For a moment, I regretted my decision to skip Auckland.
I had planned our nine days in New Zealand with our top picks in mind: visiting wineries, checking out the surf in Raglan, fishing for trout in Lake Taupo, whitewater rafting, riding the ferry to the South Island and staying on a farm.
We figured if anything else came up — hiking, food tours, walking on beaches, touring a brewery — then we’d try to fit it in. But if not, it would be OK.
And then, on the flight over, our flight attendant raved about Auckland, the largest and most populous urbane area in the country. It’s a bustling city, with amazing restaurants, Māori culture everywhere and up-close-encounters with penguins. She talked about this one restaurant, Federal Delicatessen, that had me using up my last minutes of free wifi at the airport researching. Oh, that pastrami sandwich!
But instead, I had skipping the city altogether, opting for two days on Waiheke Island, the most populated island in the Hauraki Gulf, about 11 miles from Auckland.
I was intrigued by this little island, which boasts a population of about 9,000 residents. (Though, during summer months, that can swell to 30,000.) It’s just an half-hour ferry to the island (unless you bring a car, like us, and then it takes an hour), making it the most accessible island in the gulf. Ferry service used to be once a week years ago. But since this island became such a popular spot for day trips and weekend get-aways — by both visitors and kiwis alike — service increased to several times a day.
The island is about 12 miles long and varies in width from half a mile to 6 miles across. There are 25 miles of beaches, many of which are easy to access. The western side of the island is the most populous and is set up for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Waiheke. There’s a charming beach town, Oneroa, with cafés, restaurants and very small grocery stores. It’s a quick walk to Oneroa Beach.
We landed and drove directly to Onetangi Bay smack in the middle of Waiheke on the northern coast. It’s mile-long beach that was once a landing strip for airlines. Today, it’s a popular beach, with super-fine sand similar to that in Kailua, to walk and beach comb.
On the ferry, we had met a woman whose mother lives on Waiheke and she was visiting her for the weekend from Auckland. She recommended we eat at Charlie Farley’s, a casual restaurant right on the bay where you can get both a flat white — a coffee beverage made with microfoam of steaming milk and a single shot of espresso — or a cold glass of beer. The deck overlooks the bay, and it’s not uncommon to see dogs sitting alongside their owners here.
There was a nice variety of breakfast options here, from simple bacon and eggs to an eggs Benedict on toasted sourdough with spinach and house-made hollandaise. I tried the Bacon Buttie (pronounced “buddy”), which was really a bacon sandwich on locally made artisan bread and house-made tomato relish. My husband ordered the Charlie’s Big Breakfast, which came with streaky bacon, eggs, sausages, grilled tomatoes, super-crispy hash browns, mushrooms and toast. (Streaky bacon is bacon cut from the sides and belly and having distinct strips of fat, just FYI.)
We decided to drive back toward Oneroa, where we were staying, and stop at vineyards along the way.
Despite its size, Waiheke boast more than 30 vineyards with very passionate and dedicated winegrowers using the maritime climate and ancient soils to create very distinctive red and white wines that have earned international recognition.
The climate here is well-suited to growing Bordeaux wine-type grapes. Most of the grapes grown here — about 75 percent — are Syrah. So naturally, most of the wineries here specialize in red wines.
We started at Te Motu Vineyards, which sprawls over 10 acres and produces mostly reds. As with most of the wineries here, these wines are all done in the French style, making them more elegant and complex.
Next, we stopped at Te Whau Vineyard on the southwest point of Putiki Bay facing Auckland. This was, hands down, the most stunningly beautiful vineyard I had ever been to — not just here but anywhere. The tasting room and restaurant sat above the glistening bay dotted with sailboats. It was just breathtaking.
The wines, themselves, were exceptional. The Forsyth family established the winery in 1993, planting its first grapes across five acres in 1996. The award-winning “The Point,” of which less than 1,000 cases are made each year, and Te Whau Chardonnay were first made in 1999.
Our last stop was Goldie Wines, the oldest vineyard on Waiheke Island, established in 1978. It spreads across 30 acres overlooking Putiki Bay and is now home to the University of Auckland’s Wine Science Centre, providing innovative education and research to improve the wine industry while providing students and researchers hands-on training at a working winery.
After a few hours of touring vineyards and sampling wines, it was time to stop driving and relax.
I had booked a small rental on Airbnb in Oneroa and it was perfectly charming, with a small patio and a comfortable bed with French linens. The water here comes from rainwater, so we have to use it sparingly. And the wifi is adequate but limited. It made me second-guess whether I could move here permanently.
We had plans to eat dinner at Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, which came highly recommended by everyone we had talked to. But it was closed for a private function — it looked like a wedding — so we went to the winery next door instead.
Cable Bay Vineyards is known for its handcrafted wines — the chardonnay was exceptional — and beautiful lawn with spectacular views of Hauraki Gulf.
We sat at the tapas bar, order a couple of glasses of wine and some small plates and watched the sunset.
There were so many things we could have done — toured around Auckland, hiked the trails on Waiheke — but this was perfect. I wouldn’t have planned our first day any differently.
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