I can’t say Covid was the only thing preventing my sister Claire and I from visiting Europe this year.
She’s a time-poor working mum and I’m a cash-poor journalist, so our dreams of conducting our own Contiki tour through picturesque parts of the Mediterranean are likely to remain just that even after a coronavirus vaccine is developed and Kiwis are allowed to travel overseas again. But heading to Waiheke for the weekend proved a pretty sweet substitute.
As Aucklanders, we’ve both visited the island’s hot spots numerous times before so, after some gentle persuasion on my part, Claire agreed to a stay on one of its more secluded stretches. On the island’s southern side, Te Whau Point is just a 20-minute drive from the Mātiatia Ferry Terminal – and five minutes from the strip of world-renowned wineries along Onetangi Road – and yet, metaphorically speaking, a world away.
It is literally a world away from the likes of Italy and France, but we didn’t have to overtax our imaginations too much to make believe we were there. With its olive groves, vineyards, world-renowned food and wine, and relatively sunny microclimate, it’s as close as many of us Kiwis are going to get to Southern Europe right now. Perhaps it’s even better – Lonely Planet once has previously labelled it a “utopia”.
* Waiheke’s greenest adventure is also its most exhilarating
* The ultimate guide to NZ’s wine regions – Auckland’s best and brightest
* Five of the best eateries on Waiheke Island
Waking to a panoramic view of grasshopper-green hills complete with cyprus-lined driveways rolling gently down to lake-calm inlets bobbing with yachts that wouldn’t look out of place in Cannes or Monaco, we could have been in southern France or Italy. Only Rangitoto and the Sky Tower on the distant horizon ruined the mirage, but I’d hardly call them blots on the landscape.
The small but perfectly proportioned Te Whau Lodge, perched atop the skinny finger of land that is the point, boasts what many locals believe to be the best view on the island. Almost the entire length of Auckland, from the North Shore to Maraetai, is laid out before you, along with a particularly photogenic section of the ever-changing Hauraki Gulf.
Each of the rooms, along with the woodburner fire-heated lounge, dining room, courtyard and massive deck, are designed to make the most of them. And you – or at least Claire and I – could have spent a warmer weekend simply soaking them up from the sun loungers.
Our arrival happened to coincide with that of torrential downpours, but watching the accompanying aggressive winds push the clouds across the sky and part them enough on occasion to let the sunlight send rainbows through them, was a pretty impressive show.
It could well have held our attention for hours if I hadn’t been so hellbent on us racking up our 10,000 steps for the day. But if you had seen our four-course breakfast – which included granola and coconut yoghurt, muffins oozing with lemon curd, a smoothie thick enough to stand a spoon in, and Instagram-worthy “cloud eggs”) – you would, I am sure, have understood.
Ever the procrastinators, we kept telling ourselves we’d just wait until the next “shower’ had passed before heading out. When we finally did, they finally stopped, making it an uncannily uncharacteristic act of perfect timing on my part.
Catching the bus to the crescent of white sand that is Palm Beach, which we had more or less to ourselves on what had started out as such a miserable day, we followed the coastline around to Oneroa, passing deserted bays which signs told us were home to little blue penguins (our romps over the rocks sadly didn’t reward us with any sightings) and along streets lined with the kind of old-school baches that have knocked down to make way for mansions on other parts of the island.
Another torrential downpour struck just as we were entering the well-stocked Island Grocer, giving us just enough time to decide which superfood smoothie bowls we would order if we hadn’t stuffed ourselves with Spanish-style tapas at the magical Casita Miro the night before. And recently knocked back a four-course breakfast.
As we set off again with our restorative kombuchas though, the clouds parted again and we packed away our raincoats for the second time. The weather gods were clearly telling us our weekend break was meant to be.
By the time we arrived at Mudbrick Vineyard, we were both knackered enough to break our promises not to each lunch. But the cured salmon we tucked into with mandarin, ginger, cucumber and radish left us with zero regrets. As did the accompanying octopus with polenta and olive and caper-stuffed tomato sauce.
Hoping to be back at the lodge in time for sunset, we resisted the urge to enjoy second glasses of the ginger- and spice-accented local pinot gris and raced up to the bus stop, pausing only to top up our Hop card and buy a Lotto ticket that, all going well, would enable us to buy a holiday home on the island.
Huffing and puffing up Vintage Lane, we made it back just in time to see the big red ball that was the sun that day disappear to bed behind Rangitoto – too late to get great shots on our phones, but with time enough to enjoy the light show in real life.
Dinner that night was a grand affair, in more ways than one. Claire and I and another set of guests sat down to a four-course dinner prepared by co-host Teara, a classically-trained chef. Personal highlights were the melt-in-the-mouth lamb shank and rich, North American-style chocolate brownies in ultra-generous North American-style portions. We washed it all down with wines from nearby Passage Rock (their Sisters blend is my new favourite red).
Waddling back to our room, we discovered glasses of sherry and chocolates had been laid out for us; as sweet a surprise as the canapes and glasses of wine we’d be welcomed with the night before.
Realising we’d consumed 10 courses the previous day, we were determined to squeeze in another walk before we had to leave to catch the ferry at noon. This time, we kept it hyper local, following the road almost to the end of the peninsular before taking a steep track down to turquoise, entirely deserted Hitapa Bay, onward to popular local dog-walking spot, Kauakarau Bay, and back up to the lodge through a thick slice of nikau palm-filled bush.
We only passed two other people en route and they seemed startled to see us: Something unlikely to happen on a walk through popular parts of Tuscany, say, or Provence (and, let’s face it, most parts of those places are pretty popular).
I’m hanging out hope that we’ll be able to spend some time under the Tuscan – or Provencal – sun together before we’re old, wrinkly and possibly crippled by arthritis, but quick hops across to Waiheke should keep us happy us until then.
Looking out at the ocean from that lavender-scented terrace at Mubrick, full of bonhomie from the food, wine and unexpected sunshine, we certainly appreciated that we were living la dolce vita. If we have to put up with the likes of that until we are able to fork out thousands of dollars for flights to Europe, then c’est la vie.
More information: Te Whau Lodge’s two-night “Covid-19 Recovery and Recharge” package for New Zealand residents costs $1295 and includes a four-course dinner, multi-course breakfast and car hire for a day. The “One Night Getaway” Package costs $845 and includes transport to and from the ferry terminal, a bottle of local bubbles, a three-course dinner and four-course breakfast. To book: tewhaulodge.co.nz
The writer stayed courtesy of Te Whau Lodge.