WAIHEKE ISLAND - The mostly bright red SeaLink ferry chugs along and I, ensconced in my trusty and suddenly seaworthy
I've driven on board for the 45-minute trip from Half Moon Bay wharf, about 20 minutes from the city. In pursuit of my unrealistic goal of seeing all of my adopted second homeland, I'm on course for a solitary weekend on the most populated and largest island among some 50 in the gulf.
Sometimes called the Martha's Vineyard of New Zealand, and almost like its own nation, this trendy haven is 12 miles long, six miles wide, and home to about 8,000 people. You can't ignore the grand and expensive properties - some vacation homes, some year-round - that dominate the pristine landscape.
Here in New Zealand, the phrase "most populated" must be taken lightly; the country's total population is just over 4 million. A first-time visitor based in Auckland can't do better than Waiheke to quickly get a feel for what New Zealand is like and to get out of town for a pastoral scene.
Waiheke is a true microcosm of "Aotearoa," or "The Land of the Long White Cloud," the name be stowed on this country by its indigenous Maori people. Waiheke, which means "ebbing or cascading waters," welcomes international visitors and Auckland weekenders with its potpourri of scenic reserves, cloistered valleys and coves, bird-friendly marshes, and deserted white beaches rimmed in lava rock.
As the ferry reverses into an elbow nook of the harbor, I am off, headed up the steep hill on Donald Bruce Road on Kennedy Point. Having been struck by the endearingly lower-stress pace of New Zealand life, I laugh at the road sign warning weekenders to take a chill pill and "Slow Down, You're Here." A tight right into Kennedy Point Vineyards, and I'm enthusiastically greeted by Susan McCarthy, a fellow American, who with her husband, Neil Kunimura, bought the property in 1994. The two oversee 13 1/2 acres of vines that produce cabernet sauvignon, syrah, sauvignon blanc, merlot, and pinot noir. Trees yield notable olive and avocado oils to be sampled later at McCarthy's inviting Cellar Door & Wine Bar.
I deposit my belongings in the vineyard guesthouse, where I'll have my own cedar-paneled one-bedroom suite in the midst of expansive pohutukawa trees that, when ruby red in bloom, resemble giant California bottlebrush. Flinging back the porch door, I bound onto the deck to discover postcard views of the extinct volcano, Rangitoto Island, just as evening sparklers of the Southern Cross appear and a New Zealand wood pigeon, or kereru, whooshes overhead.
Adjoining suites are empty this weekend, leaving me to keep myself company - until the vineyard tabby cat strolls in for an under-chin scratch. The impromptu chorale of "chirpity-click" serenades me: More than 40 known species and subspecies of cicadas inhabit New Zealand.
It's time for a drive, and Waiheke's "loop," which is never too busy or intimidating, is an ideal course on which to test newbie "left-sider" motoring skills. (No-nonsense Kiwis advise: "Keep your partner in the gutter, mate.") Along the way, I take obligatory scenic detours, noting that the geography is loosely defined by small, beautiful bodies of water: Putiki Bay, then Anzac Bay, along with Waikopou, Garden, Hooks, Owhiti, Onetangi, Owhanake, and Church bays.
New Zealand has 500 vineyards, 30 on this island. Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant is a short trip - like all those on Waiheke - along Church Bay Road to the classically designed structure, popular for events, set in formal gardens. Owner Nicholas Jones says the buildings are built of recycled power poles, wharves, and hand-hewn mud bricks.
I opt for feasting in the cozier Potager Bistro instead of the high-ceilinged main restaurant. My main course is slow-roasted turbot fillet, seared scallops, and garden bean salad, and I finish with a New Zealand cheese: Kapiti aged cheddar complemented by locally-made tamarind chutney. Mudbrick's rosé and the vineyard's famous reserve chardonnay are just my types.
McCarthy delivers my coffee early the next morning, and I briefly consider calorie-consuming aerobics performed where the air is truly fresh and clean or an in-cove kayak expedition. Instead, I drive a few minutes across the island to north-faced Onetangi Beach, where I'm awestruck. The horseshoe-shaped beach is spectacular, and mandates a 30-minute jog. A few surfers hug their boards, and one shouts encouragingly, "Good on ya!"
I've read on a local Internet surfing forum that "as long as there's a north or northeast swell then there is usually surf. A few weeks ago in that big swell, it got up to around eight feet at Onetangi, six at Palm beach and five at Oneroa." Not today, though, for the waves are just right for my paddling.
Returning to Oneroa on Waiheke's western end, I manage to parallel-park on Korora Road's left side. This village is home to the only stoplight in Waiheke and its only ATMs, useful since it's also the site of the island's best shopping.
Across the road I enter the Artworks complex and its Waiheke Community Art Gallery, today serving up prints, ceramics, and jewelry, with works by island painters including Sally Smith, Mike Morgan, and Kelley Diener.
Linda Chalmers, gallery director, chats with me about the biennial Sculpture on the Gulf, an outdoor exhibition of large-scale contemporary works located along 1.2 miles near the pedestrian ferry wharf of Matiatia Harbour. Art is "built" to blend into the topography, and although the next event isn't until January, you can still view some past exhibits' strange and wonderful sculptures along the path of the stunning Church Bay Walkway.
Another first-rate art option is the 100-year-old beachfront guest cottage of Connells Bay Sculpture Park, the magnificent creation of John and Jo Gow, with 24 examples of outdoor art positioned on Waiheke's remote eastern appendage. Around the corner, melodies lure me toward the unpretentious sign for Whittaker's Musical Experience. Inside a hand-written note reads: "Live Performance, 1:15 today." I'm just in time for the biggest surprise of my weekend and am welcomed warmly by Lloyd and Joan Whittaker, who have been married 54 years. In an engaging hour-and-a-half live presentation, they play and describe the history of many of the 150 musical artifacts on display. Lloyd tells me they're collectively valued at $285,300, which seems much too low.
Since his fifth birthday when he first blew a mouth organ to play nursery rhymes, Lloyd's passion has grown for tuning, repairing, and reconditioning: "Acquiring a new instrument makes me get so excited. I've just gotta have it," he says, only to regret his impulsiveness when he realizes the time he'll need to invest in a meticulous and loving restoration. "You open it up, and you're sorry; it's kind of like meeting someone for the first time!"
The two demonstrate instruments from squeezebox to accordion, from piano to pianola and organ. Visitors can touch specimens like an 1837 wooden-framed French-built sailing ship's piano, smaller in size than a regular model, with a space-saving, folding keyboard.
I'm reminded not to miss dinner at Cable Bay Vineyards, just minutes away. It's a toss-up as to what's most impressive: the pinnacle-top location and view to Auckland, the sleek architecture, or head chef Will Thorpe's menu. "Our oysters are from Te Matuku Bay on the island," says Thorpe. "Our beef is Hereford Prime; the corn-fed chickens are free range; and our pork is from Freedom Farms." Every dish is shown with a recommended Cable Bay pairing by the vineyard's winemaker Neill Culley.
I feel obliged to sneak in a bit of local military history, so on Sunday I visit the Stony Batter gun emplacements constructed during World War II. It's easy to imagine being in uniform while you are in its restored network of tunnels, with concrete gun emplacements, magazines, an engine room, and command post.
Work calls and I return reluctantly to Kennedy Point, where Susan gives me a bottle of 2007 sauvignon blanc for later. Soon, I'm back on the ferry breezing across the gulf. I'll be back on the mainland shortly.
Why Waiheke? Why, oh why not?
Stephanie Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.