Awakening to a picture-perfect autumn day on the Auckland waterfront, the Waitematā Harbour’s glossy turquoise sheen gleamed in the soft morning sunshine with seduction. I had a hot date with the crowning jewel of the Hauraki Gulf. A full day’s adventures awaited me on Waiheke Island, a blissed-out beach and bush bolt-hole, where beauty and bounty abound.
It’s an island cohabited by unlikely bedpals, where seasoned bohemians reside cheek by jowl with the moneyed of Auckland. Needless to say, Waiheke’s local showdowns are legendary. A recent cause celebre was the construction of a Countdown supermarket in Ostend, complete with 13 aisles, earning the ire of many a resident who zealously shuns the box-box trappings of city life. As the rising sun gilded the city skyline, I boarded my Fullers 360 ferry for the panoramic 40 minute ride across the water, dashing past Rangitoto and Motatapu, to reach Waiheke’s Matiatia ferry terminal. www.fullers.co.nz
Boasting 40kms of pristine golden-sand beaches, 30 boutique vineyards, an abundance of splashy eateries in sleepy seaside villages, a thriving arts scene and countless hiking trails through the magnificent natural bush, Waiheke’s siren-like allure is irresistible, whether you’re escaping the urban jungle for the day or for a far more languid getaway.
My first assignment was to indulge in some high-wire thrills with EcoZip Adventures. This multiple-award-winning enterprise will pick you up from the ferry terminal and serve up an illuminating quick-fire sightseeing tour en-route to their lofty base atop Trig Hill. Enjoying one of the highest viewpoints on Waiheke Island, the stunningly expansive outlook reaches right across the harbour back to the city skyline.
I was joining a cheerful bunch of workmates from the Big Buddy charity, who had headed to Waiheke for a workplace retreat day. What better way could there be to team bond than by hurtling your way across the landscape on a flying fox zipline? Better still, three flying fox ziplines, that steadily increase in length and thrill-factor. After losing my zipline virginity last year at the Christchurch Adventure Park, I knew what I was in for. Suitably equipped with all of the safety gear, our chirpy group gleefully lapped up the exhilarating experience of hurtling our way across the forest and vineyard-wreathed valley, like over-excited school children on a sugar rush.
Twin zipline cables enable you to fly side-by-side with a mate. It is spectacularly good fun – and rest assured, you are in the best of hands with the EcoZip pros. But what makes this zipline experience particularly distinctive is the wider eco-immersive experience. Part of the proceeds from your ticket to ride are reinvested back into the majestic regenerating rainforest that EcoZip Adventures are the guardians of. Conservation is at the core of this business. After riding the ziplines, we were led beneath the lush and cooling canopy of the private rainforest to learn about their sterling restoration endeavours.
Since taking ownership of the site in 2012, the invasive weeds that were choking the ancient rainforest have been cleared, thousands of native trees have been planted and introduced predators like rats and stoats have been kept in check. The forest, once silent, now rings with native birdsong. There are numerous podocarps to admire on the 1.4km loop back to the base. Nikau palms are also prolific, but the ancient Puriri trees, some as old as 600 years, stirred my imagination.
I was intrigued to learn about the unenviable life of the Puriri moth, which generally lives for 7 years in the trunk of the tree as a caterpillar. The adult female moth, which is the largest New Zealand moth, as wide as your outstretched hand, then lives for about 7 days, scattering up to 2000 eggs across the forest leaf litter, before dying. What a life. Being reincarnated as a Puriri moth in my next life? Maybe not. https://www.ecozipadventures.co.nz/
Building up quite the appetite after my canopy cavorting, EcoZip Adventures shuttled me to the ravishing sweep of Onetangi Beach, where lunch was calling. As the mellow autumn sunshine bathed proceedings in a golden glow, I made my way to the beachfront bistro, Three Seven Two, which is right next door to Charlie Farley’s. Run by Luke and Helen Carter, the hospo duo originally set up their neighbouring stalwart. No stamp of approval is more impactful or important, than winning over the locals and Three Seven Two has cemented its stature as a firm favourite, since opening two years ago.
Taking its name from the island’s telephone area code, it’s under the culinary command of Bronwyn Haight. Decorated in a peaceful palette of crisp whites and blonde wood accents, and those knock-out ocean views, this is an instantly seductive haunt. It’s a place that embraces you and spoils you, from the flickering scented candles in the toilets to the lush sub-tropical garden bar out the back, where you could easily switch-off, abandon any other plans you may have laid, and while away the day.
Taking a ring-side seat on the water, in the front courtyard, I perused Bronwyn’s produce-driven and hyper-seasonal menu, quietly wishing I could check-in for a week’s gorging. But taking my cue from Auckland’s Iconic Eats bible, I ordered up the signature dish, the whole flounder, with bouillabaisse sauce, Vanuatu organic prawns, saffron, shoestring potatoes and Cafe de Paris butter – which is a compound butter comprising a combination of herbs, spices and various other savoury condiments. It was a heavenly meal to make the tastebuds sing, bolstered by the obligatory impulse to order dessert. I plumped for the lemon and blackcurrant meringue pie, a sweet and zesty climax to a radiant lunch. https://www.threeseventwo.co.nz/
It was time to burn off the pie, so I hooked up with Helen Elscot for a Wild Walk Experience culminating in botanical cocktail-making. As a medical dedicated herbalist, Helen has lived on the island for 20 years and offers a bespoke introduction to botanical cocktail-making and fragrance making, whether as a private tour, team-building exercise or corporate event. Her passion for foraging, food, flavours and fun is palpable. I felt positively intoxicated spending a few hours with Helen, which began with a foraging exercise in Belle Terrace Foreshore Reserve before whipping up some lip-smacking mixology.
From the beach, we strolled around Belle Terrace Foreshore Reserve, plucking a few native plants, flowers and even weeds, including dandelions. A font of local knowledge, Helen pointed out a few trophy homes on Waiheke where she has never seen any sign of life, while also proudly pointing out that the island is possum-free. From time to time, a dead possum is smuggled over from the mainland and deposited on the street as roadkill, by a mischievous resident, in a bid to falsely stir alarm that a possum outbreak has struck the island.
It’s staggering the lengths some people go to, to get their jollies. After foraging for a variety of botanicals, including dandelions, kanuka and kawakawa, Helen and I whipped them up into botanical juices, kawakawa tea – and best of all a botanical cocktail. She passionately shared her knowledge about the ancient process of distillation using natural, seasonal botanicals and introduced me to her beautiful handcrafted copper stills. Supremely good fun, hands-on and illuminating, check out the variety of tailored experiences on the website. https://thebotanicaldistillery.com
It would be seriously poor form not to sample the celebrated wines of Waiheke, given its distinctive maritime climate, where the ocean acts as both a fan and an insulator. Due to its similar latitudinal position as Bordeaux in France, it’s the Bordeaux varieties that flourish on the island. With over twenty wineries to lavishly graze from, you’re spoilt for choice, but I plumped for one of the most decorated destination vineyards, Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant. It’s the dazzling ocean views taking in the Auckland skyline and Rangitoto that left me first catching my breath, on arrival.
It was the same sensation for Mudbrick’s founders, Robyn and Nick Jones, when they purchased this bare block of land in 1992. Artfully designed, the potager gardens and hand-hewn mud brick buildings, wrapped in rolling vineyards set the stage for a sumptuous, escapist experience, savouring superb wine and food. There’s a variety of dining venues, but my prime assignment was to partake in a cellar door tasting. The Flagship Tasting menu strolls you through a salivating parade of varietals, including Chardonnay, Syrah and Merlot.
I’m not a huge white wine consumer, but their Reserve Chardonnay and Francesca Chardonnay are both splendid. Whether you’re up for a “Waihitian’-style long lunch, a leisurely afternoon strolling the gardens interspersed with wine tasting, or even an overnight stay in their luxury accommodations, Mudbrick serves up an unforgettable experience. https://mudbrick.co.nz
I bookended my Waiheke sortie with a pampered stay at the watery embrace of The Hilton Auckland, which I secured through booking.com Boasting stylish rooms and suites in an idyllic location at the end of Princes Wharf, with sweeping harbour views, enjoy luxury dining at FISH restaurant, and inviting cocktails at the elegant Bellini Bar. No matter what your budget or accommodation preferences may be, stake out great-value stays with complete flexibility and convenience, at https://www.booking.com
With world-class shopping and dining and never too far from beautiful islands, native bush and black-sand beaches, Auckland bursts with vitality, diversity, and an endless array of city-break ideas. Make your first port of the call the official website. https://www.aucklandnz.com