A persistent precipitation greeted me and my travelling companions as we set foot on Waiheke Island — an apt introduction to the place of Flowing Rain. We were to spend a night at this local getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life, and a preferred location for many a wedding.
Scenic Waiheke, a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland and only a couple of TV ad breaks-long by air charter, does not have a standout crowd-puller, but its bohemian vibe and unhurried pace of life immediately sets one at ease, while its compactness and array of indoor pleasures and outdoor pursuits invites the curious to seek out their own surprises.
Prior to visiting Waiheke, my impression of it was limited: it was a tiny island with a number of boutique wineries, one of which — Stonyridge Vineyard — holds the honour of producing New Zealand’s most expensive red wine. Stonyridge, along with over 20 wineries, found in Waiheke a viticultural paradise with a favourable climate, thanks to its location east of Auckland in the Harauki Gulf sheltered from the South Pacific Ocean as well as the rich foundation of rock strata dating back to the Jurassic age. Nearly a quarter of the grapes grown on Waiheke are Syrah; Merlot accounts for under 20% and Cabernet Sauvignon, 12%. The most common white grape varieties are Chardonnay (11%) and Pinot Gris (10%).
The Stonyridge Larose, largely described as a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but also includes Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Carmenere, has been the domestic dearest for around 20 years — the most affordable Larose can be had for NZ$240 while the 2006 edition retails at a record NZ$500. I ended up not having the pleasure of tasting this treasure, not because it was still breakfast and I only had coffee in my stomach, but because we had to be whisked away for the next appointment. Sour grapes definitely took on a new meaning that morning.
But that annoyance quickly dissipated as the fragrance of Stonyridge’s olive grove permeated the air on our way out. Olive oil, our guide shared, is another success story of Waiheke, which has some 30,000 olive trees. Stonyridge’s grove, grown in collaboration with pioneer olive oil producers Rangihoua Estate, contributed to Rangihoua’s Waiheke Blend, which won Gold and Best of Class at the Oscars of olive oil, the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, last year. The 2013 edition of the Flos Olei (The Best Oil) named Rangihoua Estate the Il Frantoio di Frontiera or The Frontier Farm, effectively ranking its oil as among the top 20 in the world.
Here on Waiheke, there is a culture of exchange and openness. Stories of which luxury property was the choice of accommodation for celebrities including Lady Gaga, Brangelina and Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson — and how our new-found friends in Waiheke got into the tourism business — floated around the lunch table at Mudbrick Restaurant, one of the most popular dining venues on the island with a commanding view of the Tamaki Strait that includes Auckland during clear days. Half the time, I was distracted by — no, totally absorbed in — the yummy roasted potato starter and perfectly-executed catch with soft-shell crab and Thai curry cream.
Every two years, the Waihekeans have a free bulky refuse service stretching over a period of about two weeks, and we saw how much this service was appreciated as an assortment of discarded furniture and appliances lined the sides of the roads. The locals apologised for the unsightly mess caused by the routine spring cleaning, but we only found it amusing.
Later on, the spirit of artisan-ship rained down on our group as we gathered around Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler in her studio, a spacious room filled with all kinds of tools and raw materials at the opposite end of the hallway from her kitchen and living room. The jewellery specialist was born in Germany and relocated to New Zealand in 1992 with her husband-manager, David Wheeler.
A jewellery maker for over 40 years, Christine once entertained thoughts of following in her father’s footsteps to become a plumber but her metalwood mastery and creative brilliance instead sculpted her into a designer of exquisite pieces for both sexes — but particularly women. Much thought and care, the passionate jeweller shared, is put into the entire process, to the extent that she spent 16 years modifying a particular creation because the material and other details were not to her satisfaction.
Christine is just one of dozens of artisans making a living out of their craft on the island and welcoming of visitors to their creative space. Captivated by the carefree feel and inspiring nature, painters, sculptors, ceramic specialists, fashion designers, photographers and their ilk settled in Waiheke over the years, contributing to a buzzing art scene. Some offer art lessons or workshops. Within the confines of about 92 square kilometres, there are also two sculpture parks — Dead Dog Bay Wetland Garden & Sculpture and Connells Bay Sculpture Park.
The eventful day wound down to a trickle at The Boatshed, a small family-run luxury boutique property a 5-minute stroll from Little Oneroa Beach. Set at an elevation, it boasts superb views of the bay, especially from the terrace that tempts you to kick back and enjoy the breeze and sun. Run by the Scotts — Jonathan is the hands-on owner while dad David designed the chic hotel on land that the family owned for 35 years and had a holiday home — the hotel is filled with boat and nautical-themed artwork as well as sailing memorabilia.
There were plenty of personal touches, from mint and watermelon in cold water, to an impressive book and DVD library in the common area, to a well-maintained garden supplying herbs and produce for the kitchen, to room amenities such as binoculars, liquorice allsorts (liquorice sugar candies with fruit flavouring) and books and music to soothe. Why, after years of distancing myself from literature I deemed irrelevant to newswriting I actually read some poetry that night and rekindled an interest for this genre of writing. Was it the edginess of the island, gratification from a day of feasting on the finest local produce, being snug — and laptop-less — with the wind howling outside or too-good-to-be-true port? It may have well been all of the above.
After all, Waiheke has a way of charming you when you least expect it. It doesn’t boast, it doesn’t try too hard. Like good poetry.