Natural Beauty a Stone’s Throw Away

Listening to the news of climate tragedy in Buffalo — or even remembering the weather that we just left behind a few days ago in Chicago — felt surreal, given how pleasant, sunny, and even hot it was at midsummer in Auckland. To take full advantage of Auckland’s beautiful surroundings, we headed to Waiheke Island.

View of vineyards on Waiheke Island
View of vineyards on Waiheke Island

Waiheke is the second-largest and most populated island in the Hauraki Gulf, with nearly ten thousand permanent residents and a few thousand more with holiday homes on the island — and according to one of our guides, a summer population of up to 45,000 each day. It’s New Zealand’s most densely populated island, and after the North and South Islands, the third most populous, and the only one with a secondary school.

About a quarter of the nation’s population of 5.5 million lives in and around Auckland — and it seemed like a substantial fraction had the same idea as we did. The flexibility of not having to pick a specific ferry sailing also meant that it was first-to-come, first-to-board. So our intention to board the 9 am sailing turned into what was looking like an 11 am departure — and a reminder to be present, be flexible, and enjoy the moment. As it happened, we put out at just after 10 am, and after a smooth ferry ride with some beautiful views, we pulled up to the Matiatia Bay ferry terminal at the western end of Waiheke just over 20 km from where we boarded.

To get around the island, we decided to use the Hop On, Hop Off bus. When we first arrived, were waiting to board amid a large crowd, and didn’t yet have the schedule, we weren’t so sure this was the best plan, but over the course of the day it felt preferable to having to drive and park ourselves (and definitely better than trying to make the 5 AM car ferry which was the only one with available slots when we had the idea the day before). We stopped in the main town of Oneroa for an early lunch, and I took a quick walk back to see the beautiful library and check out the eclectic collection of the Community Art Gallery.

Photo of the sculpture "Thing in Itself" by Oliver Stretton-Pow
Thing in Itself, Oliver Stretton-Pow

After lunch, the kids joined us for their first wine tasting (don’t worry, they didn’t drink anything, even with our Dutch sommelier’s story of how he joined his parents in the South of France for a day of tastings at age 14). Wild Estate is known for its variety of family-friendly activities — which also gave us some perspective on what “family-friendly” means in New Zealand, as it included archery classes (with legit compound bows), skeet shooting, and a trampoline. We didn’t partake in these, but got a little chemistry lesson (the sugar added at the end of the brewing process drives the carbonation), and Meera practiced reading the tasting notes.

Meera reading the tasting notes at Wild Estate

We continued on to Onetangi Beach, which has a long waterfront and beautiful views. The kids had a lot of fun in the surf. We then headed up to Batch Winery for the amazing views, had a beautiful short hike down to some cascades, and after a few lawn sports at Batch, headed back to the ferry, as we were pretty tired out by a full day of summer island activities. Waiheke seems like a lovely summer stop and it was well worth a day trip. Had we been in Auckland for longer, I wouldn’t have minded being there for a second day, especially to do more of the hiking paths, stop at an olive oil tasting, and check out the historic Fort Stony Batter Tunnels.

An example of Auckland's beautiful surroundings: a view of Onetangi Beach on Waiheke Island
Onetangi Beach

A couple days later, we headed out for our first real hike of the trip on the Cossey Massey Loop Trail in the Hunua Ranges Regional Park. This was a challenging hike, perhaps just due to the humidity — while I believe that this region is technically “subtropical” it was definitely summer weather — or because by the end, I wasn’t feeling great. But it was amazing to see such wilderness and beauty less than an hour’s drive from the Auckland CBD — and such a diversity of people enjoying nature and the trails, including a LOT of fellow South Asian folks.

While we’d planned to hit the Night Market in Pakuranga, it was canceled for New Year’s Eve, so Karthik found Gorkha Eastern Beach as the “#1 Indian restaurant in Auckland” per TripAdvisor. While it looked a bit questionable from the outside — especially that its second building was clearly a very slightly modified house two doors down — the food was very good, especially the soup momos that Meera loved, and the service was extremely friendly. It was a great way to ring out the year in a mellow fashion given that we’d be moving on down the road the next morning.

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