Waiheke Island

 

 

David Whitley hops on a ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island and finds the weather, beaches, views and wine combo a massive winner

I have, I must concede, got this the wrong way round. The drinking should really come at the end of a long walk – as reward and relaxation – rather than near the start of it. Cruelly, however, Waiheke Island’s wineries haven’t placed themselves near the end of walking trails.

Waiheke is both part of Auckland and an escape from it. The ferries from the city are frequent and take just 35 minutes to reach the island. That puts it into commuter belt territory, and you’d be hard pressed to find a prettier commute anywhere in the world.

The dawn of fast ferries in the 1980s set massive changes in motion on Waiheke. The second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf, it was once primarily used as farmland. Much of it is still used as pasture, but easier access to the city turned it into a desirable place to live. Farms got sub-divided into smaller five or ten acre lifestyle properties, houses started going up in the spots with the best views and a host of winemakers followed in the footsteps of early viticulture pioneers.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and you end up at a stage where even simple beach huts change ownership for a million dollars. Talk on the island at the moment is of a new house being built that will cost a staggering $22m.

Buses serve much of the island, and tours on various themes meet the ferry at the Matiatia terminal. For an overview of the beaches, island lifestyle, tethered boats and cutesy shopping ops in Oneroa, they’re fine. But it quickly becomes apparent that the best way to see the island is on foot. Walking maps that cover the range from brief ambles to eight hour stamina-blasters are available at the ferry terminal. But what’s remarkable is how few people you see on those trails. It gets remarkably peaceful very quickly.

I decide to go for the three hour Church Bay circuit, and I’m very quickly faced with an obstacle. I don’t have to walk too far up the hill to find the Cable Bay winery. It’s a showy place – a helicopter lands outside on the grass, somewhat spoiling the view out over Motuihe Island and the Auckland skyline – but one with a consistently excellent reputation for winemaking.

Wine tourism on foot is a new one for me, and it has its merits. Being able to drink as much as you like at the tastings is one of them; having the freedom to wander in as you please is another. The downside is that if you decide to buy anything, you have to carry it around.

While I manage to resist at Cable Bay, there’s no such luck at the Mudbrick vineyard further up the hill. It’s a gorgeous place that’s understandably popular as wedding venue, and both the rosé and the viognier prove too good to leave behind. And that means I spend the next couple of hours trudging up and down hills with a backpack full of wine bottles. Think of it as the alcoholic’s take on carrying bricks around in order to make the exercise more intensive.

The route soon leaves the road and starts zig-zagging uphill through native forest before skirting the edge of farmers’ fields on the way to majestic headland views. The trail repeatedly climbs the cliffs then descends to the beach, making it more than a decent work out. But for all the banana plants, native forest and shale coves, the most enjoyable thing is that it’s just me. The residents are all at work in Auckland, the cruise ship daytrippers are sticking to the roads in their buses and the day trippers have flocked to either the main beaches or the wineries. I’ve got miles of gorgeous coastline to myself, it’s sunny and I’m not far from civilisation should I wish for it. If only I’d brought a picnic lunch and a glass to drink that wine out of, it’d be the perfect island.

Disclosure: David visited Waiheke as a guest of Fullers, who run the ferries from Auckland and the island tours. He stayed in Auckland as a guest of YHA Auckland International

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Rotorua

 

David Whitley takes on The Luge and The Swoop with scarcely any concern for his own personal safety...

 

This is a recipe for disaster. Ten testosterone-pumped all in control of pseudo Go-karts that they have only just learned the basics of controlling, about to race each other on a steep downhill race track, complete with tricky corners and everything.  We are at Skyline Skyrides in Rotorua, which ostensibly is a cable car service to the top of a hill overlooking the city.

 

 

But as with most things Kiwi, they don’t do things that simply. Along with the cable car, gondola and restaurant, they have also built a ‘luge’ track. Why they’ve called it luge I don’t know – as far as I’m concerned, luging is that psychotic sport they show every four years at the Winter Olympics. This is basically downhill karting, and very good fun it is too.

 

There are three tracks to take on: The 2km scenic track (for the elderly, the boring and absolute jessies), the intermediate track (which you’re forced to go on first so you can learn how to steer properly) and the daddy – a 1km long advanced track.

 

This track has steep drops, tight corners, the works, and ten of us are about to bomb down it at once, which is probably against the rules, but like we care. I set off from fourth on the grid, eagerly pursuing the Danish bloke in front of me. He’s not getting away any further, but I’m not getting any closer, as we pelt down the track. But the guy behind me is getting cocky, and is beginning to close in. There’s no way he’s going to overtake me, though, bloody spoon-fed public schoolboy.

 

Unfortunately, we’re coming up to the tightest corner, which is followed by the steepest drop. I do the maths – if I slow down, he’s going to overtake. Therefore the brakes aren’t going on, I’m going to try and take the corner at full speed, and it looks like Posh Boy has the same idea. Bring it on…

 

A few seconds later, I am face down on the bank, absolutely covered in the dirt that I landed in. my competitor has also gone belly up, although he’s somehow managed to graze his knee, shin and elbow at the same time. Boys will be boys, and the rest of the procession fly by, having had the sense to lightly dab the breaks, laughing at the pitiful sight behind them.

 

Eventually we dust ourselves off, and trundle our way down the remainder of the track to the bottom, where we are greeted with jeers and howling laughter. The form of laughter induced at nearby is entirely different. I believe ‘nervous laughter’ is the phrase.

 

When I was a kid, I used to love playgrounds almost as much as heroin addicts do nowadays. Slides were cool, climbing frames rocked, and even those rubbishy balancing beams could pass the odd minute without seeming too dull. Best of all, though, were the swings. I loved swings more than I loved fishfingers - and for a period of three months that must have brought my mother much heartache, I refused to eat anything but fishfingers.

 

I used to like seeing exactly how high I could make the swing go, but in the back of my mind there was always that nagging fear that I was going to push it that little bit too far and fly over the top of the bar. But on the whole, that was the only scary thing about swings. Let's face it, they aren't the sort of things you cry yourself to sleep about at night, are they?

 

Well, as anyone who has been there will know, they do things a little differently in Rotorua, and their version of a swing is a little different to ours. It's called The Swoop and it's at a little pocket of insanity called the Agrodome, a few minutes out of town. The premise is simple: Whilst on the ground you are strapped precariously into a glorified sleeping bag. You are then winched 40ft into the air. Then you have to pull a ripcord, which sends you hurtling back towards the ground again, freefalling for a few seconds of sheer, petrifying horror.

 

Waiting at the top is awful - you’ve got this horrible feeling that you’re going to plummet to your death, but when that cord is pulled, the rush is incredible. We’re travelling at 130kmh, with a G-Force of 3, and plunging towards the ground. Just as I think we’re going to hit it, we swing back up again, and there’s another drop. After that though, it’s just the sheer glee of swinging back and forth until we’re caught by the brave bloke on the ground whose sole job it is to drag the swinging sleeping bag to a halt (oh, alright, he also makes sure we don’t die as well).

 

Suddenly that high swinging of my childhood seems pretty damned pathetic.