I first visited the beautiful island of Waiheke when I was a kid growing up in Auckland. I have hazy memories of deserted beaches and eating ice-cream from the dairy (that’s a corner store for all of you that don’t speak Kiwi). I remember it feeling empty, especially compared to the busy city suburb we lived in.
It didn’t feel like we were still in Auckland at all.
I have been meaning to go back there for a long time. Trav and I went for a day trip when we were in New Zealand for a wedding in 2011, but because of the unreliable buses we only made it to two spots on the island, and we were too jet-lagged to really enjoy it properly anyway.
This time around, we were back in New Zealand for three months to get Trav an Australian working visa and to reconnect with friends and family. Every time I go home, I try to add on at least one trip somewhere in New Zealand, between all the catching up with friends and family. I usually try to go somewhere I haven’t been before or to somewhere I have been dying to go back. As I have family and friends scattered around the country and visiting them is the top priority, it can be hard.
Waiheke Island was firmly on my list of must do’s for this trip.
Waiheke Island is the second largest Island in the Hauraki Gulf and is located 17km from Auckland City, or a 35 minute ferry ride. Although it is a popular weekend getaway from Auckland, the permanent population of the island is 8,000, but this can swell to a massive 50,000 over summer. The Island is 12km long, with most of the population inhabiting the western end with the eastern half being mainly privately owned farmland.
Waiheke is known by New Zealanders as being either a rich man’s paradise or a hippy haven. Quite a contrast in reputations, but both true. Once a magnet for back-to-landers wanting to escape Auckland’s rat race, the Island is now also home to wealthy Aucklanders who commute from here to work in the city, or who own a holiday home on Waiheke. It is a weird mix, with bare foot hippies rubbing shoulders with suited up businessmen, but it seems to work quite well.
There are buses on the island but they can be infrequent and don’t visit the less accessible east, so we decided to take advantage of a great weekend deal with Fullers Ferries and take the car over there to be able to properly explore.
We set out for Waiheke one cloudless Saturday morning in December, on the painfully early 8am ferry from Half Moon Bay.Our first stop on the island was the Saturday farmers market in Ostend.
The Farmers Market is a real community affair. Every Saturday the locals congregate at the Ostend Church to buy and sell, swap stories and catch up with friends. There are arts and crafts, Waiheke grown produce, food stalls, Waiheke made products such as olive oil and organic skincare, hand crafted jewellery, second-hand clothing, books and collectables. Very importantly, there was also fantastic coffee.
Waiheke’s laid back lifestyle, strong community ties and natural beauty has attracted a lot of International residents in recent years, and we saw the multicultural diversity of the island firsthand at the Farmers market.
Unlike Auckland City, where migration in the past 20 years has predominantly been from Asian countries, Waiheke Island’s immigrants are mainly from Europe and North America. We heard French, Canadian, German and American accents during our time at the market, mixed in with a few kiwi accents for good measure.
One of the main reasons that Waiheke is popular with visitors is its Wineries. The Island has its own microclimate and is both warmer and drier than mainland Auckland. With sea breezes moderating temperatures, the end result is a climate comparable with hotter wine growing regions, but without the extremes. There are over 25 Wineries on the island, with a lot of them housing tasting rooms and award winning Restaurants.
Of the four Wineries that we visited, I think that the serene Man o War Vineyards was my favourite. Set in a rocky bay at the underpopulated east end of the island, you can only get there if you join a Winery tour, have your own vehicle or REALLY like walking as it would probably take you all day to reach it.
Sitting in the sun, sampling some of their delicious wines paired with cheeses and accompaniments was so relaxing and we could have set up our tent right there, on the perfectly manicured lawns. That would probably be frowned upon though so we reluctantly moved on.
As we hadn’t been to the east of the island before, we drove a loop that took us through grassy paddocks with hilltop views of the surrounding islands and sparkling water below. Driving along dirt roads, we barely saw any other vehicles as we bumped along.
We visited a couple of quiet bays and went for a bit of a wander through native bush to a secluded rocky cove. It was amazing how loud the tuis were when we were walking through the bush, it was almost deafening.
I love Tuis. They are native New Zealand birds and are pretty common. They have distinguished white tufts of feathers at their necks that look like a gentleman’s cravat. Their call is quite unusual and is a jumbled mix of tuneful notes, clicks and grunts, ending in a melody that sounds like falling water. Like parrots, they can mimic human speech and are rather intelligent.
We had lunch at the fun Wild on Waiheke. There was so much going on! We saw people participating in Archery and Clay bird shooting. The place was abuzz with various events including a couple of stag and hen dos. Settling in on their grassy lawn, we enjoyed pizza and another cheese platter (you can never have enough cheese after all) and sampled some of the beer made on site, as Wild on Waiheke also houses its own Micro-Brewery – what don’t they do!
Another reason for Waiheke’s popularity is its beautiful beaches and we spent the rest of the afternoon checking out two of its finest: Onetangi and Palm Beach. Both beaches are long and sandy and are located on the northern side of Waiheke. Great spots for beach walks or for just lying on the sand, catching some rays. We partook in a bit of both.
Our Accommodation for the night was the simple but lovely Poukaraka Flats camping ground located in Whakanewha Regional Park, at the southern end of the Island. It is a basic Department of Conservation camping ground with flush toilets and running water, but no showers. In the heat of summer this wouldn’t be a problem as the camping ground has its own undeveloped beach. It was still a bit too cold to swim when we were there but as we were only staying one night, we didn’t mind going without a shower. The cost to stay there is only $13 per person – not bad for a beach front property!
After cooking our dinner on our little camp cooker, we retired for an early night as it had started to drizzle. There were only two other campsites occupied and it was so peaceful. I fell asleep to the crashing of the waves.
Our second day was all about the hiking (oh, and more Wineries and Beaches). I read that the Church Bay circuit is a scenic 6km hike so after coffee at the excellent Delight Café, overlooking the Bay in Oneroa, we drove to Matiatia Wharf to start walking.
It was a gorgeous sunny day as we set out across the pebble strewn beach and along a dirt trail up a hill to Te Whetumatarau Point. From the Point’s lofty vantage point, you can see the rugged coastline of western Waiheke and the Auckland City skyline in the distance.
Continuing on, we passed Te Miro Bay before arriving at Church Bay, the site of the Island’s first Church in 1833. There is a tiny island, Motukaha Island, which is just off shore from the Bay. It looked close enough to swim to if you had the inclination, which we didn’t.
We walked along the curved beach then inland, uphill into green pastures, following a tree line. There were more great views from the top of the hill over Church Bay and Motukaha Island.
The second part of the hike was along quiet country roads, passing two more of the Island’s Wineries: Jurassic Ridge Wines and Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant.
Mudbrick is the most prolific Vineyard and Restaurant on Waiheke so when we saw that we would be passing by, we decided that we had to check it out. It has an impressive setting atop a hill, surrounded by orderly rows of vines.
Mudbrick is pure class and the price to taste the wines and dine in their Restaurant reflects that. Unfortunately it was a bit out of our price range but it was nice to take a look around the beautiful grounds nonetheless.
We also popped into Jurassic Ridge Wines. Quite different to Mudbrick, with only a small Tasting room and no Restaurant. Being the only ones there, all attention was on us and we found the owner a bit stand offish. He kept his eagle eye trained on us and we felt like naughty children, trying the free samples. Sometimes it is better if you pay a small fee to taste the wines so you don’t get that guilty feeling when you don’t end up buying anything.
After finishing the hike we rewarded ourselves with a $10 Thai lunch in Oneroa – who says New Zealand is expensive!
We had to try a cronut for dessert as it is all the rage in Auckland at the moment. A cronut is a cross between a croissant and a donut, and man it is good! Flaky layers of buttery pastry, filled with custard and topped with a squiggle of chocolate – highly recommended if you are in Auckland, they sell them everywhere.
The small town of Oneroa is the closest to the ferry departure wharf and feels quite large and busy compared to the rest of the island. This is where a quarter of the population of Waiheke Island lives. There is an attractive main street with boutique shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and even an art-house cinema. Everything you need really. It is a lovely little community.
Oneroa Township overlooks picturesque Oneroa beach where we spent time wandering and collecting shells. Walking around the rocks at the eastern end of the beach and up a steep cliff path brought us to an overlook, down to my favourite beach on the Island: Little Oneroa.
Little Oneroa beach is stunning, with drifts of white sand, sparkling waters and native bush encircling it. There were a couple of food trucks parked nearby and a grassy park with an adventure playground behind the beach. A little, beachy slice of heaven.
It was hard to tear ourselves away but the time before our ferry was due to depart back to the mainland was fast approaching, so we bid Little Oneroa, and Waiheke, a fond hooray.
What a great way to end our fabulous Waiheke getaway, sunning ourselves on a splendiferous beach on a tiny island, so close physically to Auckland but so far away in its heart and soul.
I could definitely see myself living here one day. This could be my island paradise.