Island of dreams

The locals have living down to an art at this creative outpost, writes Guy Wilkinson.

"There's something about this stretch of water that changes everything," sculptor Chris Bailey says, gesturing towards the Hauraki Gulf. "It has an almost cleansing effect."

Having just stepped off the boat from Auckland, I can already see what he means. Pleasure boats, sparkling bays and lush countryside have replaced the noise, traffic and high-rises, the stresses of city life giving way in an instant to a millionaires' playground.

Waiheke Island was once a very different place. Serviced only infrequently by boats making the 18-kilometre crossing from the mainland, the relative isolation attracted a slew of hippies and alternative types drawn to a simpler way of life. But after faster ferry services were introduced in 1986, the proximity to Auckland brought in big money.

The result is a strange mix; investment tycoons and media moguls now live side-by-side with Greenpeace activists or fishermen. Some things haven't changed though. The artistic culture remains.

Clambering out of Bailey's cluttered ute, we take a tour of his work studio, a basic fenced-off yard filled with wooden palettes, half-finished sculptures, a battered stereo and workbenches scattered with chisels and power tools. Once part of a rough Maori gang, he now uses his skills to create. Recent works have exhibited at the Venice Biennale, among others. "Art is still very much the lifeblood here," he says.

A lot of people come here to fulfil a dream.

Together with dozens of other artists also living on Waiheke, Bailey is gearing up for next year's Sculpture on the Gulf event, a celebrated two-yearly fixture that's expected to attract more than 30,000 visitors throughout six weeks from January.

Inspired by Sydney's Sculpture by the Sea, the open-air art gallery features eclectic works from entrants throughout New Zealand.

Last year's exhibit included everything from a giant Lego brick installation constructed by a 13-year-old to an intricate stainless-steel marine fossil by artist Virginia King.

Though the event has undoubtedly raised Waiheke's profile, at certain times of year this is still a place you feel you can disappear. With about 8000 permanent residents - about 1000 commute to Auckland daily - the tourism trade is seasonal and, in quieter months (May to September), you can still get a sense of the kind of place it was in the '70s.

Hiring a jeep, my wife and I cruise the island with no fixed itinerary. With more than a dozen coves and beaches and close to 30 boutique wineries nearby, there's something to explore around every corner.

Pulling up outside cellar doors, we sample local drops. Because of the climate, syrah is usually the standout but each vineyard has its own speciality.

At Casita Miro, a dog basks idly in the sun outside a busy Mediterranean-style restaurant. There are sweeping views across acres of vines. Pulling up a seat for tasting at the long bar, we're serenaded by a flamenco guitarist in the corner while sampling tapas such as plump green olives or swordfish fillets marinated in olive oil, lemon and balsamic.

Each vineyard has its own personality and is different from the other. At Mudbrick we enjoy fine dining in a beautiful Provence-style setting overlooking Church Bay. Stonyridge has a homely, rustic vibe set against steep valley hills while The Hay Paddock is little more than a simple shed with outdoor tables facing the sun.

If there is a downside to the absence of corporate homogeneity, it does mean prices can be steep. Most vineyards charge between $NZ10 ($8) and $NZ20 for tastings and a bottle at the cellar door will usually set you back at least $NZ30. Such is the nature of island life, but more businesses are striving to be increasingly self-sufficient.

One example is The Boatshed, by far the most luxurious digs in town. Comprising five guest suites and two bungalows with a nautical bent, it's run by owner Jonathan Scott, who spent years travelling Europe acquiring interior design inspiration. Set on a cliff-top overlooking Little Oneroa Beach, it's a model of understated elegance.

Much of Waiheke's appeal is the opportunity to do as much or as little as you want. Active types can kayak, windsurf, swim, trek the headlands or mountain bike countless trails. There are easy short-haul trips to the Coromandel and surrounding islands where you'll find historic treaty sites, surf beaches, hot springs or glow-worm caves.

For a culture fix, there's a charming art-house cinema replete with mismatched sofas, as well as dozens of tiny independent galleries exhibiting local work. Several artists even allow visits to their home studios by appointment.

Dropping in on internationally renowned jeweller Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler, I watch her demonstrate increasingly rare mediaeval blacksmith techniques in a home workshop overlooking miles of ocean.

But Waiheke is also the ideal place to do nothing more than indulge in life's simple pleasures. Following an evening stroll along Onetangi - the island's main beach - we duck in for a pint at Charlie Farley's pub. In the fading sunlight, locals congregate in the beachside beer garden. Some sport polo shirts and chinos, others bare feet and dreadlocks.

I strike up a chat with Greg Davenport, a resident of 35 years.

"We like to think we're different here," he tells me. "The second you step off the ferry, you feel the change. A lot of people come here to fulfil a dream, whether it's becoming an artist, writing a novel or opening a vineyard - it's that kind of place.

"I suppose you could say it's an island of dreams."

Trip notes

Getting there

Air New Zealand operates daily flights from Sydney to Auckland. Catch the Airbus from the airport to the ferry terminal for the 35-minute trip to Waiheke Island. Ferry tickets cost $NZ35 ($28), for timetables.

Staying there

The Boatshed has rooms from $NZ645 a night. +64 (09) 372 3242,

See + do

Sculpture on the Gulf is New Zealand's leading contemporary outdoor sculpture exhibition, set on Waiheke's coastal walkway. Next event: January 24 to February 17, 2013,

Pick up a free Waiheke Island of Wine brochure from the visitors' centre and tour the island's extensive vineyards.

More information;

The writer was a guest of The Boatshed and Mudbrick Vineyard.