Ahead of New Zealand Fashion Week, Kiwi designer Karen Walker gives the lowdown on her favourite stylish getaway.

As an Aucklander I have a special affection for our beautiful gulf and am yet to experience any city with a setting to compete. I grew up just 700m from the sea and summer days were often spent on our family run-about tootling around the gulf, island hopping, and fishing for sprats. I hated it. The smell of fibreglass, life-vests, sprat guts and ham sandwiches. Now I catch myself toying with the idea of buying a boat to have those very same weekend daytrips. There's just something so appealing about having the freedom to hop about from bay to bay and island to island, to visit all those out-of-way spots that wheels and legs can't get you to. And of all the islands in the Hauraki Gulf, the shiniest and sparkliest continues to be Waiheke. It always delivers.

In the warmer months, the Sealink car ferry comes and goes frequently via Wynyard Wharf, which makes it all much more convenient than the pedestrian ferry. Forget about carrying bags, booking cabs or even finding a seat. Once on the island, there's no need to worry about how to get about the vineyards or whatever far-flung bit of paradise you're chasing.

When I'm visiting the island my first question to local friends is "What's new that I should check out?" and on my last visit, every single one said The Courtyard and The Archive. Both impressed. The Courtyard offers a new option in the Oneroa shops and although it lacks a sea view, it more than compensates in every other way — food, service, sun and convenience. Need a lunch break from sunbathing and swimming at Oneroa? This one's a two-minute walk from the sand.

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Mudbrick's a long-standing Waiheke classic and it keeps getting better. Its recent addition, Archive Bar and Bistro, is fantastic with a perfect mix of great food, wine, service, and views. The winners on the night I went were the house-made brioche doughnuts and that's not just because my dates included a couple of 10-year-olds. They were sensational.

The Annex is another fabulous newbie on the island. If it were in my neighbourhood at home I'd be a regular, for sure. Small and almost monastic in its simplicity, The Annex is all about the coffee and the baking. The apple galettes are a perfect Sunday morning pick-me-up.

Waiheke is so much about the wine, and my favourite spot to spend an hour tasting the latest releases is always Man O' War. The drive out there and the setting once you arrive are both impossible to beat. The wine itself is a great bonus on top. We spent a delightful hour or two with assistant wine maker Vladi tasting the current releases. I walked away with an armful of the 2014 Dreadnought Syrah, which is complex and harmonious, fruity and gamey. A perfect gift for the dog-sitter come home-time, as well as for my own cellar.

One thing I'd never done on Waiheke was an olive-oil tasting and I loved visiting the original Waiheke grove — Rangihoua Estate. We had a fabulous tasting and I came away realising the serious gaps in my olive oil knowledge and full of new lingo to impress with.

In preparation for the weekend, I'd worked with Lily at Waiheke Premium Tours to curate our activities. Lily had a whole lot of cool things up her sleeve that I never would have thought to do otherwise, including a cooking lesson with the fabulous Julie Biuso. Julie welcomed us into her home and kitchen and wowed us for a couple of hours with her recipes, knowledge, tips and, ultimately, what ended up on our plates.

We loved lunch but loved even more coming away with new and indispensable tips on: a) how to cut onions, b) how to crush garlic, c) how to store lettuce, d) how (not) to wash witloof and e) how to stone an avocado. All things that you're all thinking are obvious and that you know all about, but, I promise you, you're doing wrong. Julie has the secret chef's tips that'll change your world. Great chocolate brownie as a take-away gift, too.

After all this eating and drinking, it was time for some exercise. My daughter's been learning to ride over the past year and a bit and riding seemed like a great way to see parts of Waiheke we wouldn't otherwise get to experience. Liz and Jodi at Waiheke Horse Tours were the most wonderful hosts, taking me (having not ridden for 10 years or more), my daughter (who's up to cantering and small jumps) and her pal (who's been on one fairground pony) for a fabulous ride across a private, protected, bush-clad peninsula stretching along Te Matuku Bay. The horses were perfect — calm but not pony-trek "zombie" horses and Liz and Jodi were delightful — fabulous horsewomen with a real love of their craft, their horses, and the land and its history.

All this action and you do need somewhere to crash. On this trip we had the full Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous experience staying at The Owner's Retreat on the south-western corner of the island. It's part of the Mudbrick Vineyard story and it ticked all our boxes — a clifftop mansion with 270-degree views of the gulf on 3ha of land, a warm and sunny private bay at the bottom of the garden, two fireplaces with stacks of firewood, and a gorgeous cedar hot tub perched on the cliff edge. The owner, Robyn, had even placed fresh lilies in every room and a big jar of fresh cookies on the kitchen bench — it's all in the detail.

The views, too, were killer. Watching the ferries and the fishing boats going back and forth, the many layers of islands — Motuihe, Motutapu, Rangitoto — and the city's lights beyond were all enchanting. I spent many hours on the lawn or by the fire watching, transfixed as the light changed and continuously reinvented the view.

It made me think about how I've not climbed Rangitoto yet, and that it will be my next Hauraki Gulf experience.

Karen Walker is a Lexus ambassador. New Zealand Fashion Week begins tomorrow and runs until September 2.