Waiting on the footpath outside a fish and chip shop on Auckland’s Waiheke Island, a Scandinavian backpacker asks me if I’m on holiday or a local. I’m on holiday. He gets straight to the point. Where are you staying? I’m deliberately vague… just down the road here at Oneroa. Is it a house or an apartment? How big is it? How long am I here for?
I decide to turn the tables. How long is he here for? Just the day, but would like to stay longer if only he could find a place to stay. I suddenly get the drift of the conversation, and am saved by my friend emerging from the shop with the parcel of fish and chips.
Waiheke Island is that kind of place. People come for a holiday, fall in love with it, and decide to stay. It is full of people who’ve come for a day and stayed 10 years or a lifetime. Many of those people are creative types. Waiheke was once regarded as something of a hippie haven and is still the island of choice for artists, writers, sculptors, musicians and winemakers.
Cruise and scoot
Just 35 minutes from downtown Auckland by ferry, it’s also favoured by those who don’t mind a daily commute coupled with the luxury of an island lifestyle so close to the city. The ferry deposits you at Matiatia, about a 15 minute uphill walk to the main settlement of Oneroa, on the north side of the island.
The public bus also meets the ferry and is another option for getting around – if you’ve got plenty of time – if you don’t want to take your car on the ferry or hire one when you get there. Scooter hire is another popular way of getting around.
Soak in the island life
In Oneroa, there are plenty of cafes and restaurants, alongside art galleries and interesting little shops. At the Waiheke Community Art Gallery, tucked away at the top of the village, you’ll find the work of painters, potters, sculptors and jewellery makers. Art lovers will also enjoy the Saturday morning markets at Ostend, which also sells fresh produce, and there are many special events on the Waiheke calendar throughout the year.
The biennial Sculpture on the Gulf exhibition will be held from January 23 to February 15, 2015 on the Matiatia headland. The free outdoor sculpture exhbition is held on a 2.5-kilometre public walkway, and is a major event on the New Zealand arts calendar, showcasing about 30 of the country’s leading sculptors.
Find your spot in the sand
Waiheke has 19 kilometres of coastline, with the best beaches on the northern shores and plenty of walking trails in the bush to make exploring on foot one of the best ways of discovering its natural beauty. Oneroa, Little Oneroa, Sandy Bay, Enclosure Bay and Palm Beach are white sandy beaches, perfect for swimming and kayaking.
Onetangi Beach is worth the effort to get to, offering a two kilometre unbroken stretch of sand, fringed by sprawling pohutukawa trees, ablaze with red flowers in summer. Beaches on the southern side of the island – looking back to Auckland – are pebbles and shell, rather than sand.
Winemakers are also among the creative types who’ve made Waiheke their home. One of my favourites among the dozen or so vineyards on the island is The Mudbrick, a good 30 or 40 minutes walk from Oneroa (or from the ferry) – but worth every step.
On a fine day it’s a beautiful walk, rewarded by fine food and wine at the end. Owners Robyn and Nick Jones planted the first vines in 1992 and never looked back, with The Mudbrick now firmly established as a “must” when visiting the island.
Sample the local drops
Another vineyard worth checking out is the wonderful Te Whau, which has panoramic views of the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland City, and specialises in Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot.
If you have only a few hours, the best way to explore the wineries is to take one of several wine/food and sightseeing tours on offer, with local guides who will tell stories of life on the island and its history.
Spend a few hours exploring the tunnels and gun emplacements of Stony Batter, a historic fort on the eastern end of the island not far from Onetangi Beach. Named for its rocky outcrops, it has extensive tunnels and gun sites from World War II.
A road and walkway crosses private farmland to reach the Stony Batter Historic Reserve. Allow about half an hour to walk to the tunnels from the carpark off Man O' War Bay Road.
A couple of hours on Waiheke may seduce you into a lifetime love affair with island life. Even if you only have a couple of hours to spare, this is a city escape where time seems to slow right down.