Waiheke Island is nicknamed the island of wine. A one-time haven for hippies and artists, the island started its transformation into a hip world-class wine destination in the 1970s, when vines were first planted.
The grapes, it turned out, thrived in Waiheke's microclimate. Even though the island is just a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, it's drier and warmer than New Zealand's most populous city (no wonder residents flock there on weekends). Combine those climatic conditions with lean soils and it's no surprise that Waiheke is as well known for its complex reds as it is for its stunning natural beauty.
The island is home to dozens of drawcard wineries but as I'm heading there for only two nights, I can't visit them all. As locals give their tips, Man O' War Vineyards bubbles to the top of my list. There's just one problem: Waiheke is larger than expected, sprawling over 92 square kilometres. And Man O' War is far-flung, perched on the east coast, at the opposite end to the ferry terminal and nowhere near the island's public bus system.
The island's size is grasped only after I check in to The Oyster Inn and chat about my plans. The chic micro-hotel, in the main township of Oneroa, is more a restaurant with (three) rooms.
Channelling the simplicity of a Kiwi bach (or holiday home, of which there are plenty on Waiheke), the inn opened in 2012 to fill a gap in the dining scene. Nowhere was serving upmarket seafood. Today its kitchen offers battered oysters with wasabi mayonnaise, whole flounder with candied lemon, scampi linguine, and bouillabaisse.
I learn that the most affordable way to reach Man O' War's cellar door (the country's only beachfront wine-tasting
experience) is to rent a car, though those with deep pockets can helicopter in. The only problem is that I didn't bring my driver's licence.
Luckily, other beaches are reachable. I stroll Oneroa's white sands and take the bus to pretty Palm Beach. The bus network also extends to a bunch of wineries in the island's centre. Te Motu specialises in the rich Bordeaux blends that have put Waiheke wines on the map and Stonyridge Vineyard is next door. Behind its ivy-clad frontage are a popular cellar door, verandah cafe, yoga deck and a lawn where you're encouraged to sprawl and sip the same wines that have been enjoyed by prime ministers and rock stars.
Back near Oneroa is Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant. From this romantic perch, you can gaze over manicured gardens to Auckland's distant skyscrapers and, over a long, lazy lunch, toast the arrival of the trans-Tasman travel bubble.
Waiheke also offers horse-riding treks near some vineyards – and an unusual aerial view. EcoZip Adventures will have you whooshing over rows of net-protected grapevines to reach a patch of rare, old-growth forest. Between these adrenalin rushes, tramp shady trails through regenerating bush before plunging into forest up to 500 years old. Plants include the country's emblematic silver tree fern and manuka and kanuka tea trees.
Birdwatchers should keep an eye (and ear) out for the large, boisterous honeyeater called tui, identified by a tuft of white feathers at its throat. It's harder to spot the tiny grey warbler – or riroriro – but its loud, high-pitched song is known to uplift weary hikers.
At the opposite end of the scale is the world's largest pigeon, the kereru or New Zealand wood pigeon. It's a showy beast, with iridescent feathers and an unusual white vest. Notorious for getting drunk on fermented fruit, falling out of trees and trying to fly under the influence, they're easily the wildest things you'll find on blissed-out Waiheke.