Wining and dining on Waiheke

WONDERFUL WAIHEKE: Waiheke Island is a little capsule of fine wineries, delicious dining and top class lodgings.
WONDERFUL WAIHEKE: Waiheke Island is a little capsule of fine wineries, delicious dining and top class lodgings.

Burying my nose deep in a glass of sloshing red, I suck in the rich, chocolatey aroma and conclude this place is heaven.

And I've found it just 35 minutes by boat from Auckland.

Waiheke Island is a little capsule of fine wineries, delicious dining and top class lodgings.

There's another secret too, according to Charlie, our guide who picks us up from our scenic high-speed ferry.

"Notice you're a bit warmer? We've got a whole three degrees on them," he says pointing back towards the sprawling city, 18 kilometres and seemingly a lifetime away.

"It's our little trick to make you Aussies feel a little bit more at home," Charlie says with a laugh as he bundles us into the Ananda Tours van for a day-long fling around the hilly isle.

Waiheke is no tiny speck. With an area of 92 square kilometres, it is roughly the same size as Singapore but forget 4.8 million residents.

"There's only about 7,000 of us so it's a bit like a couple knocking around in a big mansion," says Charlie, a Brit who turned up for a three-day visit six years ago and literally never left.

The flavour of the place is laid back. Residents tend to be relaxed, creative types: artisans, writers, surfers who want to make the most of the waves on the white sand beaches.

Since the late 1970s, Waihekeans have shared their lush rolling hills with boutique vineyards, and now there are more than 30 producing quality sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.

It's the Bordeaux-style reds that have really put the island on the wine map though, thanks mostly to the work of the first vintners, Kim and Jeanette Goldwater.

Goldwater Estate started in 1978 when Kim, a civil engineer-turned-fashion photographer, decided to try his hand at grapes and imported vines from France.

"The result is this," says Goldwater's Sophia Hoadley holding out a taste of the vineyard's signature "Goldie" cabernet merlot blend.

We sniff and then gulp it down, tasting plums, chocolate and black liquorice. Delicious.

For $NZ50 we snapped up a bottle of the 2004 vintage and something tells me it won't be cellared.

Next stop on our wine trail is Kennedy Point, which practises organic viticulture. Over another glass, our host Dale Weingott opened up the great trans-Tasman debate on whether the grape we're swilling should be called shiraz, as it is in Australia, or syrah as in New Zealand.

"You Aussies got it right," she says, telling us confidently that Australia named it after a famous Iranian town of that name where the grape originated.

The French used their own local synonym, syrah.

Just one stop later at Mudbrick Winery, another connoisseur was telling us that the opposite was true. The Middle East connection was wrong and Australian vintners had merely given syrah their own spelling.

But with several generous quaffs of syrah/shiraz under our belts and a nice red glow on, we no longer cared.

It was time for a late lunch. Mudbrick is famed for its top notch fare and glorious views through the views but today we're grazing at Te Whau (pronounced Te Fow) Vineyard, a classy cliff top restaurant that's bound to impress.

With floor to ceiling windows, it's hard to stop staring at the heady ocean vista but it must be done, especially when there's delectable New Zealand scallops and twice-cooked duck to suck up.

We roll out of there two hours later ready to sink into our beds at Te Whau Lodge, a luxury retreat which is, thankfully, just next door.

We're late but our hosts Gene and Liz don't care.

"Late? We don't use that word around here," says Gene in that laid back Waiheke way we're becoming accustomed to.

After a (yet another) glass of wine on their panoramic balcony, we discover we're in for yet another culinary assault on our senses.

Gene, the chef, talked us through the mouth-watering delights to follow - from island tempura oysters through to a dessert of local figs.

Listening was nearly as pleasurable as the eating experience itself.

After wine-matching (yes, more) we sunk into our glorious beds before awaking on another crisp and clear Waiheke day to repeat the whole process.

This time it's yet more wineries and a welcome exploration of Te Whau Gardens, four hectares of native bush and rainforest peppered with a treasure hunt of New Zealand sculpture.

It's private but owners Lance and Kay Peterson think it's too good to keep it to themselves and they're right.

Given its arty bent, Waiheke has several such creative spots, including the celebrated Connells Bay Sculpture Park, which was sadly only open from October to April.

By night it's time to lay our heads again and this time we're at the Boatshed, a hip hotel with a relaxed, seaside feel.

This place is pampering deluxe, with a blazing fire in your suite, Mumm champagne on ice and father-and-son-team David and Jonathan on hand to cater for your every need, first class-style.

Rupert the hotel's dog, on the other hand, is happy for you to cater to him, enthusiastically offering up his tummy for scratching.

Donald Trump's How to Get Rich is among the in-room reading. I think, cheekily, that most guests have surely already succeeded, as it's certainly not cheap.

However, as we return to our room with lights low, music on and handmade chocolates laid on the bed I know being spoilt occasionally is worth every cent.

It was with a heavy heart, and yes, a heavy head, that we packed our bags to head homeward and I suddenly understood Charlie's predicament.

Waiheke's intoxicating combination of food, wine, sea air and warm hospitality has won us over, and we'll be back for more.