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

You can get New Zealand included as a stopover on a Globehopper RTW or a Navigator RTW or on our New Zealand via Australia deal here



North Island



David Whitley survives where Steve Irwin perished, feeding stingrays from the beach on New Zealand’s East Cape.

There’s something of an aquatic scrum going on in front of us. The plucky cormorant is on his own, but is diving between the increasingly aggressive kingfish with impressive bravado. It’s rather like a hyperactive child running between the legs of annoyed adults at the drunken stage of a wedding reception. In the midst of all this mayhem, the real big boys of the bay are attempting to glide serenely around the trouble, and enjoy their meal in peace. It’s these stingrays that we’re supposed to be feeding, but the ongoing feast has attracted interlopers. And they’re far more aggressive about going for the bait than the placid rays.

The chaps at Dive Tatapouri on New Zealand’s East Cape are keen to restore the formerly good reputation of the short-tailed stingray. Since the tragic death of Steve Irwin as a result of a toxic barb through the heart, these largely harmless beasts have developed an unwarranted reputation as killers. “They’re incredibly good-natured,” says Dean Savage. “It’s extremely rare for them to be aggressive, and they’re absolutely fine around us.”

Dean started out by offering dive trips and fishing charters from his scenic little pad on the Pacific Coast Highway, but the stingrays have quickly become the most popular draw card. The human-ray interaction at Tatapouri started by accident. At one stage, a crayfish depot sat just off the beach, and the used bait and scraps were left at the water’s edge. For the stringrays, this meant easy pickings. From there, says Dean, it was relatively easy to move them on to hand-feeding.

And that’s what a line of 15 visitors kitted out with deeply unflattering waders and bamboo staffs has signed up for. The waders are to stop us from getting wet as we stand in the shallows, while the staffs are partly to help us walk out there. Mainly, though, they’re to stop the stingrays from sneaking round behind us.

Dean asks the group to stand close together with the staffs evenly space in front of us. This theoretically stops the rays from having contact with the waders, but all it takes is a small deviation from the military formation for them to start nuzzling at your shins like an over-affectionate Labrador. The rays are probably more interested in what’s in Dean’s bucket than what’s in our waders, however. Big chunks of barracuda are on today’s menu, and Dean hands me a piece.

“Hold it out flat, as low as you can in the water,” he says. “And then just let the ray swim over it.” Despite a couple of smaller eagle rays being rather keen, the 200 kilo short tail wins out. I rest my hand on the rock, just below the water’s surface, and it glides over my fingers. Soon afterwards, my hand is engulfed, and the chunk of barracuda is sucked up. It’s somewhere between a vacuum cleaner taking in a ball of fluff and a UFO beaming up an unsuspecting earthling.

The ray stays long enough for me to give it a stroke. The skin is unbelievably soft – the texture feels like velvet. “Pretty loveable, aren’t they?” says Dean as he hands over another chunk of barracuda. He also attaches a piece to the end of his bamboo staff, and the ray follows it around as the lure is slowly dragged through the water. Whilst leading the ray on a wild goose chase, he asks us to look at the tail. “The barb is about one third of the way up,” he explains. “It’s razor sharp and full of toxins, but unless it gets you through the heart, it won’t kill you.” He explains that pouring hot water on the site of impact is the best way to draw out the sting, but that this should never be necessary. “As long as you don’t try jumping on top of the ray, it’ll see no need to defend itself.”

The rays aren’t allowed to get reliant on the handouts. The feeding doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes won’t happen for a few days at a time due to weather conditions. It’s thought that 40-odd live in the immediate vicinity, and regularly come in for their free meal. But most of the time they have to fend for themselves, and compete with the kingfish.

And hand-feeding the latter is an altogether less elegant experience. Instead of the hover and hoover approach, the kingfish opt for pouncing like a shark on fish, fingers, the works. It’s a ferocious gummy nip from a fish not known for its placidity.

Despite their unfortunate killer image, the rays are absolute pussy cats in comparison...


David was a guest of Tourism Eastland (Gisbornenz.com), Dive Tatapouri (Divetatapouri.com) and the Teal Motor Lodge (Teal.co.nz).



By David Whitley