Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Hidden Delights of Waiheke – Yup, It’s More than Wine

Hands up if you’ve only ever been to Waiheke to drink?

Thought so.

You’re not alone my friends, so when Capsule was asked over to Auckland’s favourite island for a couple of days away from the mainland, some good food and a few of the Waiheke Walking Festival trails, we were intrigued.

Now, I like walking. I do it a lot – I’m lucky in that I live by the beach, so most days include a nice wee stroll by the seaside, my headphones glued to my ears as I take in the podcast du jour.

Never have I actively partaken in a walking festival – and certainly not one as well-known as Waiheke’s. Now in its 11th year, the festival offers more than 55 walks over 18 days, with ones that even your nana could do mixed with ones you’d genuinely need one of those stick thingies and a backpack with a water bottle hose attached to do it.

On our itinerary, the three walks we’ll be doing guided by festival organiser Vicki, have been helpfully marked with degrees of difficulty – 6/10.

“But whose 6/10?” I’m wondering on the ferry over. Doesn’t seem to be a particularly impartial or indicative scale…

Can you tell I’m not exactly the fittest soul on earth yet?

Nevertheless, we persist – and as soon as we leap off the ferry we’re into it. While our luggage is whisked off to our accommodation, the incredibly lovely Kiwi House, our sneak peek of the course begins as we set off east from Matiatia, climbing the cliffs as we snake our way around the island (and it must be said, the photo opps are choice).

Over the next couple of days, we experience all sides of Waiheke (which is surprisingly hilly, which until now, and possibly without my usual few glasses of rosé, I didn’t realise) with three walks, including the biggest (and toughest) of the three, a hike from Palm Beach through to the Northern Reserves. It’s a tough trek towards the end, with a lot of huffing and puffing from me as we clamoured up hills and through bush.

One of the coolest things about the festival, which is run by volunteers who are just genuinely jazzed about both walking and all that Waiheke has to offer those who are after both fitness and fun, is that you get to make your way through private land that you’d otherwise never get to explore, like Paul Dyson’s. He’s carved out incredible paths through his sprawling section that leads you from the beach up to the top of the island – and if you’re nice, he might even thrust some organic kale from his vegetable garden into your hands at the end.

Another highlight is getting to hear the story of a genuinely incredible spot, McKenzie Reserve. In 2003, a group of locals had a vision to turn the hazardous collection of 500 old pine trees into an educational botanic reserve for all of the community – and while it’s owned by the council, a group of volunteers remains passionate about its upkeep and history. With an incredible array of birdlife, sculpture, rest spots and native flora and fauna, it’s a must-walk spot on your tour.

Of course, all of this walking must be balanced with sustenance, kids – so we also used the opportunity to pop into some of Waiheke’s most established eateries, as well as a new kid on the block that’s making some serious waves.

A visit to Josh Emett’s The Oyster Inn is obviously a must – Josh and his wife Helen took over the iconic island eatery earlier this year and has wasted no time stamping his mark on the menu, which is bursting with fresh seafood that’s both classically Kiwi and a little out there – think fish & chips and scampi linguine, as well as octopus a la gallega and a delicious seafood bouillabaisse. (The salted caramel espresso martini was also a winner, trust me!)

We also stopped into the ever-popular Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant, where after a quick wine tasting in the cellar – we opted for the ‘Bold and Complex’ option that included a chardonnay that even I liked (it’s a tough one to convince me of a buttery chard’s worth) and an incredible reserve merlot/cabernet/pv/malbec blend that we wanted to buy an entire case of – it was a lunch worthy of a ‘gram.

A new addition to Waiheke’s foodie scene rounded out our trip. A small trek out to Onetangi is rewarded with stopping in at Ki Maha, a stunningly-designed restaurant right on the beach that offers laid-back Kiwi fare with a whole lot of elegance and refinement. If you’re going, you simply must order the scallops – they made Alice almost cry, they were that good.

A holiday away with food, fitness and a heap of fun. What’s not to like?

The Waiheke Walking Festival kicks off on November 11 – bookings are now open.

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