Auckland is an often-bypassed city. With the beauty and ruggedness of the South Island attracting most of the visitors to New Zealand the biggest city tends to be a pit stop or a connection hub. But Waiheke could be yet another reason for a stopover.
I did not have much time to visit the city but on the one day free I had I am glad I took the ferry and wine tour to Waiheke, a 35min ferry ride from Auckland harbor but a world away, even considered an overseas country by the locals. These Kiwis have a sense of humor.
Fullers ferries have a combined ticket which includes the ferry ride and a bus tour of the island visiting 3 of its most famous wineries and a light lunch. I am not a fan of bus or group tours in general so when Steve, a friend from Auckland, suggested we go on it I was a bit hesitant but since I had not done any research I did not know what to expect and he seemed to know what he was talking about. For all I knew Waiheke was a small island that could be covered walking.
The ferry stops at another island on the way and when we debarked on Waiheke the bus was already waiting for us. Dave, the driver and tour guide, had a wealth of knowledge of the area and although Steve and I ended up chatting the whole ride, on the off time that I listened to him he seemed to have plenty of anecdotes to share with us and a friendly happy camper air to him that put you at ease straightaway.
Waiheke is a lovely little island that is very reminiscent of my summers back in Mediterranean Catalunya: Herbs, dry vegetation, flowers in bloom, chilled out afternoons under the warm sun and lazy evenings drinking wine.
Today, the island is no longer the place where those who can’t afford to live in Auckland reside but much the opposite. As soon as we board the bus Dave points at a couple of beautifully sleek houses on top of the hill with stunning views over the bay and glass walls to make the most of the location. These are not the only houses like this we see, Waiheke is full of them and has truly become the playground of the rich. Steve tells that a plot of land, not including the designer houses, costs a small fortune today. I can see why. Although Auckland does never get too hot with summer temperatures hitting low 20s, Waiheke is always at least 2 degrees warmer. Somehow, as soon as we arrive on the island the weather is already better with a warmer sun shinning brighter and light cotton floss clouds morphing into all shapes and the Auckland rain is gone. It feels as if Waiheke is protected by the Gods.
When we hit the tiny town center cafes, shops and art stores line up the main street. There is a 3km art walk that takes you to all the galleries and workshops that fits well into a wine and culture tour.
We head to our first stop, Stonyridge Winery, one of the oldest in Waiheke and known for its very prestigious and, may I say, expensive, French-style red wines most of which are Cabernet Sauvignon blends. The winery is stunning and I kept wondering if all these manicured gardens and cafes are only there for show or if there actually is any wine making going on. Having grown up in a functioning and rather large winery I can’t seem to find the large containers or machinery that you would need. Later I realize that a lot of these wineries are indeed not fully located in Waiheke but spread across other areas of New Zealand like Marlborough or Hawkes Bay where production and land is bigger and their winery is not necessarily where the cellar door is on Waiheke. This does not take away from the beauty of the surroundings and the relaxed and laid back atmosphere I immediately get into when walking on wooden decks and green lush grass. There are sunbeds, low tables and sun umbrellas lest the sun not damage your skin in this remote part of the world. I wish we could spend the whole day there staring at the vineyards and the hills covered in pastures, bushes and pine trees. Perhaps because it reminds me of home but vineyards have a soothing effect on me.
The lively Czech tour guide explains everything there is to know about the winery and walks us through their range of wines as we taste them. We have a glass in our hands from the moment we get off the bus and this gets replenished at least once again with a different wine, usually a white followed by a red. He is obviously knowledgeable and a tad quirky with his Santa/Christmas tree hat and funny accent. Stonyridge is famous for ending top-3 in tastings in France a few years after starting off and their Larose range is extremely expensive and sold out so we don’t get to try this very sought after wine.
Steve and I wander away to one of the tables on the main deck while the rest of the group enjoys lunch under the olive trees. The entire area is exactly like back home. The olive groves, the bushes, the pine trees are all the exact type of landscapes we have in the Mediterranean. The smell of lavender and other herbs fills the air when the sun warms up the atmosphere and if I close my eyes, I am transported back home to a beautiful spring day. What Kiwis call summer is far from what I am used to in Singapore or Spain for that matter, it is more like spring so it makes me think of late April when the weather is still unstable and the days are warm when the sun is shining, cooling down as soon as it sets. Steve, a 100% Kiwi, showed up in shorts in the morning when I was wearing 4 layers of clothes. I am indeed fully adapted to tropical hot weather.
Back at Stonyridge, we pair the quiche and cheese lunch with some more wine. Everything they sell is purchased on site and they don’t even “export” much to Auckland. The bottles of their best vintage get sold even before they hit the shelves and they have a VIP Larose Club for customers to buy the best vintages at half the price, and to guarantee a supply. I can’t help but think that these wines are remarkably expensive, unexpectedly, but all the staff keep reminding us that Parker gave them 95 points and that they are first on many aspects of New Zealand winemaking. I am torn between thinking they are very proud of what they do or slightly arrogant to keep repeating all these accolades.
We unfortunately don’t have much time to take in the place as we have to continue with our wine marathon – I won’t complain. Before we go, Steve inquires about their New Year’s Eve party which is it seems, great. There is live music and the setting on the hills and the deck is divine, it does seem like a wonderful way to welcome in 2015.
Waiheke is one of the largest producers of olive oil, it seems, so we also get to visit an oil production house, Rangihoua. Now, I am truly at home. Back in Spain dad makes our own olive oil from home grown olive trees and it is the best you will ever taste. We get a crash course on oil making and a video to go with it and then on for the tasting. Oil made from arbequina and picual olives, from Spanish origin, taste like back home. Olive oil is the centerpiece of the Mediterranean diet so I can’t help but be again taken home. More orchards, lavender fields and happy campers. Bliss.
Next up for us is a small tour of the island and a quick visit to some of the beaches. Dave continues to share his knowledge but sadly, Steve and I are too engaged laughing about the Kiwi accent to pay any attention. Have you ever heard a Kiwi say the word “deck”? Well, then you would know why I laughed so much.
Although Waiheke is a beautiful island I find that beaches in New Zealand are nothing to write home about. The sand is generally coarse and often dark and the water is not the crystalline blue you find in Asia or the Pacific and rather cold. I keep wondering how do locals swim when the water is at no more than 20 degrees and the weather a maximum of 23. But the beaches are full of people taking a quick dip. What does make them stunning through is the landscape around them and ruggedness in some cases.
We stop at Wild on Waheke for a round of wines, beer and ginger beer. The owner of this family run and tiny winery is engaging and has a great sense of humor rather naughty and casual. I find myself wanting her to continue talking as if we were at a stand-up comedy show.
We start with the wines which, I must say, were the weakest point of the tasting, and then move on to a nice soft beer that even I, a beer hater, could drink. It is relatively sweet, it smells really nice and has none of the usual bitter beer aftertaste. Their stronger dark beer is similar to Guinness and I would have enjoyed it more if I could have added some blackcurrant syrup. Steve does not appreciate my taste on that one, I admit it sounds weird and possibly gross to a beer drinker but it is my way to completely masking the taste of the beer, taste which I dislike. Lastly, the star of the visit makes an appearance and the famous ginger beer is served. It is wonderful, rustic and authentic and it tastes like haven on a glass. I wish I could buy liters of it and bring it back home but sadly my luggage is completely packed to the seams, as it was even before I left home. I shall come back one day I tell myself. Apart from beer and wine Wild also produces some of the sauces and dressings that you can use for cooking, the orange and capsicum one tastes like summer in a pot. Yum!
There are plenty of activities on site for those with itchy feet. You can book laser clay-pigeon shooting or petanque. I would rather simply laze around their outdoor garden under one of these umbrellas. The setting is not as nice as at Stonyridge but the ginger beer is a reason enough to drop by.
Our last stop is at Mudbrick Winery, which is a stunning property on top of the hills with sea and endless horizon views. The lady who takes us around confirms that over 100 couples get married on the grounds every year. I supposed that must be at least one a day every weekend during the summer. It is a beautiful property but when she says that it feels a tad bit mass-produced.
The main building is, obviously, made of mud bricks and it used to be the residence of the owners which was turned into a popular restaurant and one of the first ones on the island. There isn’t a whole lot of vineyards around the property, most of the production happens in other areas of Waiheke The tour takes us around the property and up the hills for sweeping views of the island and the sea. It is truly breathtaking. Some of the most popular varietals are planted there and lavender bushes and olive trees continue to provide a strong South of France feel.
Later on, I read the story of the owners and feel the romance when they started with the typical dream of building a winery. And 20 years on, they really have something special.
It is a fitting way to end the tour on a high note as we are rushed back into the bus because we are apparently late and may miss our return ferry.
Somehow an entire day has passed without even noticing it. We took the ferry at 11am and we reached Auckland at 5pm. I can’t think of a better way to explore the area and get a good understanding of the local culture and life out of the city. Waiheke residents act as if Auckland was a foreign territory. When the wine makers talk about selling their production in Auckland they call it export and although it is only 30min by ferry I can’t imagine a lot of them go to the city very often. Life on the island is slow, peaceful and chilled. A slice of the Mediterranean at the other side of the world. New Zealand could not be farther from Europe but on Waiheke I felt at home.
What else do you need to be happy other than good wine, sunny weather, the sea and fresh food? If you go to New Zealand, plan for at least a day in Auckland, if only to visit Waiheke. It will set you in the right mood for a great start of your holiday. Of better even, spend a night or two on the island.