the ferry and head across the Tamaki Strait to the island of trickling water.
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If you’ve got one day…
From downtown Auckland, take the ferry across the Tamaki Strait to arrive at Matiatia Wharf.
Public transport around the island is plentiful, but if you’ve only got one day to visit, jump aboard Fuller’s hop-on, hop-off explorer bus. There are 17 stops around the island, and you can get on and off as many times as you like.
Fill the hours by visiting premium wineries, lolling about on sandy beaches, exploring the island on foot, or simply taking in the views.
Stop 9 on the tour in particular encompasses wine, views and walking, with stunning Batch Winery acting as the starting point for the Cascades Trail, which ventures through beautiful Whakanewha Regional Park. The 200 easy-gradient steps start at the Central Track opposite the winery’s carpark.
For enough energy to keep you going the whole day, stop in at Turkish Delight in Oneroa for a coffee. As you sip, wander through boutique shops, peruse restaurant menus and take in the village’s lively atmosphere.
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If you’ve got a weekend…
With more than 30 boutique wineries sprawled across its 92km2 land area, it’s worth spending a whole weekend on Waiheke if you can.
Top local picks include Mudbrick, Cable Bay Vineyards and Stonyridge Vineyard, which is famous for its Bordeaux-style reds. As well as offering a rich selection of wine and food, each winery boasts breathtaking views over the island’s bays and hills.
For a fine-dining and wine experience you won’t forget, make your way to the architecturally-designed Tantalus Estate Vineyard. Its recently renovated restaurant opens each year from September, and showcases some of New Zealand’s best produce in a way that’s sure to tantalise your tastebuds.
A full two days also gives you more time to explore the island’s ‘choice’ northern beaches, which face out towards the Hauraki Gulf. Bordered by Great Barrier and Little Barrier islands, the lapping waters and long stretches of white sand at Oneroa, Palm Beach and Onetangi offer a respite from the more tidal beaches of the east.
I might be a bit biased here, but Palm Beach is the pick of the bunch with a great playground for children, and a dairy and fish and chip shop to grab a bite or an ice-cream after a long day in the New Zealand sun.
Just don’t venture too far down the beach if you prefer to see people with their clothes on – beyond the rocks on the eastern end it becomes Little Palm Beach, a clothes-optional beach referred to by locals as ‘Nudie Bay’.
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If you’re staying a week or more on Waiheke, it’s worth finding your own way around, whether you bring a car over on the ferry or hire one on the island.
That way, you can explore the more secluded spots on the eastern end of the island that have rightfully earned their place on the map.
The drive along narrow, dirt roads to Poderi Crisci might be off-putting to some but the reward is worth it. Open only in the warmer months, visitors to this highly-acclaimed winery and restaurant are transported to Italy through traditionally-made wines, immaculately manicured vineyards and mouth-watering Italian cuisine.
Another must-do if you’ve got your own transport is the Man O’ War winery on the eastern end of the island, which looks out onto the rugged Man O’ War Bay coastline. Grab a glass, order a share platter and take in this unique land.
If you truly want to live like a local, throw out a line – fresh fish is a staple on the island, and there are plenty of ways to try your hand at catching your own dinner. Beach and rock fishing spots are plentiful, but many locals prefer to head out in kayaks or boats in search of snapper and rock cod.
For a more adventurous way to see the island, EcoZip Adventures’ three stage zip line offer thrills and incredible views from the native forest treetops.
However you choose to experience Waiheke, the landscape promises to make it unforgettable.