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Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland is a favourite week-end and holiday destination for New Zealanders and foreigners in the know. Featuring rolling hills, forests, beaches, and a heavily indented coastline that gives it the shape of a fantastical creature (shown on the right), the island offers the perfect mix of civilized pleasures and rural tranquility to satisfy most vacationers. If you like both wineries and hiking, as I do, you’ll be in heaven here.

The main town is called Oneroa, and this is where you should base yourself if you do not have a car. A few other small settlements are located on the western part of the island, often near beaches. The total permanent population of Waiheke is about 8300 people.

Main street, Oneroa (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Main street, Oneroa

(Prices in the rest of this post are listed in New Zealand dollars. Check out xe.com for current exchange rates.)

Getting there and around

A passenger ferry runs from Auckland every half hour to Matiatia Ferry Terminal near Oneroa ($22 one way or $36 return with Fullers). Six public bus routes go from the ferry terminal to Oneroa then split up to service different parts of the island. Their schedule is set to correspond with ferry arrivals, and they usually come around every hour or half-hour. So yes, you do have to plan things a bit if you rely on public transit.

Get a transit schedule and map at the tourist office (called i-SITE) in Oneroa. The cost per ride is between $2 and $4.50 depending where you’re going, and drivers give change. You can also get a daily pass for $10 at the ferry terminal.

Ferry and Matiatia Ferry Terminal (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Fuellers ferry and Matiatia Ferry Terminal in Waiheke

If you’re short on time or don’t want to deal with the logistics, several companies organize day tours such as Fullers, Ananda Tours (specializing in wineries), and Sunshine Tours. Bicycle rental is also an option, but unless you’re really fit, you’ll need an electric bike (for the slow hills) and those rent for $60 a day in Oneroa. That’s more expensive than renting a car!

Accommodation

The island gets fully booked and accommodation prices rise during busy holiday periods, so don’t come then if you want a deal. There are several B&Bs, motels, and lodges scattered around, but I didn’t see any big hotel. For affordability, I’d suggest renting a room in a private house through a service such as Homestay or AirBnB.

My comfy room in Oneroa (Waiheke, New Zealand)

My comfy room in Oneroa

I found the perfect place through Homestay.com (my first time using the service): a pretty room and my own bathroom in a spotless home with a view of the water. My hosts Antoinette and Barry are super-nice and have been feeding me a large continental breakfast every morning. Because I booked for a week, I got a lower price of only $46 a night (about CAD$41).

Food

Waiheke is an island, and on top of that, it’s a tourist island, which makes it a bit of a challenge to find cheap food. The first thing you notice in Oneroa are restaurant menus listing appetizers for $18 and main courses for twice that! A burger for $22? Seriously?

Gourmet burger at Solar cafe (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Gourmet burger at Solar cafe – this one is only NZ$15

However, you have to remember that taxes are included in the prices here, and that tips are not expected. So the price you see in the menu is the final price you pay, with no add-ons. As well, the New Zealand dollar is 5-10% lower than the Canadian dollar, and about 30% lower than the US dollar at the time of writing. And if you look carefully, Oneroa has several small restaurants and cafes where you can have lunch (including a non-alcoholic drink in some places) for under $20.

Here are my recommendations for affordable food, which are all located close to each other along Ocean View Road, Oneroa’s main drag (except for the last one):

  • Red Crab: Thai/Chinese restaurant with $12.50 lunch specials (small servings)
  • Little Frog Cafe: Crepes, sandwiches, quiche, organic juices, lattes
  • Solar Cafe: Breakfasts, gourmet burgers, salads, pasta and more
  • Delight Cafe: Turkish-influenced food (falafel, chicken souvlaki, lamb kofte, pita wraps)
  • The Local: Fish & chips, various burgers, calamari, fish cakes
  • Dragonfired: Mobile wood fired oven producing delicious pizzas and calzone (Little Oneroa Beach)

All of the above, except for Little Frog Cafe, offer sea views. Many are not open in the evening, so you may want to make lunch your main meal of the day.

For really cheap prices, head to the little take-out shack at the eastern end of Little Oneroa Beach which offers burgers, sausages, and fish & chips wrapped in newspapers, and no utensils!

There is also a Four Square grocery store on the main road in Oneroa where you can buy food supplies, beer and wine.

Mudbrick Vineyard (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Restaurant at Mudbrick Vineyard

For a splurge, have lunch (or dinner) at one of the winery restaurants. Check their schedule as it changes with the seasons, and make a reservation to avoid disappointment.

Wineries

While most people think of New Zealand wine as coming from the South Island (most notably the Marlborough region), Waiheke has been producing wine since 1978. The island now counts a couple of dozen wineries, many of them with bistros or gourmet restaurants attached. Wine has become one of the main industries on the island.

Obsidian vines (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Vines as far as the eye can see in the Obsidian vineyard

The region produces predominantly red wines, with merlot and syrah being the most common grapes. Several wineries also specialize in Bordeaux-style blends. Among white wine varietals, chardonnay is the most common, followed by pinot gris. Wines are produced in small batches, hence command a higher price tag than you may be accustomed to. Most bottles are in the $23-$50 price range up to $250-$500 for a premium wine such as Stonyridge Larose.

I have mostly limited myself to tasting two or three wines per winery, which come down to $2 or $3 a sample. Today however I splurged at Obsidian by tasting six of their wines for $10, which was later waved when I bought a bottle of their Pinot Gris ($26.50)!

The wineries below, which I’ve visited, are easily accessible on foot or by bus, but there are many more.

  • Cable Bay Vineyards
  • Mudbrick Vineyard
  • Wild on Waiheke
  • Stonyridge Vineyard
  • Obsidian Wines

The Waiheke – Map and Wine Guide from the tourist office has all the information you will need.

Wine tasting at Stonyridge Vineyard (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Wine tasting at Stonyridge Vineyard

Hiking

You can stay on Waiheke for a week and hike a different trail every day. The New Zealanders refer to hiking as “tramping” and to themselves as “kiwis”. The Free Visitor Guide from Oneroa’s tourist office describes seven walks, which are shown in more details on larger scale maps (one for each of the four regions: Headlands, Beaches ‘n’ Baches, Forest Heart and Far End). Some of the hikes can be combined with winery visits and beach time.

Forested trail (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Forested trail with fern trees

Hikes are between one and three hours long, but I would allocate them half a day because you’re sure to stop several times along the way to catch your breath (did I say the terrain is hilly?) and admire the views. If you want, you can link several of them together for a longer hike.

You’ll need hiking shoes (with good traction and preferably some ankle support), but the trails themselves are not technically difficult. You’ll be walking along city streets, beaches, grassy trails, and forested reserves with narrow dirt paths which often have tree roots but very few rocks, as well as stairs. Trails are well marked (for the most part) and picnic tables and benches are strategically placed along the way. If ever you get confused and stop to look at your map long enough, a friendly local will probably come by to give you directions. It’s that kind of place.

Taking a break along a hiking trail (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Taking a break along a hiking trail

Bring your own water and snacks, as well as a sun hat, sunscreen (the sun is very strong in NZ), and a light jacket for when the cool winds pick up and the sun hides. In mid-December (early summer, just before the holiday rush) I didn’t meet a lot of people on the trails, which suited me just fine. The week-ends are busier, but many people only come from Auckland for a day trip and never venture very far from the town and the beach.

These are not treks into the wilderness though. You’re never very far from civilization on Waiheke, but unless you’re in top shape, you will still work up a sweat and get your heart pumping! It’s all worth it for the views and the discoveries though. Make sure your camera batteries are charged and your memory card has got lots of space on it. There are beautiful views around every corner. I found myself taking over 100 photos on each of these hikes!

Hiking around the southern headland (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Hiking around the southern headland

Beaches

The best beaches are located on the North side of the island: Oneroa Beach, Palm Beach, and Onetangi Beach. Onetangi is the longest, while people seem to agree that Palm Beach is the prettiest. At the western end of Palm Beach is a nude beach, which you have to traverse to get to the start of the trail that climbs to the viewpoint! (What were they thinking?)

Palm Beach from viewpoint (Waiheke, New Zealand)

Palm Beach from the viewpoint

The heavily indented coastline creates many little coves (some with pebbles but no sand) that you’ll come across on some of the hikes.

Because the beaches are in sheltered bays, they get very little surf which makes them ideal for swimming, if you don’t mind the cold water. I’m more of a tropical beach person, so I don’t think I’ll be putting on my bathing suit anytime soon, but I do enjoy the beautiful settings and the smell of the sea air.

Palm Beach, Waiheke, New Zealand

Palm Beach on a warmish day

How long should you stay on Waiheke?

Waiheke Island is close enough to Auckland to make it an easy day trip. However, you should try to spend at least a couple of days to sample its many pleasures without rushing. If you really want to relax, give it a week! In fact, I like it so much here that I decided to extend my one-week stay to 10 days!


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