As you will all no doubt remember, I spent the week of December 13-20 in Auckland, trying to enjoy and explore the city while the weather systematically thwarted my efforts with mist and semi-torrential rain. Part of my reason for going to Auckland in the first place though was to meet Stephanie (the girl I’d met on the plane coming into the country) and her friend Tiffany, who’d both been completing their student teaching requirements at local area schools. The school year had just ended for the holidays, and we’d decided to spend a weekend on Waiheke, the local wine-soaked, hippie-chic island just a 30-minute ferry ride off the coast of Auckland.
The Hauraki Gulf, which includes the islands around Auckland and stretches from the city to the Coromandel Peninsula, is dotted with close to 50 islands. Volcanic Rangitoto and wine-soaked Waiheke are (deservedly) the most famous – once a hippie artist’s commune, Waiheke has since been taken over by the wealthy business elite, who grabbed the opportunity to build million dollar beach houses and start a series of now-famous wineries (there are 17 crammed onto the island’s 93 square kilometres!). It’s a NZ holiday paradise, and we were on our way to experience it for ourselves!
We boarded the Waiheke Island ferry on Saturday the 17th, and half an hour later we were stepping off the boat onto dry land again. We’d been coerced into buying day-passes for the island bus back in Auckland (Waiheke’s small, but it’s still too big to walk around!), so of course the first thing we did was drop our bags and look confused as we tried to figure out where the bus terminal was. So much for avoiding looking like tourists.
As it turned out we never ended up taking the bus that morning, because we also got coerced into taking a private van to our hostel (“For you ladies, only $2!”) after learning that our bus would not be arriving for another hour. Between the three of us, our bags, and the very sweet (and quiet) woman with an infant who’d already found her seat in the car, we were a tight company indeed! Our driver Dave was a local man who’d been touring for 15 years, and he sprinkled the trip with anecdotes on the way to drop off the woman first. It was all fine and dandy (despite the gloomy weather outside), and we were quietly watching the scenery go by until we found ourselves outside Sir Graham Henry’s holiday home:
…Yeah, that Sir Graham Henry. The All Blacks coach. As it turned out, the woman who’d been so quietly sitting next to us the whole time was staying at the Henry’s beach house on vacation. Surprise! I nearly had a tourist heart attack. My fervent prayers that Sir Henry would just happen to appear through the front door weren’t honored (ergh!), but at least I got a good story out of it!
Steph, Tiff and I settled into our very laid back hostel in Onetangi (Waiheke’s most remote town), then decided to take advantage of our bus passes and head back to Oneroa, the main village. We toured the souvenir shops a bit, then gave into our hunger and bought some fish and chips and headed down to the beach. It was cold and windy, but we were hungry and on vacation, dagnabbit! We made it work, and the views of Oneroa Beach weren’t so bad either.
We eventually headed back to the hostel and spent the evening doing lame things, but it was all in preparation for the next day, when we were hoping to rent some mountain bikes and spend a few hours exploring the abandoned gun emplacements at Stony Batter (and possibly even do some wine tasting!). Plus, after such a strenuous first day, we were in need of a nap.
The next morning we awoke to find that not only was it raining (!), but we wouldn’t be able to bike to Stony Batter like we previously thought. Instead, we would have to either walk to the opposite end of the island (a full-day trek) or rent a car, since buses only went as far as Onetangi. We made some calls to local car rental companies, then bit the bullet and rode the bus into Oneroa where we signed a lease and rented ourselves a car! (Well, technically I rented the car – and took on the $3000 insurance liability – but we all split the rental fees three ways!) Despite the terror of risking my entire bank account on a car, it turned out to be a great experience since we each ended up contributing a measly $20 (the same amount it would have cost to rent bikes for a day!). A fast, warm, dry, music-playing automobile for the same price as a mountain bike – not such a bad deal!
The Stony Batter gun emplacements on Waiheke’s barren east coast date back to World War II, when they were built as part of a defensive “counter-bombardment battery system” along the Hauraki Gulf. While they’re both historically significant and slightly creepy, the coolest feature about the emplacements at Stony Batter are the series of tunnels dug into the countryside which you can explore for an hour or two for only cost of a torch (flashlight). They were just as cool and creepy as I expected them to be!
When you enter the tunnels, all light ceases save for whatever your torch produces (hope you brought a good one!). Your voice echoes, the air is cold, the walls drip water, and you find yourself slowly descending into the hillside in a series of confusing and graffiti-covered concrete tunnels. Small red and yellow arrows spray-painted on the walls are supposed to guide your way, and every once in a while a plaque is posted on the wall explaining the historical significance of such-and-such room or piece of equipment, but let’s face it – isn’t part of the point to get freaked out and lost underground for a little while? (If it’s too much, you can always climb out of the tunnels on a ladder and hang around the gun pits for a while!)
We even took a video for you!
The best part about Stony Batter though, despite its deliciously creepy vibes, was the countryside around it. The rainy, cold weather outside clothed the hills in mist, and the views from outside the walls and atop the gun turrets seemed to be perfectly fitted to the memory of war that lived inside them.
Eventually we made our way out of the ground and into the sunlight again, and after taking Stephanie back to the ferry so she could meet a family friend in Auckland for the evening, Tiff and I made our way to Omiha (Rocky Bay) to see if we could find a winery that was still open. (We couldn’t leave the island renowned for its wine without at least sampling some!) Eventually we found ourselves at Te Whau Vineyard, sampling their award-winning red blends from 2006, 2007, and 2008, and talking to the owner about the soil on the island, the history of the winery, and why he got into wine-making (“Because you never stop learning”). The view was stunning, even despite the clouds:
Afterwards we took advantage of the last bit of sunlight (and a break in the rain!) and took a long walk along Onetangi beach before heading up the hill to the hostel. The beach was covered in shells, the pohutukawas were blooming, and people were just headed home for the day – I could imagine how beautiful it must be on a sunny afternoon. We even found a “genuine” Onetangi sea snake along the way!
The torrential rain lulled us to sleep that night (after a quick trip into town to pick up Stephanie again), and the next morning we returned our car and headed back into the city to go our separate ways – they to Rotorua, and I to the Coromandel. We didn’t exactly get our weekend on the beach, but it was a wonderful one nonetheless!