No traffic lights, a jeroboam of vineyards, fine dining, dolphins and skydiving – they’re all within easy reach of New Zealand’s biggest city.
Auckland offers tantalising possibilities. Two maritime marvels stand out, and combine sophistication with outdoor pleasures.
Waiheke Island (one night)
Two locals are strolling along a beach on Waiheke Island when they see a handsome couple approaching from the distance. They pass, exchange greetings and as they fade out of earshot, one turns to the other and says: “Know who that was? That was Tom Cruise!”
“That right?” says his friend. A minute passes, and the friend turns to his informant: “So who’s Tom Cruise?”
True or not, the story says volumes about Waiheke Island. Just a 40-minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke is the city’s castaway island, a green, slow-moving, sea-hewn paradise where the air makes even Auckland’s look soiled, where the fish practically jump into your boat, where traffic lights don’t exist and you can forget about locking your car.
These days Waiheke has at least some of the hallmarks of a small and sleepy island elevated to stardom. The island has its own boutique coffee roaster, a spa and several olive groves, and not long after you leave the ferry terminal at Matiatia Wharf you’ll find yourself among vineyards.
In the 1970s a winemaker by the name of Kim Goldwater was struck by the similarities between Waiheke and the vineyards of the Bordeaux region. He planted some cabernet sauvignon vines, the results showed promise and others caught the bug. Today the island has about 30 wine growers, many with their wineries open for cellar-door sales, and some with restaurants. The restaurants at Te Whau and Stonyridge vineyards are two names that draw the weekend crowds from Auckland, while Mudbrick Vineyard has a really terrific Mediterranean-style menu to go with the million-dollar views from its breezy terrace restaurant.
Activities on Waiheke belong mainly to the do-it-yourself variety. Hire a sea kayak and explore the serrated coastline, or hop on a bike – although the island is just 20 kilometres from end to end and 12 across at its broadest point, the undulating terrain throws down a challenge to legs and lungs. Waiheke also has several wonderful beaches and bird and marine reserves with walking tracks.
Accommodation on the island matches the dressed-down chic that is Waiheke’s preferred style.
Russell is a pocket-sized delight, with timber houses and big trees swooning low over the seafront.
The list includes eco-friendly lodges, bed and breakfasts, sculptural beach houses and such swank retreats as Te Whau Lodge, which sits on a ridge overlooking the vineyards that spill down into Putiki Bay and has just the right touch of barefoot insouciance to go with a taste for life’s finer ingredients. The island also has a lively arts scene. The Waiheke arts community numbers about 200 with painters, sculptors, ceramic artists and jewellers in the mix, and a tour of artists’ studios is one of several possible themes.
It’s also quirky. Waiheke has long been known as a refuge for eccentrics, such as the lady who comes down to the cove below her house to swim in her birthday suit – a daily ritual, whatever the season. The Saturday morning market in the village of Ostend brings most of Waiheke’s colourful cast to town. If you’re thinking of taking your foot off life’s gas pedal in favour of fishing, weaving or Japanese calligraphy – even if it’s just overnight – Waiheke will do nicely.
Kerikeri, Bay of Islands (two nights)
A 40-minute flight from Auckland delivers you to Bay of Islands Airport at Kerikeri. This is one of the most flagrantly gorgeous parts of the country, a maritime paradise with its 144 islands floating amid the sea like velvet green pillows.
The Bay of Islands is also one of the warmest parts of New Zealand, a ferny, subtropical Garden of Eden often subtitled ‘the winterless north’. It is also one of the world’s premier big game fishing grounds. Record marlin and several species of shark have been caught here, and several big game fishing operators in the area offer fully rigged charter boats and skilled crews. The Bay of Islands also offers excellent scuba diving, particularly around Cape Brett, where the marine life includes moray eels, stingrays and groper.
The region resonates with history. It was close to the nearby town of Paihia that the history of modern New Zealand began with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Just across the bay from Paihia, Russell was New Zealand’s first European settlement. Under its Maori name, Kororareka, early in the 19th century this settlement was a haven for sealers and whalers, who found one of the richest whaling grounds on earth along the east coast of New Zealand.
Today, Russell is a pocket-sized delight, with timber houses and big trees swooning low over the seafront, framing the yachts and the big game fishing boats in the harbour.
As befits one of New Zealand’s favourite holiday playgrounds, the area comes with all the requisites for an adventuresome holiday including dolphin swims, sailing trips, therapeutic hot pools, skydiving, horse trekking and scenic helicopter flights. Below the organised fun is a subtext of lesser marvels that you will discover only by chance – waterfalls and forests brimming with bird noises and grassy hillsides where you can trace the trenches and embrasures of the past, the fortified enclosures of the Maori tribes.
At the pinnacle of accommodation in the region is Kauri Cliffs, which sits on 2500 hectares of rippling green hills overlooking the Cavalli Islands. The patrician, neo-classical lodge comes with a full complement of activities, but the standout is golf. Applauded by the arbiters of golfing excellence, the par 72, 6510-metre championship course wraps itself around a rugged coastline with astonishing views from almost every hole.
Another prime choice is Jade House, the garden cottage at Pagoda Lodge, which was built by a Scotsman whose long years in China in the 1930s left him with a taste for Oriental architecture, as well as an impressive collection of jade and ivory.