New Zealand: Day trip to Waiheke Island - what to see and do

One hundred metres past Matiatia's ferry terminal - the typical entry-point to Waiheke, Auckland's "Isle of Wine" - a road sign says in large letters: "Slow Down. You've Arrived!"

Another sign reminds you to clean your hiking boots. Kauri trees on Waiheke are not infected so far with the dreadful disease  plaguing the ancient tree species on the mainland.

Should you wish to scrub those boots and explore on foot, cultural nature trails spiral off from the ferry terminal. They lead around spectacular headlands to Oneroa, which is known to islanders as "town" though it's little more than a hilltop village comprised mainly of restaurants, cafes, boutiques and an art gallery/cinema/theatre/library.

The island's more adventurous tracks, however, are to be found on the virtually uninhabited eastern side of Waiheke (pronounced Why-Hey-Key).

You don't even need to get off the ferry to enjoy Waiheke. A Canadian couple flying home on the evening of my visit decide to stay aboard, opting not to risk missing their booked taxi from the mainland to airport.

"We don't really mind," they tell me as we bask in the warm December sun on the return journey.

"We just wanted to get out of the city for a day, and we even got to see a volcano."

Sure enough, there it is: Rangitoto.

Much to the surprise of the local Maori, Rangitoto rose out of the sea unexpectedly about 600 years ago. It's not only New Zealand's youngest volcano, but also its most accessible - just a 25-minute ferry ride from Auckland city centre.

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Both Rangitoto and Waiheke form part of the Gulf of Hauraki - meaning "north wind" in Maori - a marine reserve bounded by the Coromandel Peninsula, Great Barrier Island and Auckland.

On the ferry to seahorse-shaped Waiheke, you might spot bottlenose dolphins, orcas or Bryde's whales, while the island itself offers a range of land-based adventures.

It's an easy place for international travellers to visit, but some Kiwis might prefer to keep it to themselves. That's certainly the attitude of the bus driver at Matiatia ferry terminal. Boarding the public bus, I ask how much the fare is to Onetangi - the bus's final destination, roughly half the length of the seahorse's back.

"It's one fare, however many stops ... $3.50," he says. I hand him one of the $NZ20 notes I've just acquired from the terminal's ATM.

"You expect change at this time of the morning?" he says, brusquely (it's 10am). "Bring the right money next time!"

He's far friendlier with locals, greeting them by name and commiserating with the woman who lost her bus pass yesterday.

Scenes of local life like this make a visit to Waiheke worthwhile, no matter how short your stay.

 As a consequence of its proximity to Auckland, Waiheke has its fair share of barely-used luxury weekenders and accommodation options that include backpacker hostels, B&Bs and luxury resorts. It also has superb beaches - Onetangi Bay is the most spectacular - as well as regional parks, forests and reserves. Some of its landscapes look so much like Cornwall they could double as sets for the BBC's Doc Martin TV series. 

The island's adventure activities include bike riding, zip lines, horse trekking and heli-rides, and then there's the outstanding food and wine. 

There are more than 20 vineyards on Waiheke. This represents a remarkable transformation from the 1950s when the Gradiska family produced the island's first wine, which was "a fairly ferocious fortified brew" according to locals.

  A large number of grape varieties also prosper these days, thanks to the island's wind-protected position. 

Red varietals dominate, mainly merlot and syrah. But in recent years, white varietals, including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris, have proved almost as popular.

A word of warning though: have the exact money if you're catching the public bus back from a winery to the ferry.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/auckland

waiheke.co.nz

FLY

Air New Zealand flies direct to Auckland from Sydney and Melbourne. See airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

SO Auckland is one of Accor's luxury Sofitel hotels and is aimed at a young, tech-savvy clientele. Its rooftop bar offers harbour views to Waiheke while, one floor below, Marc de Passorio, the former owner of Michelin-starred L'Esprit de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence, serves up French cuisine at Harbour Society. See so-auckland.com

FLOAT

The main ferry from Auckland to Waiheke is operated by Fullers 360 and runs at 30-minute intervals. See fullers.co.nz

Steve Meacham was a guest of Air New Zealand and SO Auckland.

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