The island's delicacies are arguably the best in the world and this trip will prove it, writes Michael Lamb
The party buses make it as far as Passage Rock vineyard at the far eastern end of Waiheke. Orapiu Wharf is a few clicks further on, where disappointed self-drive visitors find gates slammed shut to the private Orapiu Lodge and a small jetty with barely anywhere to park.
At first blush, with no village, no shops and a deluge of "no access" signs, this is the non-business end of Waiheke. But greed drives many a mortal obsession and my enthusiasm for the sea-salt goodness of Te Matuku oysters has led me here, so I'm determined to start my own Waiheke Island Oyster Festival at bivalve ground zero.
Before long I've sourced the phone number of John, the farm manager at Te Matuku Bay, property of the Fenwick family who, led by conservationist and businessman the late Sir Rob Fenwick, rebuilt the oyster farm back in the 1990s.
We soon find ourselves perched on John's side-by-side farm truck, climbing steep tracks above Te Matuku Bay. (Matuku, I later learn, is the Māori name for the Australasian bittern, a critically endangered heron-like coastal bird, of which there are less than 1000 left.)
The scale of the oyster farm unfolds, rows and rows of the growing frames, idling in the cooling blue waters of the bay. And this place, producer of arguably the best oysters in New Zealand (after those Bluffies), is no ordinary place. It is, remarkably, the only oyster farm in the world in a marine reserve. In that spirit, the Fenwicks are heroic guardians here, dedicated to the ecological restoration of land and sea, with their land now covenanted to stay protected from development forever.
While the ecologically-sensitive farm itself isn't open to visitors, the Fenwicks understand that access to the public is an important part of keeping the project alive, so they've created a short hiking track for anyone to traverse, called the Te Matuku Walk (about 1.5 hours each way, and forms part of the full Te Ara Hura Waiheke Walk, a sturdy 100km itinerary).
Back on the side-by-side, John guns the engine and takes us up to Jennie Fenwick's house, where we linger admiring the vast Gulf views, cutting a wide arc from the Clevedon coast all the way back to the city.
With an intensive stoat and rat trapping operation in full flow, the wildlife here is returning. John says they now have good numbers of pāteke (brown teal), banded rails, dotterel and kāka. The sea is bringing back her wealth too: a secret spot on the farm is brimming with rare longfin eels and kōkopu (giant whitebait).
As a visitor, you can get close to all this by staying at the pretty Whites Bay or Circular Bay on the other side of the headland - or try the new budget "Cabin in the valley" vineyard stay. From those locales, explore the 690-hectare Te Matuku Marine Reserve by kayak, taking in views of the oyster farm. Or go bird-spotting, swimming, diving, snorkelling.
It turns out this end of Waiheke isn't just for tourists who've bought their cars over - you can catch the ferry direct to Orapiu from downtown Auckland. For day access, walking the track from Orapiu to Pearl Bay is another great way to get to the marine reserve on foot. Or bring a bike (or e-bike) and all manner of possibilities open up: the sculpture park around the corner at Connells Bay and Poderi Crisci winery and restaurant at Awaawaroa.
There's rich history here too: Orapiu was the main settlement for Māori and Pākehā back in the day. Te Matuku Bay was a vital food gathering and waka landing place for Māori living on the coast and up on the nearby mountain pā of Maunganui. As the site of Waiheke's earliest European settlement, there are remnants to check out, like the first school and the pioneer cemetery.
We seek out the cemetery, nestled just off the main Orapiu road. Under the gorgeous dappled light, filtering through the tall trees, rest the early European residents of this area. It's atmospheric and beautiful, and you can't help but wonder what life was like for these people way back when this end of Waiheke was considered the gateway to the island.
We'd love to linger but the oyster trail has only just begun, and we have shellfish to pursue. We drop in at Passage Rock but owner David says they prefer to serve the little wonders from their friends in the bay at their plumpest best in the winter, so after a few glasses of the house pinot gris, we head back for dinner at the legendary Oyster Inn in Oneroa.
Here Josh Emmett has taken over the reins and when we walk in, he isn't labouring over a complicated sauce or flaming steaks. No, the man himself is masked up and happily shucking Te Matuku oysters.
We order up a dozen, which arrive on a bed of chipped ice, and we scoff them like hungry convicts, taking in the dreamy evening views out over Oneroa Bay. The Oyster Inn is a mandatory stop on any oyster-based Waiheke itinerary. The service is excellent and the oysters are perfection, served with a simple yet on point chardonnay vinegar-based vinaigrette. Oh, and insist on a balcony table.
Next day, we continue the oyster quest with a lunch at the Spanish-inspired Casita Miro (or "Miro's Small House"), high above Onetangi.
Here you can order your oysters in singles, served with finely diced shallots and wondrous Ximenez Spinola sherry vinegar. Bliss.
Island Chef Anthony McNamara, who runs catered events, is another true believer: "[The oysters] grown in the waters of Te Matuku Bay are some of the finest in the world and it is because of the terroir of the water they're grown in."
Now, if you just want a big old oyster feasting session at your Waiheke accomm, without all the restaurant fuss, head to the Te Matuku Seafood Market in Ostend, where the oysters are available unshucked, on the half shell, as oyster meat and even frozen. Top tip: if you want 'em fresh, get in early (before 11am) or the day's supply might be sold out.
We plan to hit Ki Māha restaurant on the beach at Onetangi, which temptingly offers the local oysters freshly shucked accompanied by a champagne mignonette, or battered with a watercress mayonnaise… but our time has run out and our wallets are empty.
Oneroa and Onetangi, Palm Beach and Ostend, and of course all the scattered wineries: these are the big-ticket drawcards for a Waiheke stay. But there's another kind of Waiheke holiday to be had if you want to dig a little deeper… a DIY oyster festival with a side order of history.
And it's an adventure that is well worth starting away from the maddening crowds, all the way down at the other end of the island.
For more things to see and do on Waiheke Island, go to aucklandnz.com
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