Waiheke Island: There's more to this destination than wining and dining
There's more to Waiheke Island than wining and dining, as Amy Prebble finds out (in between wining and dining). Here's the best way to spend a long weekend.
Blessed with a grape-friendly microclimate and glorious white-sand beaches, Waiheke Island is well established as the glittering jewel of the Hauraki Gulf. After just a 40-minute ferry ride, you can shuck off the stress of Auckland, soak up the sea and sunbathe, and enjoy top-notch cuisine, excellent wine and the quirky craft stores and galleries set up during the island’s hippyish past.
Like a lot of Aucklanders, I’ve made my way over to vineyards there, wined and dined, and then caught the last boat home. I’ve never actually spent more than a day on Waiheke, but I didn’t need much persuading to take my time and try some of the other things on offer.
On this trip, Gabrielle Young from Terra & Tide greets me on arrival. I’m booked in for a sailing tour on her 12.5m catamaran, Pacific Star. Admittedly, I’m not really a boat person, but I’m in good hands. Gabrielle’s husband Bruce is the skipper and he’s a former commercial fisher who’s spent the last 16 years with Coastguard.
When the weather takes a turn, Bruce is quick to spot my greenish tinge and rising panic. He suggests we head to calmer waters, have an early lunch and check out Rakino Island rather than persist with a choppy trip to Tiritiri Matangi.
Fortunately, my fellow passenger, Sophie Boladeras, is happy to accommodate a queasy Auckland landlubber.
We sit, scoff a delicious spread and chat about the island.
Helpful Waiheke tip number one: the best scones you can get are at the Rocky Bay hall (the café is only open on weekends though). Gabrielle and Bruce know this because they’ve been part of a walking group for 17 years and they finish every outing with coffee and scones. “It started off as a fast walk but everyone’s got older,” says Bruce, laughing.
The pair, who met 32 years ago on a “hippy, woowoo personal development course” are a fabulous team. They started off in tourism with a luxury bed and breakfast 20 years ago, and set up Terra & Tide in 2016. At the moment, they’re trying to lure more Kiwis over to Waiheke to sail and hike.
“We’re like most people, our business would have been 90 to 95 percent international,” says Gabrielle. “So it’s been a lot of work this year changing to appeal more to the domestic market. We’ve developed multi-day hiking packages and I’m just starting to get bookings for that now. Plus, we’ve got the sailing trips, which people really enjoy.”
There's a tremendous sense of wellbeing in just being in nature, being in the present.
The advantage of a boat, it turns out, is that you can pull up at places like Rakino, which has a very sporadic ferry service. Bruce manoeuvres their smaller boat up to the wharf so expertly that I don’t even get my feet wet. There’s no electricity on Rakino, so the whole island is off the grid. (It does have the world’s first solarpowered telephone though.) The sun shines as we stroll along the beach, and afterwards, Sophie and I jump off the boat for the swim. (Okay, she jumps and I scramble down the ladder.) And on the Pacific Star, you can wash off the salt water with a hot outdoor shower. Bliss.
I finish my first day with dinner at Onetangi restaurant Three Seven Two, named after Waiheke’s phone code.
Gabrielle and Sophie had raved about the chef, Bronwen Laight, and I’m not disappointed – the food is divine. Day two of Waiheke starts with forest therapy led by Gabrielle. I’ve been very keen for a while to try this. The practice started in Japan in the 1980s to combat the stress of busy, modern lifestyles. The basic idea is that being in nature reduces our stress levels and, as studies have shown, boosts our immunity.
Gabrielle became interested in forest therapy after taking a break from a high-powered career in human resources that took her to Asia and London. At 49, she packed in her job and went walking in the South Island bush for a month. “I got to see what my brain was like when it wasn’t totally overstimulated, because I’d been going like the clappers for years,” she says. “There was a tremendous sense of wellbeing just being in nature and being in the present moment.”
When she got back, she did return to HR consulting but she also completed a course with the international Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and now offers visitors to Waiheke the opportunity to give it a go.
There are three of us at the forest bathing – Robin Kermode, Jun Maruta and me. I’m pretty sure I speak for all us when I say we had an absolute ball meditating, observing the tui and kererū, building gratitude altars (Jun’s was a thing of beauty) and finishing off with a tea ceremony made with kawakawa foraged from the forest.
My next stop is high tea at Batch Winery. I’m just going to say that all of the food I ate at Waiheke was mouth-watering. The high tea is also pretty (hello, Instagram shot) and I got chatting with our waitress, Josie Albani from Brazil, who was touchingly proud of how well New Zealand was handling the Covid pandemic.
In the afternoon, Darren Rippingale from Big Aroha Waiheke Island Tours picks me up from Batch Winery for a guided cultural tour. An artist, he is both knowledgeable and entertaining as he takes us through the history of Waiheke, from the arrival of both Te Arawa and Tainui ancestral canoes.
He tells us about the people of Ngāti Paoa, Te Uri Karaka, Ngāti Kapu and Ngāti Hura and how they became established on the island, and, we also get to see his sculpture of Papatūānuku and Ranganui, on a stunning private property on the Woodside Bay side of the island, plus a visit to his studio.
I’m always creating images of our ancestors. I just want to remind everyone that they were here. They’re not just something you read about in a book. They were alive.
We end the tour at new café Ahipao, near Matiatia Wharf. Owners Esme and Nick Pfaff had to close their Queen Street cashmere store due to Covid, but they’ve opened a knitwear factory (and the café) on Waiheke, where they’ve lived for five years. The factory is open to the public, and it’s fascinating seeing the knitting machines in action and the super-cute teeny-tiny jumpsuits they produce.
Esme admits that going into hospitality hasn’t been easy. “The only hospo experience I’ve had was a bartender in a pretty skanky bar in Bristol, so it’s been such a rollercoaster. But Ahipao has been really well received and the community seems to really like it.”
Darren drops me at Ki Māha restaurant for even more delectable food. Helpful Waiheke tip number two: if you like scallops, do not miss out on the seared scallops here. You will regret it otherwise. Also, the dish pairs nicely with the baby carrot salad.
On day three, my husband, Walter, joins me. I’m aware people are expecting vineyards in a travel story about Waiheke, but I stopped drinking during lockdown. Luckily, Walter has selflessly agreed to do three wine tastings in my stead.
Sheree Tucker from tour company Enjoi Waiheke and her canine sidekick Mister Wino are our thoroughly charming guides. Sheree has lived on Waiheke for 12 years and has run Enjoi for seven. When I ask whether that qualifies her as a local, she replies with a broad grin, “I’m definitely a Waihekean. I think you become a Waihesian when you’ve been here for about 30. Anything more than 30 and you’ve usually moved to Great Barrier Island.”
Walter has a lovely time sampling organic syrahs and chardonnays from local vineyard Awaroa, and peppers head taster Kit Sainsbury-Canham with endless questions, all of which Kit answers with ease.
At Tantalus Estate, Linda Jones (not the jockey) treats Walt to more chardonnay, while I get in on the action with a magnificent mocktail made with Seedlip Garden 108 and lavender sugar syrup. We also rubberneck as a helicopter flies in with some high-end sippers.
We finish off at Mudbrick, where Walt – who is really enjoying himself by this time – happily learns about the wines from Anna Thorp, who studied wine in London before heading to New Zealand to get some experience in the industry. Walt’s conclusion is that wine lovers are in for treat on Waiheke. (I suspect this isn’t really news to anyone.)
On our final morning in Waiheke we take a stroll along the beach at Onetangi before catching an electric bus to the ferry. The nearly 2km stretch of sand is heavenly and we mix in with families, sun lovers, dog walkers and joggers.
Helpful Waiheke tip number three: you may not be aware that there is a nude section of the beach, tucked behind the headland. If you are forewarned, you can avoid stumbling fully clothed into that area and having to make an awkward and hasty retreat.
What to do
- Sail with Terra & Tide
- Forest bathe
- Stroll to Onetangi beach
- Do a wine tasting with Enjoi Waiheke
- Get a taste of culture with Big Aroha Waiheke Island Tours
Where to eat
- Ki Māha
- Three Seven Two
- Batch Winery
Where to stay
Onetangi Beach Apartments – very handily situated across the road from the beach and right by the restaurants
Fullers360 runs a regular ferry service to Waiheke from downtown Auckland. SeaLink also offers a car ferry service.