The boat speed had barely reached 10 knots and already I felt the city's grip loosen. By the time we'd reached Bean Rock lighthouse, five minutes from the downtown wharf, it was as though I'd been on holiday for a week. I didn't dare look back. Only eastward, towards Waiheke Island. There was a work-up happening out in the Gulf; birds everywhere. A different churn.

As seen through the eyes of a visitor, Waiheke — or Te Motu-arai-roa, "the long sheltering island", as it was first named — represents a kind of utopia. A place of stupendous natural beauty, it's coveted by hippies, and high-rollers, rock 'n' rollers, lifestylers and artists. So far, the monied don't seem to have ruined it.

There's a rich cultural history, wetlands, beaches and ideal wine-growing conditions. Which is what attracted Luc Desbonnets to the island. Luc and his wife Anna set up the Frenchmans Hill Estate on the sheltered northern slopes, above the Putiki Estuary, on the western end of Waiheke's Onetangi Valley.

The great waka, Te Arawa, also felt the pull and reputedly came to a stop right in the wetlands at the base of the Desbonnets' 5ha property.


"The wetlands are the spiritual heart of our property," says Luc.

"The Maori history was told to me by the elders."

Luc, a Kiwi of French descent, describes himself as a caretaker rather than a winemaker. The caretaker grows olives and figs, and makes complex big reds in the French tradition. He has been planting vineyards and making wine on the island for 15 years. Which makes him a rookie, he says.

Some rookie. Along with his own vineyard, Luc also manages Expatrius and Te Rere Estate. Since he became an independent winemaker in 2005, 24 out of 26 red wines he's made have been rated as exceptional (or over 90 points), by the global authority Robert Parker's Independent Master Tasters.

Luc began his winemaking career in 1989 in the vineyards of Chinon, France, and spent seven years working and studying throughout Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone Valley before graduating with a superior technician diploma from a Bordeaux agricultural school in the Medoc appellation in 1993.

He returned permanently to New Zealand in 1998.

He and Anna have also set up a small shop where they sell their wine, olive oil, and Anna's tapestries and furnishings. You can also order a bottle of wine and a platter.

The Desbonnets have played host to international celebrities, and though Luc won't name names, it's a matter of public record that Mick Fleetwood stayed here when Fleetwood Mac played Auckland last year.



The Frenchmans Hill guest house.
The Frenchmans Hill guest house.

The Frenchmans Hill Estate, about a 10-minute drive from the ferry terminal, is private, understated and elegant. The two-bedroomed guest cottage was decorated by Anna, an interior designer, whose magnificent tapestries cover the furniture. This is no anodyne pad in 50 shades of beige. Inside it's all pillowy comfort and magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on to the vineyard and Rocky Bay.

There's a continental breakfast included in the rate and a pile of beautiful and interesting books on the island's characters, history, and books on wine, of course. There's also a small stereo but it seems absurd to even go there. We opt for radio silence and a cold glass of Luc's Ted Chardonnay. There's a white-shell track that leads down to a private deck, which is the perfect spot to recalibrate to island time, and watch the kereru blasting like hooligans through the native trees.


Bluffies at the Oyster Inn.
Bluffies at the Oyster Inn.

It's Bluff Oyster season, so where else to go on Waiheke Island than to The Oyster Inn, in Oneroa Bay. The building is expansive, on the high side of the main road in Oneroa Village. It overlooks the boats in the bay below and a wine and grocery store.

It's legendary, this place. And for good reason. From the service — effortless, charming without being obsequious — to the food — spectacular and simple — it's hard to fault. The charismatic owners, Andrew Glenn and Jonathan Rutherfurd Best are on the mainland the night we head there, but we are looked after by Perry and Davida. They recommend the olive oil (locally sourced) with Wild Wheat kumara sourdough, whipped beets with goat's curd, pickled walnuts and grilled turkish bread, and we follow with a combination of Bluff and Waiheke's Te Matuku oysters, served natural, naturally, with lemon, chardonnay vinegar and shallots.


The Kawhe shop.
The Kawhe shop.

There is a Maori proverb which says, "Kua ata haere, muri tata kino". To start early is leisurely, but to race against time is desperate.

I would argue that starting at 3am each day is hardly leisurely. But for Paddy ("too many Patricks and Pats on the island") Griffiths the lifestyle switch five years ago from restaurant chef to artisan baker was a conscious decision to dial it down.

A tree-lined driveway leads to the little cafe and shop, where, if you order your coffee in Maori, you get a 50c discount. The translations for flat white, long black and the rest are on the blackboard. Ani makes us a brew from the local roast, Island Coffee, and we buy freshly made croissants. Paddy's artisan breads and award-winning lavash are sold in grocery stores and supplied to restaurants. Best tip: Take your coffee and walk down the path, through the vegetable gardens and fig trees and take a seat where the view is down the grassy valley and out over Tamaki Strait. It's quite possibly the best cafe in the entire world.


Little Oneroa.
Little Oneroa.

There is a young woman expertly juggling a soccer ball on the wet sand.

Further along, a corpulent elderly woman places her towel on the grass, lights a cigarette and proceeds to cover herself in sunscreen.

Behind us a couple are doing yoga — she's standing on her head and he's in downward dog — and another couple appear to be getting plastered at a picnic table in the shade of a pohutukawa tree.

At least they're being sensible about staying out of the sun.

It's mid-afternoon at at Little Oneroa, or Little O, as the locals call it, the water is warm despite the arrival of autumn.

It's low tide so we get pipis and open them on the beach before ordering a pizza from the caravan. There are kids, dogs and pretty boats moored in the bay. The Little Oneroa Beach Store sells everything.

Paradise is an over-used term. But this is it.