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Waiheke uncorked

Pastoral and pinot just a ferry ride away from Auckland

With its lush vineyards, Waiheke Island is sometimes referred to as the Martha's Vineyard of New Zealand.
With its lush vineyards, Waiheke Island is sometimes referred to as the Martha's Vineyard of New Zealand. (Heidi Coppock Beard/Getty Images)
By Stephanie Stephens
Globe Correspondent / September 7, 2008
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WAIHEKE ISLAND - The mostly bright red SeaLink ferry chugs along and I, ensconced in my trusty and suddenly seaworthy Toyota, cross the Hauraki Gulf happily headed to Waiheke Island. Slightly sunnier and warmer, it's a part of Auckland City, but "Wacky Waiheke," as it was once known, sustains its own vibe off the coast of New Zealand's largest metropolis of 1.3 million people.

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 stephaniestephens@cox.net.

If You Go

How to get there

Fly nonstop, approximately 12-13 hours, from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Vancouver, British Columbia, to Auckland, on the North Island. To Waiheke, passengers only (no vehicles) take Fullers ferries, 99 Quay St., 011-64-9-367-9111, fullers.co.nz. To ferry your vehicle, drive to Ara Tai Drive, Half Moon Bay, and use SeaLink, at 011-64-9-300-5900, sealink.co.nz, seven days.

What to do

Connells Bay Sculpture Park

Cowes Bay Road, Connells Bay

011-64-9-372-8957

connellsbay.co.nz

Breathtaking coastal property dotted with sculptures. Mid-October to mid-April by appointment only. Adults $21, children under age 15 $10. Reservations essential.

Ostend Market

Ostend War Memorial Hall

011-64-9-372-5294

ostendmarket.co.nz

Colorful weekly Saturday market with a great atmosphere. Free.

Stony Batter Historic Reserve and Defence Complex

Eastern End, Waiheke Island

doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=34076

National historic site. Free.

Te Whau Garden & Gallery

31 Vintage Lane at Te Whau Road
011-649-372-6748

tewhaugarden.co.nz

Beautiful garden/bush walk, art and sculpture.

Adults $7, children free.

Whittaker's Musical Museum

2 Korora St., Oneroa

011-64-9-372-5573

musical-museum.org

Instruments dating to the 1500s. Open daily; the Whittakers play at 1:30 p.m. every day except Tuesdays and Fridays.

Where to stay

Connells Bay Cottage

(see above)

Rate is $240 per night per couple; two-night minimum; no children.

Kennedy Point Vineyard

44 Donald Bruce Road

011-64-9-372-5600

kennedypointvineyard.com

One or two-bedroom suite or the whole three-bedroom house $172-$344.

Te Whau Lodge

36 Vintage Lane

011-64-9-372-2288

tewhaulodge.co.nz

Four luxurious guest rooms with private balcony. Doubles $402, singles $340, with transfers, predinner canapes, drinks, breakfast. Dinner additional.

Winemaker's Loft

20 Nick Johnstone Drive

011-64-9-372-9384

winemakersloft.co.nz

Nestled inside Cable Bay Vineyards, lovely queen room, spacious dining/lounge area, includes breakfast, bottle of wine. Rate is $151, and $34 additional for single-night stay.

Where to eat (and tastings, too)

Cable Bay Vineyards

12 Nick Johnstone Drive

011-64-9-372-5889

cablebayvineyards.co.nz

Lunch 7 days; dinner Thursday- Saturday. Gorgeous views and food. Entrees $25.

Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant

Church Bay Road

011-64-9-372-9050

mudbrick.co.nz

Breezy, classic venue. Lunch, dinner 7 days. Entrees from $25.

Te Whau Vineyard Restaurant

218 Te Whau Drive

011-64-9-372-7191

tewhau.co.nz

Contemporary art and architecture. Lunch, dinner days/ hours vary; please call. Entrees $22-$26.

Information

newzealand.com

waihekenz.com

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