This is the best of the best, the top five things to do on Waiheke Island. Thanks to the lovely Carmel / George Sand Studio for helping me out with all that eating and drinking, I relied heavily on her expertise when I put this piece together. Carmel and I met at a restaurant where she was Maitre ‘D and I was bartending. Before we reconnected on Waiheke, a mutual friend asked if Carmel was ‘still the same, like some magical creature?’ I can answer definitively, yes, she is still a magical creature.
Food. The long lunch at Poderi Crisci.
“Lesser restaurants make you feel like you should be grateful to be there, but on Waiheke they make you feel like they are grateful to have you,” Carmel says.
Waiheke is a dining paradise, but out of the many amazing restaurants our top pick was the Sunday long lunch at Poderi Crisci. A commitment of seven plus courses over nearly as many hours. Carmel and I agreed that while we could deconstruct the courses piece by piece, we could not make this food at home. The favourite dish was octopus salad with saffron potatoes. Familiar dishes had nice touches, like olives marinated in anise and roasted bell peppers in brine. New combinations of sweet, salty, and spice. The pasta was made in house – only Italians serve pasta as a starter course! The main course was a lamb dish that incorporated the Viburno that we were drinking. As gorgeous as the lamb was, we agreed that the veggies (beetroot, mixed variety mushrooms, and shallot in garlic cream) were even better.
I felt a real sense of accomplishment drinking the Viburno 2010 since I’d put in a day’s work picking the Merlot that would become part of this year’s wine. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc; Carmel declares it to be one of the top wines of the week, maybe the top. I asked if her opinion had been effected by the Ombra – Poderi’s easy drinking sparkling wine that we’d been demolishing. “No way,” she says, “This is everything I want from a wine right now, it’s perfect.” She sketches an abstract drawing to prove it.
By the end of the day the dining room feels like a family home. The window directly in front of me framed a baby asleep on the bench outside with two adults leaning over him chatting. The twenty person table next to us kept shifting seats to mix up the conversation. Little girls were plaiting each others hair, another child took a toy car and drove it across his family members’ heads. A table inside started singing, and the neighbouring table joined in. The long lunch is different to a normal restaurant experience. The other diners are strangers at separate tables, but sharing the same food and the same space with these people for the entire day makes you feel connected to them.
Wine Tasting. Te Whau Winery and Restaurant.
I’ve been focusing on my wine training enough this year that my flatmates now make fun of me whenever I drink, asking, ‘is that homework?’ And yes, yes it is. You can train your palate. “I used to think my taste buds were shit and I had no sense of smell. But now I know that it’s just a matter of practice,” said a junior winemaker that I met in Waiheke. Part of learning about wine is paying attention to what you are tasting, and the other part is building up a bank of aromas and flavours both from the real world and from other wines. And on Waiheke I had ample opportunity to test my sensory database in countless tasting rooms.
Te Whau had my favourite line-up — a range of Bordeaux blends from 2008 to the current vintage. When studying wine it’s more interesting to taste the same variety across different years rather than tasting five different varietals. You get a sense of the different vintages, and you can see how it’s evolving. From tobacco and dried herbs and tannins that gripped me at the younger end of the line-up, to the super velvety 2008 that totally melted my mouth. I loved the sweet spice in the 2012. Overall, it was hard to get a handle on them because they kept changing as they opened up. There was so much going on in these wines that you could taste them all day and keep finding new notes. Actually that wouldn’t be a bad way to spend an afternoon!
Syrah. Man ‘O War Dreadnaught.
Syrah. Yes, Syrah is in a category of its own apart from wine tasting in general. I think it would be impossible to spend time on Waiheke and not fall in love with Syrah. It has everything that I love in a red wine – dark fruits, peppery spices, smoked meats, and floral notes. The Man O War Dreadnaught Syrah was my favourite of the week. Fruit for the Dreadnaught comes from some of the vineyard’s steepest slopes – gnarly sites with names like Mad Man’s, Lunatics, and Asylum. This wine is a mouthful. It smells like bacon. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, the Man ‘O War tasting room is at the beach.
Beaches. Little Oneroa, Palm Beach, Onetangi.
When I left Christchurch I was wearing my winter coat but on Waiheke it was still bikini weather. Yoga seems to be the thing to do at Little Oneroa, so Carmel and I joined in. Palm Beach is great for sunset drinks. And Onetangi Beach is my pick for a picnic. On Waiheke the sea is as calm as a lake. Locals tell me that there is surf occasionally, but upon further questioning they admitted that the surf was only during the recent cyclone. So bring your SUP and your lylo rather than your surfboard.
Bush Walks. Stony Batter.
Stony Batter, a park on the way to Man ‘O War, is the tallest point on the island. The views are killer, you can see across the Hauraki gulf and even to the Coromandel peninsula. Some people get excited about the WWII defence remnants (gun encampments and tunnel systems), but I was more stoked on the rocks. The site is strewn with boulders that are remnants of a lava flow from a volcano that erupted 700 million years ago.
There are plenty of nice bush walks scattered throughout the island. I found the gorgeous waterfall pictured above on a trail near Batch Winery. The view from the Bach at Batch wasn’t so bad either (video below), and they also do tours of their gravity system winery.