Alexia Santamaria quits Auckland for the weekend and goes further than anticipated.

Thirty-six hours on Waiheke Island staying at the charming Frenchmans Hill Estate is more joy than I can contemplate after a busy working week. No matter how many times I catch that ferry, I'm always amazed how quickly we can be somewhere so removed from gridlock traffic, expensive car parking and shopping malls.

Mindfulness and relaxation apps have nothing on the powers of stepping on to Waiheke. We head to our vineyard accommodation and, as we approach the white-stone driveway flanked by perfectly manicured lavender hedges, we not only feel far from the hustle of Auckland but as though we might not even be in New Zealand. Our cottage full of Gallic touches - chequered tablecloths and drifting sounds of Georges Brassens and Edith Piaf - complete the French countryside illusion. Tired, we retire early and we sleep like the dead.

The view from Frenchmans Hill Estate cottage.
The view from Frenchmans Hill Estate cottage.


The next morning it's breakfast at the markets. Our noses lead us to the empanada stand and the fresh pico de gallo and chipotle we choose as toppings on our stuffed pastry package are perfect. We've heard the coffee at The Annex, nearby, is excellent and after a cup we concur - maybe it's because the owners also own Island Coffee, and roast the beans themselves.


It's physically impossible for me to bypass the Te Matuku shop. We originally plan to take our dozen of these plump, salty, creamy specimens back to the accommodation, but instead we open the plastic wrap and eat them right there at the high tables.

Te Matuku oysters.
Te Matuku oysters.


A stop at Alibi Brewer's Lounge at Tantalus is essential and a tasting paddle each covers all eight beers brewed on site but it's the, clean Umbongo Tropical sour and the gutsy Hop Dweller American IPA that steal our hearts. We can't resist some signature parmesan truffle fries on the side; they definitely seem to be the order of the day judging by how many fly past from the kitchen to punters holed up in the cosy alcoves, happily chatting over a pint.

We want to make the most of our offspring-free time so head back to the vineyard for some very purposeful sitting-and-doing-nothing over wine. Luc Desbonnets, the winemaker, joins us at our table outside the tasting room and we discover how his vinous obsession started when he was a young man wanting to learn his paternal language back in the motherland (his dad is a French immigrant). Working on a vineyard seemed a suitably French thing to do - little did he know it would spark a nearly two-decade love affair with the industry.

Winemaker Luc Desbonnets in front of his tasting shed.
Winemaker Luc Desbonnets in front of his tasting shed.

With enormous experience in planting vineyards (during his seven years in vineyards in France and here, notably at Man O' War) he has lived out the entire process several times over, from nurturing tiny seedlings through to pouring the final product. He's not just a winemaker, he has "grown wine" both at Frenchmans Hill and Expatrius from the very start, rather than taking over from the point when the grapes are ready.

He says the grand crus in France would die for this Waiheke terrain - the perfect mix of free draining, mineral-rich sand, clay and gravel with ferrous oxide streaks. But it's more than that. The French talk about terroir being vine + climate + man + soil but he believes a fifth element of whenua adds a spiritual dimension.

Desbonnets' obvious spiritual connection to the land undoubtedly enhances the tasting of his big reds - for which he's won critical acclaim - especially the syrah and Blood Creek 8. If I'd read it on a wine blurb it might look like fabricated marketing speak but the intensity and passion in his voice convinces me wholeheartedly that every bottle absolutely contains the history and essence of everything that's ever happened on that soil.

Who'd have thought we'd find a little piece of France, nestled between Okahuiti Creek and Anzac Bay?


Where to find them

Frenchmans Hill

, 1 Margaret Reeve Lane,

Waiheke Ostend Market

, 76 Ostend Rd, Ostend,

The Annex

, 10 Putiki Rd, Ostend,

Alibi Brewing

, 70/72 Onetangi Rd

Te Matuku Oysters

, 17 Belgium St, Ostend,