Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel” publication for 2016 has been released, and included at number five in the list of top ten regions was Waiheke Island, just 30 minutes by ferry from downtown Auckland. A different kind of paradise than the typical “white sand and palm trees” vision of a South Pacific isle, Lonely Planet nevertheless calls it “an island utopia of secret coves, beautiful beaches, rolling vineyards, luxury lodges and bohemian sensibilities.” Part alternative commuter suburb and part holiday destination, it’s a beautiful place with a genuine community feel.
Road trip to Waiheke
Driving has long been established as the best way to explore New Zealand, and you can include Waiheke in your road trip itinerary when you pick up a car rental at Auckland Airport
or elsewhere. SeaLink
operates car ferries to the island from both downtown Auckland (Wynyard Quarter) and Half Moon Bay in the eastern suburbs, and most rental companies will allow you to take your hire car across to the island. Alternatively, if you are flying in to Auckland, you could head across to Waiheke before you pick up your rental - just be aware that public transport around the city and the island can leave a lot to be desired.
It’s a thirty minute trip past the other islands of the Hauraki Gulf to where the ferries disembark passengers and vehicles in Matiatia Bay. It’s not billed as a scenic cruise, but take time to gaze out the windows or over the railings and you’ll certainly get an eyeful of the bustling and lovely Gulf - distinctive Rangitoto Island, the beaches of Motuihe, the occasional pod of dolphins and the ever-present sailing yachts and small fishing boats which dot the waters.
You’ll drive off the wharf onto Oceanview Road, which heads over the hill and into Oneroa township, the big smoke for the island with restaurants, shops, gift stores and many accommodation options overlooking the busy Oneroa Bay. From there you can continue on to the other neighbourhoods which spread over the western shores of the island, or journey to the more untouched eastern end. To drive the full length of the island, less than 30 kilometres, can take an hour or so - and it will include gravel roads, so check your rental terms and conditions.
Sun, sand and sea are chief amongst Waiheke’s draw cards, and they are plentiful. The island’s jagged coastline stretches for a total of 133.5 kilometres and has a huge range of beaches - big, small, accessible, remote. With your own wheels you can find the stretch of sand that perfectly suits your holiday needs - but here are a few to consider.
We labelled this township the “big smoke,” and by Waiheke standards it is, but in the context of the wider world it is more accurately labelled “small beachside village.” You can drive down to the beach by turning left into Puriri Road and then onto Beach Parade once past the town, or park up in the main drag, pick up an ice cream cone and then wander down the hill on one of the signposted pedestrian paths to the bay.
The long, wide sandy beach isn’t the most beautiful in the world but it is a great place for families, sheltered with a gently sloping seafloor providing plenty of shallows to splash in. It is generally full of pleasure boats, and you will find many holidaymakers enjoying a BBQ or picnic on the sand.
A drive of fifteen minutes or so will get you from the wharf to Onetangi. This beachside community is less developed than Oneroa, with a longer and more exposed sandy beach. It’s a popular place to stay, with a lot of apartment-style accommodation and baches (holiday homes) for rent.
The long white sand of Onetangi Beach is perfect for those romantic long walks, and occasionally offers something you won’t find elsewhere on Waiheke: a surf break. Although the conditions are usually more suited to peaceful paddleboarding than surfing, when the waves do come up this is the best spot for keen surfers.
Also called Mawhitipana Bay, this one is similar to Oneroa, just on a smaller scale. It has a family-friendly sandy beach, a fleet of small craft anchored offshore, and that essential asset of any New Zealand beach: a fish and chip shop.
Separated from Palm Beach by a rocky outcrop at the western end is Little Palm Beach, where clothes are optional. The ideal spot for skinny dipping!
Man O’ War Bay
This broad bay is very tidal, but has great swimming opportunities at high tide. It’s a little more out of the way than the western beaches, and a lovely place for a picnic with a shelly beach, lots of grass areas and Pohutukawa trees for shade - these are especially stunning during the summertime when they blaze bright red to earn their reputation as “New Zealand’s Christmas tree.”
Of course, Man O’ War Bay is also home to a particularly amazing winery and tasting room...
It’s no secret that many visitors to Waiheke come for the wine. The island is renowned for its grape-growing conditions, and there are more than 30 wineries on this relatively small piece of land. These produce mostly Bordeaux-style wines, as well as chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and syrahs.
You can find a winery to suit any taste - small and laidback or sizeable and elegant. Most offer cellar door tastings and many also have restaurants where you can get a platter or a meal and sit down to enjoy the island breezes and views.
Here are a few ideas to get you started, however it’s important to plan ahead. Driving while under the influence of alcohol is illegal in New Zealand, so you'll either need to designate a sober driver or park up at your accommodation and sign up for a winery tour with a shuttle bus.
Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant
This famously beautiful place is not far from the wharf at Matiatia on Church Bay Road, with stunning views over the inner Hauraki Gulf and Auckland city. The Italian-style building will make you feel like you’re in the Tuscan countryside while you sip wine at the cellar door or enjoy some fine dining in the gorgeous restaurant.
Cable Bay Vineyards
Modern and offering commanding views, Cable Bay is known for its beautiful lawn area complete with bean bags where you can easily while away an afternoon. Wine tastings and platters are the best bet for an unforgettable visit - and their wines have won multiple awards, so you can’t go too wrong. It is also found a few minutes from the wharf, on Nick Johnstone Drive.
You’ll find olive groves and vine-covered buildings as well as grapevines at Stonyridge, which charms with a South-of-France ambiance. It is a friendly place to enjoy a tasting or a delicious meal - outdoor dining is recommended. It’s also a great place for events and often hosts live music and parties. Stonyridge is found on the road out to Onetangi - at 3 kilometres from the town, you can even walk there if you really want to.
Passage Rock Wines
This is Waiheke’s most-awarded winery, and its Reserve Syrah has accumulated more than 18 gold medals and six trophies. It is located on Orapiu Road looking out over Te Matuku Bay, and it’s not just the top-notch wine that will tickle your tastebuds: the menu of wood fired pizzas is a local favourite.
Te Whau Vineyard
Perched on a point overlooking the inner Hauraki Gulf, small and picturesque Te Whau offers wide-angle views from the restaurant and wine bar. The excellent gourmet cuisine and equally excellent wines made from the grapes grown on the 2.5 hectares of surrounding slopes are a wonderful accompaniment to the vistas.
Man O’ War Vineyards
This renowned estate covers 150 acres in the far eastern end of Waiheke, with 76 individual hillside block s each with a distinct microclimate and terroir. Unlike the other hilltop wineries, the gorgeous Man O’ War tasting room is right on the beachfront, opening on to a lovely lawn area and surrounded by pohutukawa trees. The remoteness makes it feel like a real destination - save this one for a very special day out!
These are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wine on Waiheke - you might also want to try the multi-award-winning Obsidian wines, hear about the sustainable practices at Jurassic Ridge or experience the island’s newest and most modern winery, Batch.
Hike the island
While sitting in the sun with a glass of wine and a platter is the ultimate way to spend a holiday, you might want to dedicate a day or two to some more physical sightseeing. There are plenty of tracks on Waiheke just waiting for your hiking boots, with options for all fitness levels - and a rental car makes it easy to get there and explore.
Stony Batter: 30 mins
Drive out to the Stony Batter Historic Reserve at the eastern end of the island and you can spend as long as you like exploring the area. It is full of unusual rock outcroppings, but that’s not what makes it an historic reserve - there are also a smattering of gun emplacements left over from WWII, including a series of tunnels. Blocks of native bush complete the picture.
Awaawaroa lookout: 1 hour
The peaceful Awaawaroa Valley is in a more remote part of the island, without being far away at the eastern end. It has an abandoned manganese mine and is also home to the Poderi Crisci Restaurant and Vineyard. Park at the end of Awaawaroa Road near the picnic table and follow the signposted route up to the lookout and back, a return trip of around an hour.
Matiatia, Church Bay, Oneroa loop: 2 hours
This walk offers many options for detours and alternative paths, but the basic idea is a scenic stroll on tracks and roads around the western extremities of Waiheke, offering a great vantage point over the many isles of the inner Hauraki Gulf. Follow the coastal tracks from Matiatia right round to Te Miro Bay and Church Bay, then take Church Bay road to Oneroa Village and Ocean View Road back to Matiatia. Bring a camera. If you need sustenance, consider stopping at Mudbrick!
Rocky Bay and Omiha Bay: 2 hours
You can enjoy the Whakanewha Regional Park with this 2-hour loop starting in Omiha Bay. Park near the old Rocky Bay Store and follow Omiha Road to the Upland Road Track, a coastal track which leads to the Rocky Bay shoreline. At the carpark, cross the road and take the Nikau track and Tarata track to link up with the Stanimoroff Walkway at the intersection of Carsons and Gordons Roads. At Te Whau Drive, follow the track down through the Kuakarau Bay Forest Reserve back to the township.
Of course, beaches, wineries and walking aren’t all there is to do on Waiheke. The cute boutique stores of Oneroa can take up an afternoon, especially when combined with the Community Art Gallery on Korora Road. There are plenty of bars for some evening entertainment, watersports like sailing, diving and kayaking can be arranged, and when it comes down to it, Waiheke is just an island of farmland and native bush interspersed with a particularly lovely collection of small beach towns. This means that it can offer in spades those staples of a Kiwi holiday: hours spent on the beach, swimming, ice creams from the dairy, fish and chips, pohutukawa trees for a spot of shade and a whole heap of doing nothing in particular.
However your time on Waiheke is filled, it will be a great addition to a New Zealand road trip itinerary - so book your car rental
and a ferry ticket, and start planning! After visiting Waiheke, consider continuing your trip around New Zealand, visiting spots like Wellington
. If you have more time to spend, you could also explore parts of Australia starting in Sydney