Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Waiheke Wining

How to travel New Zealand on a budget tip #2: Skip the Waiheke wine tours. But-and I can't stress this enough- don't skip Waiheke and/or its wineries. Don't do that!! Really, don't. If your tastes run toward picturesque islands, chill beaches or more vineyards than you can shake a wine glass at, this is a day trip you want to take. All I'm saying is that all those wine tours that all the agencies push are totally unnecessary.

 It was my second day in New Zealand and with sleep deprivation behind me and perfect weather ahead of me, I was ready to explore but at $130+ for three wineries,  the  tours seemed a bit pricey. Staying in Auckland, which I had already covered pretty well, also seemed unappealing so I went straight to the port and started asking questions.  Turns out that for $60, you can get both a r/t trip ferry ticket for the 35 minute ride across the Gulf of Haruki and a voucher for the hop-on/ hop-off bus to get you everywhere you want to go.

The Maori name for New Zealand is Aotearoa, which means "long white cloud". Sounds about right.

This ferry/ bus combo is really all you need. The hop on/off buses all have guides on them to point out the sights and to help you plan your optimum day.  When I was asked what I wanted to see and do on the island, I responded "everything". This must be more common an answer then I imagined as the woman calmly grabbed my map, circling stops, writing notes and informing me of the opening hours of the vineyards.

Her first suggestion, the Ostend Saturday market, was a great start. A mix of farmer's markets, arts and crafts fair and general locals hang, it revealed the island to be a laid-back, multicultural, artsy place plagued by the occasional horde of day-trippers.

This being the beginning of summer and a Saturday to boot,  the island was about to be swarmed. Fortunately, I went early in the day- catching a morning ferry to coincide with the first tour bus- so I had my second stop, the postcard perfect Onetangi Beach practically to myself.

By the time, I left the beach it was almost noon. Time to get my wine on. Without a wine-tasting package, I was free to walk into any of the vineyards and just purchase a tasting flight (usually $10 for 3 glasses). I figured I might as well start with Stonyridge, which The Guardian listed as one of the top ten must-visit wineries in the world.

Beautiful vineyard: check.  Knowledgeable and friendly staff: check. Excellent wines: check.  Helicopter from Auckland landing in the middle of the grounds: sign that the day-trippers had arrived.

Meet my friends: Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and Syrah,

After a very enjoyable start, I could either hop back on the bus or walk next door to the Te Motu winery. The guide had put a star by this one and I was still kind of parched. Te Motu it was.

As the waiter poured the 4th glass of my 3 glass package, I wondered it if I was already losing the ability to do simple math. He then returned and explained that someone else had ordered a glass of their top wine but he had accidentally given it to me and that it must be my lucky day. I could not disagree with that statement.

By this point, it seemed like a good idea to get something to eat. My marked up map suggested I get back on the bus and go to the Batch winery for lunch.

Guess what you get when you order an entree at Batch? A free wine-tasting, of course.

Even three wineries in, I couldn't help but notice that something was a little strange. Out of the ten or so tables around me, at least half were bridal parties. A vineyard, even a super nice one, wouldn't be my first choice for a bachelorette party but perhaps I was just not versed in the New Zealand way. 

The mystery only deepened at my fourth winery, Mudbrick vineyards.  Set high up on a hill, with a view all the way to the Gulf, this was possibly the most scenic in a truly competitive field. It also had the highest amount of wedding activity. Every corner of the grounds had a 'private party' sign and a mingling wine-toting bride. Looking at their website, where the second drop-down menu just says "Weddings", I got curious and checked to see their availability. They are booked for every single weekend between now and June.

The place is stunning, no question, but I feel like New Zealanders must get wedding invitations and immediately start mumbling "Please, not the damn vineyard again."... only to find themselves online minutes later booking ferry tickets.

As much as I would have loved to have crashed one of these fetes just to catch the bouquet and guarantee myself a return to Waiheke, it was almost time for the last bus to the ferry terminal.  Somehow, I had caught the first bus at 9:50 and was now rushing to catch the last one at 7:00pm. How nine hours had gone by so quickly is a mystery whose answers surely lies somewhere at the bottom of a wine bottle. 

This was not only an ideal day but also a good indication early on that NZ does not have to be as expensive as it seems.

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