Just a short boat ride across the water from Auckland is the tantalising island, Waiheke. Does it live up to the hype? Peta Stavelli writes from her home on the island.
Just 35 minutes by fast ferry from downtown Auckland is a little island paradise that you have likely heard about: Waiheke Island. Touted by travel journalists the world over, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Perhaps it’s the beaches, olive groves and world-class vineyards, all conveniently close to a major centre; perhaps it’s the boat journey past sand-fringed islands, which immediately puts visitors into holiday mode.
When it comes to this wonderful little island, the word is out! Real estate prices are eye-watering; celebrities like Lady Gaga have been seen here, fishing from the beach in high heels. Bill Gates was here too; Billy Connolly said a local sculpture park was the best thing he’d seen on his visit to New Zealand; Dawn French and Lenny Henry hid out here in the dying stages of their marriage… the list goes on.
Waiheke: all flash and cash?
But is this Instagrammable version of the island the real Waiheke? And what’s in it for you – the RV traveller? I’ll tell it to you straight: I’ve lived here for more than 30 years; I’ve raised four children here, and now I’m happy to have two grandchildren close by. And yes, I’ve seen some changes over the years, but some things, I am delighted to tell you, do stay the same. It’s not all flash and cash, and famous people fishing off the beaches. It is, for the most part, and depending on who you talk to, a small town, a dormitory suburb, or a close-knit community of around 9,000 people, which really pulls together in a crisis.
Walk this way…
Yes, there are some coastal mansions, some of which have recently sold for record-breaking amounts. But the good news is, a series of coastal paths will take you on spectacular meanders right across some of those squillion-dollar front lawns. Waiheke is a walker’s paradise. Download the Te Ara Hura brochure and find one to suit. Or save yourself for the annual walking festival, held each year during November, when you can take guided walks to some places that would otherwise be inaccessible to the public.
Art in the parks
If you like art with your walk, perhaps you’d prefer the biennial Sculpture on the Gulf (SOTG), which features works by New Zealand’s most famous artists, set on a stunning coastal headland above the passenger ferry terminal at Matiatia. The next SOTG will be held in March 2024. But if you can’t wait until then, you’ll be pleased to know that sculptural works can be found throughout the island. Art is an integral part of the community and the Waiheke Community Art Gallery showcases some of the best of it in regularly changing exhibitions throughout the year. The gallery shop is a destination in itself. Or take a self-guided tour of private galleries. You’ll be amazed at how many artists call the island home.
Next door to the art gallery, in the complex known collectively as Artworks, is the Waiheke Musical Museum, which houses some of the country’s rarest musical instruments. There’s a cinema here, too – island-style, of course – with big, deep sofas to squish into. It showcases all of the latest movies, and daily sessions are popular, so it’s best to book. Locals like to go early (or late) for a meal at the Indian restaurant next door, or grab a glass of wine to sip during the movie. And across the courtyard is the state-of- the-art community library. If you have an Auckland City library card, you can borrow books and return these to any branch across the city. Waiheke’s fabulous live theatre is also here at Artworks, so it’s a one-stop shop for lovers of the arts.
Billy Connolly’s top pick
Ironically, one of the best local attractions is better known off the island. I mentioned Billy Connolly’s hot tip earlier: Connell’s Bay Sculpture Park, located at Waiheke’s eastern end. This is a private park, open from October to late April each year, for guided walks only. The park is home to John and Jo Gow, philanthropists and early investors in the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who have poured the majority of their investment profits into creating the park. It is an extraordinary story of realising the dreams of artists the world over to create their site-specific sculptures with no expense spared. The Gows are now part of the restoration of nearby Rotoroa Island, and the family’s collaboration with Auckland Zoo is a story in itself – for a later issue, perhaps.
Vineyards and olive groves
And yes, Waiheke is also home to vineyards, some of wh produce some of the most expensive en primeur wine in the world. You’ll no doubt see helicopters dipping down to land well-dressed and wealthy patrons, but don’t be put off – anyone over 18 can join in a wine tasting at the majority of vineyards, and there are fine eating places elsewhere on the island for the more budget conscious.
If you’re short of time – or stamina – one of the best places to enjoy a flight of local wines is at the Waiheke Wine Centre in the main village of Oneroa. But if you have more hours to spare, download a map of Waiheke vineyards. I highly recommend the gob-smackingly gorgeous drive to Man O’ War Bay Vineyard, home to more than 35 different terroirs. I always take visitors on this scenic circuit, going east towards Stony Batter.
Man O’War Bay and Stony Batter
Do take care on the roads. Waiheke roads are narrow and extremely winding, with villages and the most notorious roads all having 30kph speed restrictions. If time allows, and I hope it does, book a guided tour of the WWII tunnels at Stony Batter. The car park is a 20-minute walk from the tunnel entrance and you’ll need good shoes, a hat and drinking water. Torches are provided and there are toilets adjacent to the office. Take a picnic lunch to have later at magnificent Man O’ War Bay, as there are no shops in the vicinity.
Beaches – and more beaches
Waiheke is known for the quality of its beaches, and there are plenty to choose from. Below the main village of Oneroa is a broad grin of a beach that is safe and sheltered, with easy access from the township via two walkways. You can walk around the rocks to Little Oneroa Beach at low tide to grab fish and chips in the evening, or for ice-cream and coffee during the day. When the tide is high, walk along the clifftop access past the Catholic church. Don’t miss the lovely beaches of Sandy Bay and nearby Enclosure Bay, a rocky lagoon, which forms a natural swimming pool at high tide. Over the hill is Palm Beach, which is a snug little community with a quaint local store and an excellent café next door.
By far the most popular beach, and my personal favourite, is Onetangi Beach, a long stretch of golden sand, perfect for that early morning beach walk. There are two beachside cafés, and Three Seven Two, an award-winning restaurant, at Onetangi. All offer close-up sea views to accompany your morning coffee or sundowners. But don’t overlook the southern beaches, which are a delightful alternative, especially when the northwester rolls in.
Whakanewha regional park
Our family also loves to explore the many bush tracks and stroll along the sandy shore at Whakanewha Regional Park. The park is the only place on Waiheke for recreational vehicles to legally stay. And, just another note of caution: there is no dump station on the island, so you’ll have to be prepared to hold your own for a few days while you’re here. The drive on/drive off vehicular ferry company Sealink is the only way to get your vehicle here. These ferries leave from Hamer Street in the city, or from Half Moon Bay.
Walk on, walk off
If you decide instead to do a day trip, or splash out on overnight accommodation, passenger ferries leave from Pier 12, downtown Auckland hourly, or from Devonport wharf several times daily. Buses and ferries link to the NZMCA Bayswater Marina parkover, and also Takapuna Beach Holiday Park. You will need an AT Hop card, which will also be valid for the ferries and buses when you arrive at Waiheke. The bus fleet is mostly whisper-quiet electric, and the company offers some budget ways to make the most of your sightseeing.
Each of the villages – Oneroa, Surfdale, Palm Beach, Ostend and Onetangi – has its own unique flavour with grocery shops, galleries and boutique shops. The Saturday market is held at the Ostend Reserve, adjacent to the RSA. So, now you know: Waiheke is not just the exclusive preserve of the rich and famous. There’s something for everyone, and it is definitely worth a visit.
- Getting here: Foot passengers: Fullers360 fullers.co.nz Vehicles: Sealink sealink.co.nz
- Getting around: Waiheke Bus Company is owned by Fullers360. Buses meet all ferries, including vehicular ferries. You will need to purchase an ATHop Card.
- What to do: Beaches, walks, wine- tasting, eating out, hire a bicycle, boutique or op-shopping, art tours, explore Stony Batter. stonybattertunnels.nz
- Stocking up: Four Square: Oneroa and Onetangi; Countdown: Ostend; The Island Grocer, Oneroa; Raw, Ostend; Gulf Foods, Ostend; Ostend Market; Saturdays.
- Fueling up: BP, Oneroa; Challenge, Onetangi; Gas Waiheke, Ostend.
- Eating out: Budget: The Carpark, Ostend; Charlie Farley’s, Onetangi; food trucks, pop-up eateries are everywhere; Ostend Market. Splurge: Mudbrick – the views are superlative; Casita Miro, Onetangi; 372, Onetangi.
- Shopping: True Blue, Ostend; Recycle Boutique, Oneroa; Verandah, Oneroa; Eclectic Boutique, Ostend.
- Stay: Whakanewha Regional Park. aucklandcouncil.govt.nz