Taste a slice of island paradise this summer.

Spaniel Man is feeling expansive. It could be the beer in his hand, it could be the glorious summer evening on Little Oneroa Beach, it could be the happy smiles of the wedding party posing for photos on the sand.

Turns out it's the date. He calls across to the young couple sprawled nearby under their sun umbrella. "Hey! It's my birthday! How old do you think I am?"

They look at him, the grey hair on head and chest, the leathery skin, the evidence of long years of gravity doing its work, and kindly say: "Fifty-one?"

"Sixty-two today!" Spaniel Man crows.

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"And do you know why I look so young?" He leaves off cuddling his dog to fling his arms wide. "It's because I live in Paradise!"

At the end of a perfect day on Waiheke, just a half-hour's wind-down ferry ride from Auckland central, it's hard to disagree. Shaped like a sea-dragon, surrounded by the turquoise waters of the Hauraki Gulf, the island is in its own time zone. It's official: when car ferry passengers arrive at Kennedy Point, a big red sign reads: "Slow down. You're here."

Who would hurry, anyway? The roads are narrow and winding, dipping in and out of bushy valleys and sandy bays, the hilltops giving glimpses of sea, other islands and the distant towers of the city. Sometimes there are footpaths, sometimes there aren't. Barefooted people with chilly bins and icecreams share the road with cars in a daily tide of their own, streaming back and forth from the beach.

In the little town of Oneroa overlooking its sheltered bay full of bobbing yachts, holidaymakers stroll the footpaths, poking into the craft shops, art galleries and beachwear boutiques, or just lingering over a coffee at a table in the sun. If they're lucky, they've been to Whittaker's Musical Museum and heard Lloyd and Joan talking about and playing their wonderful range of rare instruments, from accordions and pianolas all the way up to a nine-foot Bechstein concert grand once owned by Paderewski.

If it's a Saturday, they will have gone to the Ostend Market where, in the memorial hall and outside on the grass, stalls sell art, clothes, books, junk and food: crusty breads, lacy-edged crepes, flavoured oils and home-made fudge. It's colourful and busy with visitors browsing and locals catching up on the gossip.


Pizza at Little Oneroa Beach.

If the visitors are here in February, they may pass through a time warp and spend the day at the Onetangi Beach Races. The beach is long, open and, at low tide, conveniently wide, and for more than 100 years has been the location for a day of classic family fun. The races now include rich men's toys - Sealegs amphibians, split-personality vehicles that crawl along the sand then roar through the waves in a shower of spray - but there are still eager girls on their Pony Club mounts, and short fat Shetlands hitched to sulkies.

There's an activity for everyone: sandcastle competitions, egg and spoon races, tug-of-war, decorated hats, and plenty of food stalls to keep fuelled.

If they're staying over and not ruled by the stern dictates of the ferry timetable, tonight holidaymakers may go to the cinema to sprawl on assorted sofas and armchairs - and if they're clever, they'll learn from the old hands and check down the sides of the cushions for loose change. In any case, they'll certainly have eaten superbly well: perhaps a long lunch or dinner in the flying saucer restaurant of Te Whau Winery with its fabulous views, or at Cable Bay with a bottle or two of its crisp rose, or upstairs at the Oyster Inn on Oneroa's main street, or lying on a rug at a picnic table in the garden at Casita Miro. Or perhaps they've decided, like Spaniel Man, to keep it simple, and come to Little Oneroa to order a wood-fired pizza from the caravan and sit on the sand to eat it as the warm shadows lengthen. Pizza and beer - or ambrosia and nectar? Same thing.

What's on

Sculpture trail

The biennial headland Sculpture on the Gulf, in its seventh year, is in place until February 15. Along a 2km trail from the pavilion near the ferry terminal at Matiatia are 31 installations, most custom-made for their site and exploiting the backdrop of the harbour. They include works using mirror, steel and wood, as well as more ephemeral materials, such as a digital connection via smartphone. The trail is free to walk, with a $5 shuttle bus from Matiatia to the start. There are water stations along the route, which requires moderate fitness and sensible shoes. It is open every day from 8.30am.

Onetangi Beach Races

This annual event, 100 years old, begins at 10am on Sunday, February 22 on Onetangi Beach. The programme includes races for ponies, Sealegs and wheelbarrows, as well as running, egg-and-spoon and other races. There are also tugs-of-war, a silent auction, raffles, buried treasure, sandcastle and fancy dress competitions and plenty of other family fun. Bring a picnic or visit the food stalls or a local restaurants. Get there by bus from Matiatia Wharf. Participation is encouraged (register online).

• Get there by ferry from the city Ferry Building (Fullers, Explore), Wynyard Quarter (Sealink) and Devonport (Fullers).