A short ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke Island has made the evolution from hippie to hip. Lauren Quaintance experiences its world-class food and wine, stylish lodgings and the Kiwi charm.
Seated at the window of a vineyard restaurant on Waiheke Island recently, Christina Tosi – pastry chef and owner of Milk Bar, the sister bakery of New York City’s renowned Momofuku group – looked back across the water to the blurred cityscape of Auckland and said with astonishment: “It’s like having Napa Valley off the coast of Manhattan.”
New Zealand’s largest city might not be New York but Aucklanders have long known of Waiheke’s charms, colonising its tantalisingly close beaches with modest, flat-roofed holiday cottages. Now the rest of the world is discovering the island’s sophisticated restaurants, boutique lodgings and world-class vineyards, making it one of the hottest destinations.
Once a haven for hippies and artists, the island has been remade by visionary locals and expats lured there by its remarkable natural advantages. Two relative newcomers – Andrew Glenn, a former executive for Louis Vuitton and Topshop, and his partner, Jonathan Rutherfurd Best – have done much to make the island cool. Leaving London in search of a lifestyle that would let them put their “feet in the sand”, the couple opened a restaurant and guesthouse in a former newspaper office in the village of Oneroa in 2012. With its whitewashed walls and reclaimed timber furniture, a small shop selling hip beachwear and a bright-yellow vintage Kombi van that shuttles guests around the island, The Oyster Inn perfectly encapsulates Waiheke’s relaxed yet chic aesthetic.
The island is a 35-minute ferry trip from downtown Auckland across a vast gulf of dark-green water, past ancient volcanic islands. Known as Te Motu-arai-roa, or “the long sheltering island”, Waiheke has 134 kilometres of coastline and its many coves, inlets and beaches are crowned by native bush flecked with crimson-flowered pohutukawa trees.
If Oneroa, at the western end of Waiheke, can sometimes feel busy then the island’s eastern side (less than an hour’s drive away) seems almost uninhabited. And while the setting is seductive, the food-and-wine scene is the real reason to make the trip. As well as about 30 boutique wineries, it’s the award-winning restaurants, low-key cafés and beachside food trucks that make Waiheke a food-lover’s island paradise.
￼If Waiheke appears bohemian yet refined so, too, are its dining experiences. You could visit a slick, internationally awarded vineyard restaurant with views of the Hauraki Gulf or find yourself eating astonishingly perfect steak frites in a prosaic inland village.
One of the first things you should do after arriving on Waiheke is take a seat on the deck at The Oyster Inn in Oneroa and order a plate of locally grown Te Matuku Bay oysters, matched with a glass of Waiheke pinot gris. While it doesn’t have point-blank views of the bay, there’s something about The Oyster Inn’s eclectic beach house vibe that will get you in the Waiheke mood. Linger for relaxed dishes such as fish with a Vietnamese slaw or the ultimate comfort food, macaroni cheese with bacon.
If you’re planning on a long lunch – as you should – perhaps the best place to do it is Poderi Crisci. Head south-east by car to a less-inhabited part of the island until you arrive at a vine-covered, 7.7-hectare homestead with glimpses of Awaawaroa Bay’s teal water. Most people come here for the Sunday Long Lunch, a sybaritic four-hour, five-course Italian affair that is informal enough to allow for a walk around the kitchen garden between courses. The estate is owned by Antonio Crisci, an Aucklander with Neapolitan heritage, and the food is heavily influenced by what’s growing in the garden – so you might have lightly fried eggplant with cherry tomatoes, olives and capers or lasagne with zucchini, stracchino cheese and béchamel.
For a magnificent setting with expansive views of Auckland’s skyline and neighbouring islands, book a table at Cable Bay Vineyards in Oneroa. Its Dining Room serves award-winning French-influenced food on tables sheathed with white tablecloths. On the other hand, at the winery’s Verandah bar next door, you can eat wood-fired pizza while sitting in a beanbag.
For a caffeine hit, stop in at Island Coffee, a hole-in-the-wall roaster at the rear of a row of shops in Ostend; the place has only a few seats and coffee-making apparatus for sale. Not a coffee purist? Make your way to The Annex, a sweet 1920s cottage where you can get a flaky apple galette or a tangy rhubarb-and-custard-cream doughnut to go with your Island Coffee flat white.
Food trucks regularly pull up at Waiheke’s beaches but the best of them has to be Dragonfired. A permanent fixture at Little Oneroa Beach (with a second van parked at Palm Beach on weekends in summer), Dragonfired sells organic wood-fired pizza, calzone, pocket bread and polenta.
Don’t expect to be drinking New Zealand’s most famous drops – pinot noir and sauvignon blanc – when you come to Waiheke. The island’s warmer weather and clay-like soil are better suited to Bordeaux-style blends and its winemakers are renowned for experimenting with the lesser-known Mediterranean varietals such as viognier, Montepulciano and tempranillo. Indeed, with its vine-covered slopes, Waiheke often feels more like Italy than New Zealand.
Though they’re anything but faithful to a single grape, many of Waiheke’s winemakers are quietly hoping that syrah will be their answer to Central Otago’s pinot noir. Obsidian is arguably one of the island’s best producers of syrah, a leaner style of wine made from the shiraz grape. Secreted down an unsealed road in a sheltered valley in Onetangi, the vineyard has 11 varietals planted on 10 hectares. There’s no fine-dining restaurant here; in fact, there is no restaurant at all. Sit at a wooden table outside a shed and sample the estate’s silky syrah, a stone-fruit-driven chardonnay or a Montepulciano that has been described by international wine critic Bob Campbell as the best outside of Italy.
One of the oldest vineyards on the island, Stonyridge produces cult wine Larose, a fine Bordeaux-style blend. You may not get to try the New Zealand equivalent of Grange (just 1200-1400 cases are produced in an average year and an elite few are known to arrive by helicopter to buy them). But you should spend an hour – or an afternoon – on the terrace, enjoying the views over the olive grove and across to the Onetangi Valley while sampling one of the vineyard’s excellent reds.
At the remote eastern end of the island (about 30 minutes’ drive from the passenger ferry on an imperfect road), you’ll find Man O’ War vineyards on the edge of a pristine beach. Pull up a seat at a picnic table or sink into a beanbag under the shade of a majestic pohutukawa and watch the boats bobbing in the bay. Although they have names such as Dreadnought, Ironclad and Gravestone, the vineyard’s wines are more accessible than they sound and there’s nothing like having a glass of salmon-coloured Pinque rosé on a sunny day before taking the kids for a $5 pony ride in a neighbouring field.
In Waiheke’s south-east, Passage Rock is billed as the island’s “most awarded winery” and it certainly has an impressive clutch of trophies and medals. Founded in 1993 by a Swiss-New Zealand couple, it has gained a formidable reputation for syrah, which you can pair with pizza from the bistro’s wood-fired oven. ￼
High on a hill overlooking the perfect white crescent of Oneroa Bay, The Boatshed is one of the most stylish places to stay on Waiheke. The five-suite, two-bungalow family-owned accommodation pays homage to the Kiwi bach (beach house) with its muted interiors and nautical touches. Spot orcas from the deck, wander the lush kitchen gardens or spend an evening drinking local drops beside a rustic outdoor fireplace.
The Oyster Inn
The island’s hottest restaurant also has three simple rooms with white walls and pared-back Scandinavian furniture. Step out directly into buzzy Oneroa village and browse its wine stores or wander down to the beach for a swim. Then return to The Oyster Inn at the end of the day and relax with a glass of homemade lemonade on the covered balcony. Book now
An architecturally designed house with three contemporary suites, Marino Ridge is, essentially, an upmarket bed and breakfast (its owners previously worked as a captain and a chef on superyachts in Europe). It’s set on 1.3 hilly hectares in the island’s north-west and there are ocean views from the deck, a sleek swimming pool and access to a small, pebbly beach where you’re almost sure to be alone.
SEE ALSO: The Secret Islands of New Zealand