We sat at the vineyard restaurant after ordering our lunch, and looked out, across the vines, down the hill to the Hauraki Gulf sparkling in the sun, and saw the towers of Auckland in the distance. The central city feels very far away, but in reality, it was just a relaxing, 40 minute ferry ride away. We rented a car on arrival, and after exploring the tiny settlement, we set off.
Vineyards with restaurants were a compulsory spot for lunch, or indeed for the rest of the day. There were vineyards for tastings with some very nice reds, vineyards with spectacular views , vineyards with great reputations where three of us shared one glass of red wine, and relaxed in the sun. Waiheke’s reputation for excellent wine is growing, and my current favourite chardonnay is from a Waiheke vineyard (Man O’ War).
Waiheke is the type of island that has long attracted the artists amongst us, and there are many studios you can visit (though most by prior arrangement). But in more recent years, its proximity to Auckland, and the growing success of its wine industry, have seen the wealthy of Auckland move to the island and construct lavish holiday homes, and land and house prices have now moved out of the reach of the average New Zealander.
But the character of Waiheke is still laid-back and relaxed. The island has lush native bush that conveniently hide the new, large mansions being built there. The island is lined by pristine white beaches, hidden away in beautiful coves lined with pohutakawa trees, and the water around it is that beautiful deep blue-green that just begs you to dive into its clear coolness. The coves are dotted with pleasure-craft, from the luxurious motor yachts, to small sail boats or dinghies, boating enthusiasts love Waiheke both as a base, or island to visit in the sheltered Hauraki Gulf.
At the eastern end of the island, farming is still the dominant land-use. My brother-in-law’s father farmed there in the 1950s, and today you can still find sheep grazing on the rolling hills. At the far end you’ll find Stony Batter, named for its unusual rock formations made by volcanic activity millions of years ago. During World War II, large concrete gun emplacements and tunnels were built at Stony Batter, which you can explore. But I can’t tear myself away from the views of the Gulf. To the east we can see Great Barrier Island and off to the Coromandel Peninsular, the North Island spreads out to the south, Auckland to the west, and surrounded by other islands. The Gulf is protected, not just from large ocean swells, but within a wider marine park as a mix of reserves and conservation areas, in this area known as Auckland’s playground.
Waiheke is a small gem of an island, a microcosm of New Zealand’s landscape in many ways. This small piece of land is similar to the Coromandel to the east ( a short trip by boat, but several hours by car), or the Bay of Islands several hours to the north. For visitors who don’t get the chance to travel to these most beautiful areas of New Zealand, or to the rural farming land to the south of Auckland, a visit to Waiheke gives a tempting taste of these landscapes that are so familiar to, and loved by, New Zealanders.
* I realise that all the photographs of places I love in New Zealand are actually in my head. I promise when I travel in the future that I’ll try to take more photos to show you.