Auck­land of­fers sparkling city life and lus­cious is­land wine coun­try all in one amaz­ing es­cape

Auck­land of­fers sparkling city life and lus­cious is­land wine coun­try all in one amaz­ing es­cape

Business Traveler (USA) - - CONTENTS - WORDS JEREMY TREDINNICK

The ferry churns the wa­ter into a roil­ing mass of white foam as we pull away from the Down­town Ferry Ter­mi­nal and the Auck­land sky­line di­min­ishes be­hind us. Small yachts bob around us on the deep-blue wa­ter as we course south, past pic­turesque head­lands and beaches, with ver­dant Ran­gi­toto Is­land – Auck­land’s youngest vol­cano – peak­ing gen­tly on our left. Af­ter 40 min­utes we reach our des­ti­na­tion, Wai­heke Is­land, renowned for its laid-back, al­ter­na­tive life­style – Ki­wis ev­ery­where are laid back so you can imag­ine how easy­go­ing the pace of life is here – as well as its fine wine din­ing scene and glo­ri­ously ac­ces­si­ble vine­yards. Auck­lan­ders love to pop over to the is­land for a wine tast­ing fol­lowed by some se­ri­ously good food cooked in vine­yard restau­rants with views stretch­ing away down vine rows to sparkling bays.

Our ferry docks in beau­ti­ful Ma­ti­a­tia Bay at the western end of the is­land, which stretches a dozen miles west to east, but whose coast­line is over 80 miles long thanks to a host of in­lets. I’m due to meet up with a guide at one of the near­est vine­yards, but I’ve ar­rived early so I can walk a sec­tion of the south­ern coastal path. The weather is kind, and as I set out, first pass­ing kayaks pulled up on the beach, then climb­ing through in­dige­nous for­est onto the head­land, the sun breaks through cot­ton wool clouds, shafts of light il­lu­mi­nat­ing the city way off on the hori­zon across a cerulean sea.

It’s a ex­hil­a­rat­ing hike, un­du­lat­ing around the coast­line, drop­ping from ridges to black-sand beaches and pass­ing idyl­lic home­steads fronted by ve­ran­das with panoramic views to die for. All the way I’m thrilled by the ex­otic na­ture of Wai­heke’s flora, from tus­sock grass so spongy you sink into it like the soft­est mat­tress, to in­tri­cate hang­ing seed pods and tree-sized ferns.

I pass through a silent, over­grown “Mid­dle-Earthen” wood and come out be­side an al­paca farm that leads to a wind­ing coun­try road across the top of the is­land. On both sides thick woods give way to farm­land and huge slop­ing fields filled with rows of grape-laden vines cov­ered by net­ting.

Strolling along, I soon come to Ca­ble Bay Vine­yards, whose large build­ing houses a wine tast­ing room called The Cel­lar Door, a fine din­ing restau­rant and an al­fresco area with a broad, west-fac­ing lawn where vis­i­tors sit at long ta­bles or lounge in bean-bag chairs, wine glass in hand, chat­ting and tak­ing in the stun­ning scenery.

Jenny McDon­ald, owner-op­er­a­tor of Ananda Tours, is wait­ing for me. A typ­i­cal Kiwi with a sunny dis­po­si­tion and can-do at­ti­tude, she worked in the of­fice sec­tor for many years be­fore re­al­iz­ing that she knew as much about her is­land home as most tour guides, and con­se­quently started her own op­er­a­tion.

“We’ve just un­der 9,000 peo­ple liv­ing on Wai­heke now, with about 3,000 com­mut­ing to the city for

work,” she says. The al­ter­na­tive life­style is a big draw – there are 25 miles of beach here, and surf­ing and sail­ing are ma­jor ac­tiv­i­ties. Rem­nants of the old hippy cul­ture still ex­ist, seen in the New Age and surf shops in the main town of Oneroa, but it’s the suc­cess of Wai­heke’s winer­ies that are its defin­ing fea­ture these days.

Jenny drives me to an even more pic­turesque viti­cul­tural haven called Mud­brick Vine­yard. Sur­rounded by ter­raced potager gar­dens, its bar­rel-filled tast­ing room is buzzing with peo­ple try­ing the vine­yard’s award-win­ning wines, and the din­ing room is equally full, its hand-hewn mud-brick floor and walls sup­ported by richly tex­tured wood beams. (Oh, and the views are beau­ti­ful here too.)

We drive down the main street of Oneroa, the is­land’s largest “town,” where ev­ery­thing is done at a leisurely pace, pass the sweep­ing sand beach where sun- and sea-wor­ship­ping tourists ca­vort, then stop at a view­ing point that looks down on pretty Palm Beach, whose well-spaced houses hint at a gen­teel life­style. Jenny has an ob­vi­ous love for and pride in the many charms of her cho­sen home, as she re­veals one breath­tak­ing vista af­ter an­other to me, from re­mote bays to cozy camping grounds next to calm waters.

We stop at a fi­nal small vine­yard – one of Jenny’s fa­vorites – called Ob­sid­ian Wines, where I taste a range of wines, from a so­phis­ti­cated Caber­net Mer­lot blend to a pow­er­ful Syrah and a de­light­ful Re­serve called “The Mayor.” In­tro­duc­ing each wine is a knowl­edge­able lady named Lyn, who tells me of a re­cent Malaysian vis­i­tor: “He spent ages here, and loved our flag­ship wine ‘The Ob­sid­ian’ so much he bought up our en­tire stock of the 2010 – a great Wai­heke vintage.” (Wai­heke’s vine­yards can ship crates of wine to Aus­tralia, the US, UK and Asia through a com­pany called NZWine Home, nzwine­home.co.nz.)

On the boat back to Auck­land I con­sider what a won­der­ful place Wai­heke would be to re­tire to

– close to a vi­brant cap­i­tal city but an in­spir­ing nat­u­ral play­ground, with a be­nign cli­mate and a truly great gas­tro­nomic scene.

On the boat back to Auck­land I con­sider what a won­der­ful place Wai­heke would be to re­tire to

Auck­land Ex­cur­sion

The fol­low­ing day I’m up early and wait­ing to be picked up for a day trip ex­plor­ing Auck­land’s en­vi­rons with award-win­ning tour com­pany

Time Un­lim­ited. My guide for the day is Ceillhe Sperath, one of its founders. Half Maori, half Ir­ish – a for­mi­da­ble but joy­ous com­bi­na­tion – she is hugely knowl­edge­able about the city’s his­tory and cul­ture. She be­gins by telling our group, a ge­nial mix of US, Aus­tralian, Bri­tish and Chi­nese tourists, that the rea­son New Zealan­ders are con­sid­ered so friendly is that they un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate any­one will­ing to make the jour­ney to this far-flung cor­ner of the world. “Let’s face it – we’re a long way from most places, so if you’ve spent the time and money in plan­ning a trip to come here, you must re­ally want to ex­pe­ri­ence our beau­ti­ful coun­try,” she says. “We love that so much. To us it makes you a friend be­fore we even know you, so wel­come to you all! Kia ora! [Be well!].”

Af­ter a drive along east­ern Auck­land’s pic­turesque Po­hutukawa Coast, named af­ter the mag­nif­i­cent red-flow­er­ing trees that fringe its shore­line, we stop at Achilles Point, a head­land with gor­geous panoramic views, and here we are in­tro­duced to an­other Maori rit­ual greet­ing : the hongi, or touch­ing of the nose and fore­head. For those not used to phys­i­cal con­tact with strangers it can be awk­ward and un­com­fort­able, but it’s ac­tu­ally a very mean­ing­ful and in­clu­sive act, sym­bol­i­cally shar­ing the “breath of life” with some­one.

We cross Auck­land Har­bor Bridge and visit the penin­su­lar district of Devon­port, lunch­ing in one of this serene sub­urb’s ex­cel­lent restau­rants be­fore as­cend­ing the small hill known as Mt. Vic­to­ria, site of an an­cient Maori for­ti­fied vil­lage, then a gun bat­tery cre­ated in 1885 to pro­tect Auck­land from a per­ceived threat by the Rus­sian

Pa­cific Fleet. It never ma­te­ri­al­ized, but to­day a huge WWII gun re­mains on the sum­mit, and the view south across the har­bor to the city sky­line is pic­ture-per­fect, as is the north­east­ern vista to­wards Ran­gi­toto’s cone­shaped vol­cano, el­e­va­tion 850 feet.

Our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion is the west coast, only 45-60 min­utes away. We drive out through the western sub­urbs and rise through thick for­est into the Waitakere Ranges Re­gional Park, stop­ping at the Arataki Vis­i­tor Cen­ter for yet more end­less views, this time east to­wards the city and west to Manukau Har­bor and the Tas­man Sea. A mas­sive Maori totem pole looms over the en­trance to the vis­i­tor’s cen­ter, its gri­mac­ing char­ac­ters wel­com­ing tourists and school trip­pers in­side to learn about the nat­u­ral wealth of the area.

The four-day hik­ing track called the Hil­lary Trail – named af­ter the renowned climber of Ever­est fame – passes through here, but the na­tive rainforest of Waitakere also of­fers easy walks to re­fresh­ing wa­ter­falls such as Kitekite, or gi­gan­tic an­cient kauri trees, which once cov­ered north­ern New Zealand but were so pop­u­lar for build­ing that only 5 per­cent re­main to­day.

Our last stop is the spec­tac­u­lar Piha Beach on the west coast. Im­pos­ing cliffs look down on a black-sand beach that is a mag­net for surfers – and everyone else, it seems. Ceillhe fin­ishes our tour with a honey tast­ing, al­low­ing us to sam­ple half a dozen hon­eys har­vested from hives whose bees gar­ner nec­tar from dif­fer­ent flow­ers. The range in color, scent and fla­vor is as­ton­ish­ing – we all know Manuka honey, but there are many more from which to choose. It’s a lovely way to end our day, leav­ing us with sweet mem­o­ries as we head back to town.

Ananda Tours is a Wai­heke Is­land spe­cial­ist: ananda. co.nz; Time Un­lim­ited Tours of­fers a range of Auck­land and broader tours fo­cused on the cul­ture and nat­u­ral beauty of New Zealand, time­un­lim­ited.co.nz

FROM TOP: A pic­ture-per­fect view at the Arataki Vis­i­tor Cen­tre; hik­ing to a wild west coast beach

ABOVE: The rit­ual Maori greet­ing known as the hongi

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