Although it’s only a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland Harbour, Waiheke Island feels like half a world away. Green rolling hills, crystalline turquoise waters, scenic sandy beaches and picturesque vineyards create a dreamy setting all wrapped up in just 36 square miles. It’s one of those places where time evaporates, leaving you with that wonderful feeling of having been away much longer than you actually were.
I had booked a Waiheke Island wine tour with Phil Parker, Auckland wine expert and writer who leads small groups to the area’s major wine regions. As soon as we met Phil at the Ferry Building, I knew we were in for a great time. His passion for Waiheke Island and terrific sense of humor were evident as he explained plans for our day. Waiheke’s wineries are small family businesses, he told us, and their wines are not sold outside of the island. Suddenly my mind returned to where I’d heard those words before – in Australia’s Hunter Valley, on the first day of our trip, where I was surprised to learn the wines were not even available in Sydney. We would be able to ship these wines home, Phil explained, but we would not be able to find them in Auckland.
Our tour companions were Sylvie and Michel, a delightful French Canadian couple who shared our love of red wines as well as our enthusiasm for the excursion. The five of us boarded the ferry for the quick journey to Waiheke’s Matiatia Wharf, where Phil’s car was parked. Except for bus service from the ferry landing to the town of Oneroa, Waiheke struck me as a place where it’s helpful to have your own transportation.
We drove along winding roads that revealed beautiful vistas at nearly every turn before reaching our first tasting stop at Mudbrick Vineyard. With glorious water views stretching out beyond the vineyards, its’s one of those settings that literally takes your breath away. Formal manicured gardens lead to the tasting room, with aromas from lavender and rosemary plants wafting along the pathway.
The charming tasting room features a small shop and counter, where we sampled several delicious varieties. After the tasting, we wandered around the property, soaking up the views. Later in the day, we returned for a wonderful lunch in the Mudbrick Restaurant.
Peacock Sky Vineyard
Our next stop was another lovely setting and an interesting tasting experience called a dégustation. Peacock Sky co-owner Connie Festa uses her background as a chef to create foods to pair with the vineyard’s wines. For our tasting, she prepared five different recipes that included a puff pastry, a soup and a chocolate brownie, each in a ready-to-eat serving next to a description of the wine it was matched with.
We were instructed to try a selected wine and then taste it with the paired food item to see how the food impacted its taste. This was serious business, with no room for picky eating or drinking! I was skeptical that I would be able to distinguish the different flavors, but after the first tasting, I was shocked at my taste buds’ reactions. Connie laughed as we all seemed surprised at how easily the flavors came through.
“It has a pinball effect. When wine crosses the palate, all the flavors show.”
~Connie Festa, Peacock Sky Chef and Wine Expert
Connie’s brownie and Cabernet Sauvignon combination was especially delicious. She told us she has perfected the recipe – “not too cakey, not too fudgy” – and packages the dry ingredients in glass mason jars for sale in the Peacock Sky shop. “All you have to add are eggs and butter,” she told us, “and if you like it, I will email you the recipe.” I brought a jar home and am happy to report that she kept her promise and revealed the ingredients!
Little Oneroa Beach
After lunch at Mudbrick, Phil took us to one of his favorite beaches called Little Oneroa. It’s an idyllic spot, a perfect place for a mid-afternoon break. Little Oneroa is part of the Fab Five beaches trail, where, as the welcome sign explains, you can “weave your way between intimate beaches and hidden coves…and go exploring along quiet and quirky walkways full of essential island character.” Oh, to have more time on this island!
Kennedy Point Vineyard
Three-hundred-year-old Pohutukawa trees – nicknamed “Kiwi Christmas Trees” for their red flowers – create a stunning backdrop at Kennedy Point Vineyard, our final tasting of the day. Kennedy Point, which overlooks its namesake bay, is Waiheke Island’s only certified organic vineyard. The grounds have a rustic feel, with wooden pergola-topped tables placed near the vineyards and a small tasting room that opens onto a wide wooden porch.
It was late afternoon when our ferry arrived back at Auckland Harbour. We said our goodbyes to Phil, Sylvie and Michel and walked toward our hotel. It had been such an incredibly full day at the end of an incredibly full trip that finding a place to have dinner seemed somehow unimportant, almost an afterthought. “There was that New York pizza place we passed on Jellicoe Street last night,” Herb said. “That might be good for a quick bite.” We both laughed at the suggestion. It was time to come home.
And Sal’s Authentic New York Pizza is where we had our last dinner in New Zealand.
In a voyage that was over-the-top rich with magnificent sunrises and sunsets, it turns out that the Universe had one more surprise up its sleeve. After a very bumpy, unable-to-get-any-sleep flight over the Pacific, this incredible sunrise appeared outside my window, an hour before landing in California.