A howling gale and near-horizontal rain is not the usual welcome we mainland Aucklanders expect from our nearest island. But the foul weather for our late spring weekender on Waiheke was more than made up for by the warmth of the islanders' welcome.
The foodie husband and I had come across to inspect the best of the island in anticipation of January's biennial Headland Sculpture on the Gulf, which this summer has been expanded to include a showcase of island food and wine. It is one of those innovations which seems blindingly obvious now - but is a first in the 10 years of the event.
Artistic director Nansi Thompson and project manager Nicky Cairns - both enthusiastic Waiheke transplants - are excited about the new momentum. Nansi and her selectors (including John Gow, founder of this event and Connells Bay Sculpture Park) have works from legacy artists and new, site-specific pieces on the drawing board.
"It's not just a 'sculpture plonk'," says Thompson.
"Artists are starting to know the sites, people are making the works for their site. This year there are more experiential pieces, works asking more of people, with jokes, sound and more. It really will be a complete sensory experience this time," adds Cairns.
Artists compete for the $20,000 Lexus Premier award, an engineering and two merit awards worth $10,000 each, and the Fullers People's Choice award of $5000.
Meanwhile, we were happy to eat our way through some of the experiences that will be in the Pavilion. Experienced chef Nico Fini, of Urban Escargot, pairs with Waiheke cook Ana Schwarz to showcase the best of local fresh food: breakfasts include sheep yoghurt from Waiheke cheese, the local Island coffee java, grilled fresh fish, Te Matuku oysters, Rangihoua olive oil. The two cooks have so enjoyed the challenge of creating menus that they plan to open a catering business together.
And, naturally, wines play an important part. We spent a rainy lunchtime sampling the best of Cable Bay's Reserve 2010 chardonnay and Limited Edition 2010 Malbec, watching while new owners, winemaker Neill Culley and Loukas Petrou supervised designers extending the new terrace dining. And groaning as a helicopter-load of Auckland big-spenders perilously land on the lawn. As the weather eased, we spent a more gentle afternoon with Obsidian Vineyards' Lindsay and Janet Spilman, sipping our way through more syrahs and admiring the corner of their vineyard recently planted in tight, Rhone valley-style terraces. Can't wait to taste the product of those hand-grown beauties.
It took only a hill-climb through the vines and olive trees to get back to our cosy loft at Cypress Ridge, and then a mere scamper back down to Casito Miro for dinner. The splendid Cat Vosper, not surprisingly a repeat winner of hospitality awards, talked us through a dinner with their wines. Chef Justin Shine's pates and rillettes will feature in the Pavilion. Dinner the night before at the Shed at Te Motu had showed off more local produce, including the outstanding breads and lavash from Ringawera bakery.
By Sunday the storm had cleared enough for us to enjoy a quick circuit of the island with guide Nigel from Ananda Tours. There isn't a thing about the place he doesn't know, and he shared information with dry wit as we raced from Wild on Waiheke's micro-brewery (Te Matuku oysters doused in a stout shooter is the island way to go), to a catch-up with rum master Russell Durloo, and on to sample Rangihoua Estate olive oils and Kennedy Point's biodynamic vineyard. A quick stop at Oyster Inn to view building progress on the hottest new lodge in town (open now) and back to the ferry.
Eating, walking, sculpture and plenty of great conversations; it doesn't get any better than this.
Headland Sculpture on the Gulf:
January 25 to February 17, 2013
The biennial event shows 30 site-specific artworks in a 2.5 kilometre walk above Matiatia Bay. A pavilion at Matiatia will showcase Waiheke wines and foods with a restaurant, tasting and function centre, plus local produce and art for sale.
Find your way:
* Stay Waiheke Ph (09) 372 5402,
* The Shed at Te Motu Vineyard Ph (09) 372 6884,
* Island Coffee, Ostend Ph (09) 372 9988,
* Cable Bay Vineyards Ph (09) 372 5889,
* Obsidian Vineyard Ph: (09) 372 6100,
* Casito Miro Ph (09) 372 7854,
* Rangihoua Estate Ph (09) 372 6214,
* Wild on Waiheke Ph (09) 372 3434,
* Kennedy Point Vineyard Ph (09) 372 5600
* Ananda Tours Ph (09) 372 7530,
* The Oyster Inn Ph (09) 372 2222,
Catherine Smith was a guest of Headland Sculpture on the Gulf and Stay Waiheke