The summer sky is a cerulean blue, a light breeze ripples through the vines and olive trees sway on the horizon. I feel I could be in the south of France but I am seated at Waiheke Island's Stonyridge Vineyard restaurant, at the end of a gourmet food and wine tour, enjoying lunch with the vineyard's award-winning wines.
There are few cities in the world where you can transport yourself so quickly from the workaday city to an island that offers a laidback escape and world-class dining, wine and lodge experiences.
My husband Bruce and I visited Waiheke for a few days, one of which I spent with Ananda Tours. Ananda is the brainchild of Waiheke locals Jenny McDonald and Nigel Robinson, who also offer art, eco and scenic tours.
Our Saturday morning ferry left the rainy skies of downtown Auckland and sailed smoothly past the Waitemata's archipelago of Rangitoto, Browns and Motutapu islands, and out across the Hauraki Gulf. We relax on the top deck, revelling in the sea breeze and ocean view.
Forty minutes later we glide into Waiheke's Matiatia wharf, greeted by clear blue skies and sunshine. We meet friends who live on the Island and head to the Ostend Saturday market to sample local cheeses, pastries, breads, olives and chutneys.
A must-buy is Jenny's Kitchen Tamarind Chutney, made by local couple Jenny and Hilton Stewart. Local identity Michael Summer's delicious Beyond Pizza Pizzas live up to their name. We peruse the collectables, second-hand books, clothing, and crafts before exploring True Blue, a unique gift store nearby. I'm taken by the store's retro collection of bathing suits exhibited around the shop's interior, and admire the collection of New Zealand art, jewellery and gifts.
Around the corner from the market and True Blue is the newly opened Island Coffee Roastery & Espresso Bar. Jane and Stephen Burns established this family-run business in their garage in 1999, providing freshly roasted coffee and barista training. Their brand can now be found at the island's cafes, restaurants, vineyards and local suppliers. It is also being "exported" to the mainland.
Bruce heads off to Waiheke Board Riders to hire a stand up paddleboard and hit the water at Oneroa, and I meet Ananda tour guide Paul Laverack and a band of fellow wine enthusiasts.
First stop is Kennedy Point Wine Bar and Cellar Door. Neal Kunimura and Susan McCarthy planted their first vines in 1996 and manage them by organic and biodynamic methods, creating traditional wines with as little intervention as possible.
Viticulturist Heike Sonnenschein takes us through a tasting of sauvignon blanc (a perfect match with the fresh, plump Waiheke Te Matuku Bay Oysters), a light, summery rose, a Bordeaux style cabernet sauvignon, and a 2010 syrah, learning that a touch of viognier helps intensify the flavour and colour of the wine. We finish by sampling avocado oil, olive oil, and pohutukawa and manuka honey.
Our next tasting is at Obsidian Vineyard at Onetangi. The effervescent Rosey Bramley guides us through a range of delicious wines as we feast on roasted almonds, cheeses and crackers. We try a pinot gris, a fresh, clean rose, a rich but subtle chardonnay, and an award-winning lush and juicy montepulciano. The tasting ends with Obsidian's internationally award-winning 2010 Weeping Sands syrah, with its dark, spicy plum bouquet and velvety texture.
Our last tasting is at Peacock Sky Vineyard, which is set amid native bush, has its own flock of wild peacocks and wide views of the Hauraki Gulf. Owners Robert Meredith and Connie Festa, who are from Britain and Canada respectively, are passionate about food and wine matching. On arrival, Connie is serving gourmet platters to guests outside and Robert officiates in the tasting room.
Their 2010 Rose Methode Traditionelle is a delicate salmon pink in colour, with fine bubbles, a crisp, dry finish, and the fragrance of summer berries. The match is a blini draped in smoked salmon, topped with caviar, dill and a light seafood mayonnaise. A creamy textured and richly flavoured chardonnay is next, matched with a light-as-air salmon roulade. A crisp and light rose is perfect with fresh juicy mussels; a spicy fruity merlot malbec with chorizo sausage; and a rich cabernet sauvignon with chocolate cake to finish. Fantastic.
And then it's to Stonyridge Vineyard for that long, leisurely lunch and more wine. Later, our tour guide Paul drops us off at our various accommodations.
Next morning, we awake to the peace and quiet of a Waiheke Sunday. After a breakfast of croissants, locally made breads, island coffee and newspaper reading, we venture out for a morning walk on the Pa Loop Track on the south side of Waiheke, at Whakanewha Regional Park. There are a number of walks to choose from as this park covers 250ha.
Our half-hour walk begins at Rocky Bay, by the Poukaraka Flats noticeboard, where we park the car. The track takes us to an old pa site and has sweeping views over the beach and back towards the Auckland skyline.
If coming from Matiatia wharf, you can catch a bus to Rocky Bay, then walk up Omiha Rd to the Upland Rd track and into the park. Longer walks through this coastal forest take you through native trees that may be hundreds of years old, including nikau, rata, puriri, a few ancient pohutukawa.
The bush is home to a burgeoning birdlife population, including fantails, tui, kingfishers, kereru, grey warbler, and silvereyes.
The park has an expansive wetland where a number of waterbird species are found, and the shelly spit in the middle of the beach at the park entrance is home to the endangered northern dotterel.
After our walk we head to the Island Thyme Delicatessen in Surfdale. Also a cafe restaurant, Island Thyme stocks artisan products from New Zealand and around the world and serves delicious coffee and fresh seasonal food.
Feeling rejuvenated, we head to Casita Miro Restaurant and Vineyard, via Ingrid Berzins Gallery at Palm Beach. A New Zealand-born Latvian artist, Ingrid's European sensibility and her background in illustration have influenced her work.
I first saw her images on cards and loved the rich colours and symbolism. We chat, view her works and look through The Silliest Dream, a gorgeous children's book she illustrated in collaboration with Waiheke author Mark Sommerset.
We arrive at Casita Miro in Onetangi to be greeted warmly and shown to our window table, with views of the surrounding olive groves and vineyard. The wait staff are quirky and refreshing, and our sommelier Anthony Pieri, from Wisconsin, is charming, and knowledgeable.
We order a variety of tapas, including the Casita Chorizo, featuring handmade chorizo with Spanish white beans, onion, garlic, and Miro red wine; John Dory with a creamy Veronese risotto finished with liver and butter compote; and a caprese salad with mozzarella, boconccini, heirloom tomatoes, basil from Miro's garden, and almond pesto.
A bottle of Miro pinot gris is a perfect match, and we finish with glasses of the vineyard's signature Madame Rouge dessert digestif, sublime baklava and Miro's famous oozing chocolate molten, a dessert so popular it often runs out. Hats off to owner Cat Vosper, chef Justin Scheihing and wine-maker Barnett Bond.
We saunter along Onetangi Beach and as the afternoon stretches lazily to the horizon it's time to wend our way back to Oneroa to visit a few more galleries before heading home to the mainland. We call into the Waiheke Community Art Gallery, which is in the Artworks complex, just a few minutes from the village. This gallery supports the visual arts within the island's community, and has up to 32 exhibitions by local and national artists each year. Next is Toi Gallery, which features contemporary Maori and Waiheke art and sculpture.
It's time to catch the ferry home, but before we sail away, we spend our last half-hour reclining at a sun-drenched spot above the sparkling waters of Oneroa Beach. We're convinced we'll now be regular visitors to this fascinating island of "cascading waters".
Getting there: For ferry timetables see fullers.co.nz.