Waiheke Island attractions continue to surprise and impress, writes Scarlett Cvitanovich
I thought I knew Waiheke Island. I was wrong.
In one 48-hour visit, I ventured 70m underground to the heart of Auckland's World War II defence effort - listening to a piano recital halfway down - zipped through the air faster than you're allowed to drive on the island, and star gazed with a group working hard to have Waiheke recognised for its dark skies.
The island's culture and history are fascinating and its stories come to life through the eyes of a local. Darren, from Big Aroha Tours, wasn't raised on Waiheke, but he's been absorbed into its social fabric. He and his wife, Jane, offer tailored wine and cultural tours. Our tour included a fair amount of eating and discovering secluded swimming spots . . . check out Enclosure Bay on a sunny day. If you're lucky, Darren will even give you a peek at his sculptures, wood carvings and pounamu. bigarohatours.co.nz
Heading to the newly re-opened Stony Batter complex, I wasn't sure what to expect. We'd been told the fort complex has more than 1.2km of hand-dug tunnels to explore. Its entrance is reached after a walk through unique boulder fields with uninterrupted views across the Hauraki Gulf.
Built in secrecy during World War II, the tunnels housed weapons and people, ready for a potential invasion. But it's not just about the military history, project director Timothy Moon makes the most of the natural acoustics as well. As we hesitantly penetrated the dark, the distant sound of a piano drew us in. Feeling like we were in Phantom of the Opera, we were lured through hundreds of metres of tunnel to a performance space, and treated to an eerie and magical private piano performance. stonybattertunnels.nz
Back above ground afterwards, we arrived at three ziplines, or flying foxes, operated by Ecozip Adventures. Situated on one of the island's highest points, they let you overlook vineyards and tree canopies, before zipping over them. The three each cover more than 200m – and as the gradient increases, you can hit more than 50km/h (that's the speed limit on Waiheke). The experience is topped off with a tromp back uphill through the ancient forest. ecozipadventures.co.nz
You can't say you've seen Waiheke without taking to the skies for a bird's-eye view. A half-hour "flightseeing" experience with Waiheke Wings brought in sharp relief what the island has to offer - tantalising beaches, rows of vines marching through fields, and the distant sparkle of Auckland city on the horizon. waihekewings.co.nz
But one of the joys day-trippers don't experience is Waiheke's wondrous night sky. We tagged along with Dark Sky New Zealand's Nalayini Davies and husband Gareth, for a night gazing at the heavens. A bright moon and stars playing hide and seek with the clouds meant it wasn't the best evening for views, but our guides' passion and knowledge made up for that. Davies is advocating for the island to apply for International Dark Sky Association accreditation to protect its nightscape from light pollution.
Several nights a month, a small group of astronomers head out with telescopes and binoculars for public viewings in the countryside, far from bright lights, with a home-made sign reading "Dark Sky viewing". It was impressive how many passing cars stopped to take a look. darkskynz.org
No Waiheke visit is complete without eating and drinking at the world-class wineries. It was my first time at Casita Miro, and I cannot wait to return. Specialising in Spanish cuisine, it will make you feel like you've been whisked to a Barcelona tapas restaurant. Instead, Casita Miro is nestled into the hills above Onetangi, but the restaurant's dishes and ambiance offer all the flavour and zest of Spain. casitamiro.co.nz
And if you're dreaming of European dining, you can't miss the Italian flair of Poderi Crisci vineyard and restaurant, where it's all too easy to while away the afternoon dining al fresco with friends, testing the mouth-watering food and perfectly paired wines. podericrisci.co.nz
There's a reason Cable Bay vineyard is a favourite of many Waiheke Island visitors. With bistro and restaurant dining, the hillside spot caters for everyone's tastes but the fondest memories will belong to those lucky enough to dine outside as the sun's setting, casting a golden glow looking back over Auckland city. The unrivalled views make this vineyard a star. cablebay.nz
Waiheke and I are no longer casual acquaintances - and have moved to being best friends. I've ventured underground, made the most of what's on the surface, flown its skies and peered at its stars. It turns out there's a lot more to this island than wineries and beaches, and it's those unexpected discoveries you'll remember.
CHECKLIST: WAIHEKE ISLAND