Waiheke: an island gem in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand

by zara

Though officially part of Auckland, Waiheke is actually a beautiful island in the Hauraki Gulf and a great gourmet escape from the big city

Waiheke is marketed as a day destination and indeed one could have a very enjoyable day there: a 30 minute ferry ride will deliver you to great walks, delicious lunches and wonderful wines within strolling distance of the landing. However, with 96 km of coastline and 25 vineyards, any extra time you can spend there will not be wasted. Great for families with golden beaches, heaven for gourmands with fine restaurants and top class wines, a get-away-from-it-all destination with pretty walks and a laid-back lifestyle, Waiheke encapsulates the best of New Zealand in 92 square km.

Exploring the Island

There are numerous enchanting walks, none very long, which reveal delicate pockets of old native forest or cliff top paths with breathtaking views over scattered islands. 

The sandy northern beaches of Oneroa, Onetangi and pretty Palm Beach are best for swimming. Rocky Bay’s shell strewn beach is home to the rare dotterel, a bird which is easy to spot here as it scurries round the shallows. It has some great walking in the surrounding Whakanewha park and the island’s only campsite ($5/adult/night Auckland Regional Council; +64 9 366 2000; www.arc.govt.nz).

The hilly eastern side of the island is largely cleared for grazing. Stony Batter was built in 1942 and held 3 gun emplacements; ironically they were only fired once when tested and were scrapped to the Japanese in 1963. There are 3 km of dusty tunnels for exploration ($8, bring a torch) or just fabulous views from the hills around the site (free access).

Other Things to Do

Whittaker’s Music Museum (Artworks Complex, Oneroa; +64 9 372 5573; www.musical-museum.org.nz Entry by donation) has an amazing variety of musical instruments, including an 1897 Bechstein grand piano, harpsichords, harmonicas and even a swanee whistle.

There is a market at Belgium Street, Ostend (www.ostendmarket.co.nz) on Saturdays and many art studios around the island; I like the reconstructed clothes at Upcycle (Artworks Complex, Oneroa).

The island also produces superb olive oil: Rangihoua (1 Gordons Road, Rocky Bay; +64 9 372 6214; www.rangihoua.co.nz) is one of the best.

Vineyard Wining and Dining

Mud brick's (Church Bay Road, Oneroa; +64 9 372 9050; www.mudbrick.co.nz) spacious hilltop restaurant has fine views and is cleverly constructed of old brick and beams, with smart tables and an open fireplace. The food is beautifully presented and a riot of flavours. Fish of the day ($45) came with clams in a ginger, coconut and cream sauce. Waiheke lamb was presented shredded in a filo pasty parcel, crumbed and pinkly sliced on an aubergine puree. Puddings are $17. The surrounding gardens supply the vegetables and herbs. The tasting room has 5 wines for $5 or $10 and a nice terrace to enjoy $50 meat or fish platters.

Te Whau (218 Te Whau Drive, Te Whau Point; +64 9 372 7191; www.tewhau.com) has a huge wine list, though I would be happy with their flagship wine, the Point ($50 a bottle), a red Bordeaux style bursting with body and flavour. They also have two very fine Burmese cats. It is perched on the end of a peninsula with wraparound sea view so lunch is preferable and the simple café is not that atmospheric at night. A 3 course meal for two came to $250 and included a creamy bisque and some slightly heavy tempura oysters. Venison was tender and well presented, and the crispy salmon and prawns in a laksa style sauce was very tasty.

Te Moto (76 Onetangi Road; +64 9 372 6884;  www.temotu.co.nz) is another vineyard with a well regarded restaurant of similar prices: the Shed. I had a nice Wagu meat pie but the setting is just that, a simple shed and not at its best on a grey winter’s day. Undoubtedly it would be better in the summer with outside tables.

Stonyridge (80 Onetangi Road; +64 09 372 8822; www.stonyridge.com) has an extensive wine range and you can taste their premium red wine, the Larose, for $15 ($46/glass, $220/bottle) The $30 Stonyridge chardonnay was good enough for me. The restaurant is a pleasant terrace affair and the rather long-winded menu has starters for $16-18 and mains for £29-$38.

Cable Bay (12 Nick Johnstone Drive, Oneroa; +64 9 372 5889; www.cablebayvineyards.co.nz) had probably the most stunning view of any vineyard we visited, with a great modern building to boot. The restaurant is dark and slick, with an open fireplace and chocolaty chairs. Fresh oysters are $4 each; tuna comes with a citrus crème fraiche (mains $42-45). They have good value wine tastings for $5 for 6 wines and a fabulous outdoor terrace for enjoying nibbles.

Jurassic Ridge (144 Church Bay road, Oneroa; +64 9 372 6602; www.jurassicridge.com) is a family owned operation producing a hefty cabernet franc ($30) and delcious Montepulciano from a small cellar-door near Mudbrick.

Other Dining Options

Vino Vino (153 Ocean View Road, Oneroa; +64 9 372 9888; www.vinovino.co.nz) is a good value local with terrace and beachview. Fishy items include skewered prawns with chilli dipping sauce ($19.50), creamy bisque ($6) or Coromandel mussels in a wine sauce ($22.00). Beer battered monkfish ($22.50) was crispy and light.

The Spice café (Ocean View Road, Oneroa; +64 9 372 7659) is a pleasant choice for coffee and cakes ($6). My favourite is Lure (Waikare Road, Oneroa; +64 9 372 9035), with beachview and good breakfasts.

Where to Stay

Te Whau Ridge Studio (10 Margaret Reeve Lane, Te Whau) has a quiet location near the lovely Te Whau vineyard. Its view is over the inland waters rather than out to sea but there is pleasant self contained accommodation for a good value $180 a night - and no neighbours!

A friend honeymooned at Delamore Lodge (83 Delamore Drive, PO Box 572, Oneroa; Suites from $627) and has yet to return to earth: superb sea views and four luxurious suites. There is also a magnificent infinity pool and spa facilities.

Getting there

The 30 minute passenger ferry leaves from downtown Auckland ($32 return; +64 9 367 9111; www.fullers.co.nz) and there are tours with Fuller’s or Ananda’s; +64 9 372 7530; www.ananda.co.nz) A car will allow more flexibility but $50/day island car hire (Waiheke Rental Cars; +64 9 372 8635; www.waihekerentalcars.co.nz or Waiheke Rentals; +64 9 372 8998; www.waihekerentals.co.nz) is double that of the mainland, so ideally bring a car on one of the frequent sailings from Half Moon Bay, Auckland (winter return with 2 passengers $100; $190 in summer with Waiheke Shipping; +64 9 534 5993 or Sealink; +64 9 300 5900; www.sealink.co.nz)

Just relax…

There is something quite relaxing about small islands in that the perimeters are set by the sea so exploration is naturally limited: the pressure is off. Waiheke enjoys such a high quality yet relaxed pace of life that you might find it quite hard to drag yourself away: some of those spectacularly sited sea-view homes could start looking very desirable indeed.