Waiheke Island may be a short ferry ride from Auckland but as the saying goes: it’s a world away. Here old-school beach shacks share the same stunning views as architect-designed mansions, and their millionaire inhabitants are usually indistinguishable from the vineyard workers and retired hippies who all call this island home.
Whether you have a day, or a whole week to explore, we recommend adding the following activities to your island itinerary.
The vineyard that caused the wine world to wake up to Waiheke, Stonyridge has produced vintages that have been rated among the very best on the planet. That reputation has caused many famous faces to drop in over the years, enough for their photos to fill the walls of the tasting room of Stonyridge’s pretty ivy-clad base at the centre of the island. There’s a good cafe attached, or order a bottle of wine and one of the gigantic deli platters and retreat to one of the cabanas in the garden – then indulge yourself while gazing over the blissful vine-covered valley.
Cable Bay Vineyard
If a local’s got a guest to impress – say, a potential paramour or an esteemed business associate – they’ll bring them here. Cable Bay (cablebay.nz) never fails to wow, with its sleek modern architecture, incredible wine, top-notch restaurant and relaxed terrace bar. But what clinches the deal is the view. The view! Your eyes are immediately drawn over the lawn, past the kinetic sculptures undulating in the breeze, and over the sparkling waters of the island-studded Hauraki Gulf to the volcanoes and towers of Auckland in the distance. You might be tempted to settle in for the day but don’t get too comfortable, there’s much more of Waiheke to explore.
Wild on Waiheke
If for some bizarre reason you decide that you’re bored with wine and beaches, Wild offers an alternative in the form of an eccentric range of pursuits. And beer! Try your hand at archery and laser clay bird shooting before hitting the in-house microbrewery. The less destructive activities (giant chess, petanque) can wait until later. There’s plenty for the little ones to amuse themselves with too, including a sandpit, trampoline and playground. And if you decide that you’re not over wine after all, Top Knot Hill winery has their tasting room here.
Just up the hill from the ferry wharf, the seaside settlement of Oneroa introduces visitors to the island’s more urbane side. While it retains the languid, laid-back feel of a classic beach town, its smattering of snazzy eateries and smart bars hint at something a little more sophisticated. That said, you can still rock up to most places with sandy toes and your midriff wrapped in a beach towel – this is New Zealand after all. The Māori name translates as ‘long beach’ and Oneroa’s ample sands are split into two: the graceful swoop of the main beach and, around a craggy headland, picturesque Little Oneroa. Yachties from the nearby City of Sails, as Auckland’s long been known, love to drop anchor here, leaving the turquoise waters perpetually dotted with pleasure craft.
After many years running some of Auckland’s best-known Italian restaurants, Neapolitan immigrant Antonio Crisci has created his own slice of la dolce vita in a sleepy, swamp-fringed valley down the quiet end of the island. Poderi Crisci focuses on Italian styles and varietals, some of which are rarely grown in New Zealand. Yet it’s the attached restaurant that deserves most of the attention. Waiheke’s top-rated restaurant is a relaxed kind of place, especially on Sundays when traditional long lunches stretch out over four hours. Don’t expect anything fancy, trendy or gimmicky, just the finest island ingredients showcased in simple, robust Italian dishes.
Man o’ War Bay
It requires a little more effort to get to, but this pretty little bay at the less-explored ‘bottom end’ of the island is well worth it. It’s particularly spectacular in December when the crimson flowers of the native pohutukawa tree blaze in the sun, framing the views over the sheltered waters to several small islands. It’s a good spot for a waveless dip but that’s not the main attraction. Just past the sand, the lovely lawns of Man o’ War Vineyards unfurl. Relax over a glass of Waiheke’s finest and a cheese platter on the veranda while the kids race around on the grass.
Sculpture on the Gulf
It only happens every other year but if you happen to be in the vicinity in early February during odd-numbered years, this sculpture walk shouldn’t be missed. There’s usually a mix of striking, elegant, interesting and downright oddball installations on display, but the art is only part of the fun. The track follows the cliffs along a gorgeous stretch of coast and passes some of Waiheke’s most salubrious and architecturally interesting houses. This is real estate voyeurism at its best, with art as a conveniently high-minded pretext.
The long white sands of Onetangi stretch for nearly 2km, providing ample space for sun worshippers, book devourers, sandcastle engineers, strolling lovers, dog walkers, cricket-ball bashers, surf casting fisherfolk and shellfish gatherers alike. Toddlers patrol the shallows in a state of determined hysteria, while further out the waves are just big enough for body surfers to flaunt their skills. And if the swimming costume’s chafing, there’s even a small nude section tucked around a discreet headland. It’s pretty much the archetypal New Zealand beach scene, best capped off with foraged pipis on the barbecue and a beer with the locals at Charlie Farley’s pub.
There are frequent passenger ferries to Waiheke Island from Auckland's Ferry Building to Matiatia Wharf (on the hour from 9am to 5pm) some via Devonport. Sealink runs car ferries to Kennedy Point, mainly from Half Moon Bay (east Auckland). The ferry runs at least every two hours and takes 45 minutes (booking essential). Waiheke is more easily explored with a car, but a public bus service meets the ferry. Better still – hire a bike but be prepared for hills.