Even at 8am the Auckland sun was promising a day to remember – bright blue skies and already starting to have some real heat. Ange was taking me on a mystery day somewhere in Auckland and the starting point was a 8:15 rendezvous at the Ferry Building downtown.
I glanced up at the departure board to glean clues as to our destination and noted that the two ferries leaving at 8:15 were going to Devonport and West Harbour. Devonport is a sleepy suburb opposite the city centre and West Harbour serves a vast expanse of suburbia so I couldn’t figure out exactly where we were going. It wasn’t until we boarded the 8:10am ferry to Waiheke (pronounced why-heck-e) Island that I started to get an inkling of what the day would bring.
Waiheke is a vineyard encrusted jewel in the Waitemata Harbour, a 35 minutes ferry ride from Auckland City. It’s sometimes likened to the Hamptons in the US as the holiday location for Auckland’s rich, but keeps a rustic charm typical of NZ. The terrain is very hilly and the coastline squiggles around making for ample beaches and safe berths for boaties.
The ferry is pretty empty this early in the morning – mainly tourists who seem hell bent on documenting every step of the trip.
Auckland is a great combination of man-made beauty, with the view of the city from the water being quite stunning, but the inner harbour islands we pass on the way to Waiheke are truly spectacular.
The 35 minutes fly by in no time and then we’re disembarking at the port before I know it. Ange knew it wouldn’t take long for me to ferret out the surprise and grins as I see two ladies holding up boards saying EcoZip and look over at her. “Yes, its the EcoZip, followed by wine tasting” she says “plus, the tickets allow us free use of the buses, so we can have a look around afterwards too”. At NZ$264pp (~£150) it’s not a cheap day out, but its a great way of doing Waiheke Island in one day. It’s actually a hybrid of a port pickup, the EcoZip experience and then we’ll be grafted onto a tour run by the ferry company.
We’re ushered into a pair of minibuses, fill in some waivers, and then driven up some pretty narrow streets to the EcoZip facility. The views just get more and more spectacular as we get closer and our driver keeps up an interesting patter giving background and context about the area the whole time.
Before too long we’re at the top of the hill at “EcoZip HQ” which is a couple of buildings with a courtyard between them laid out with harnesses and hats all ready to go. We’re given a few minutes to use the bathroom, put our belongings in free lockers and rent GoPros if the urge takes us ($40). You get the choice of helmet mounted or selfie stick mounted GoPro – I want to appear in my videos, so I go for the selfie stick option. They also weigh us all to make sure that we’re in the acceptable weight range (30-125kg or 66-275lbs).
After a safety briefing and getting shown how to put the harnesses on, we head up to the towers overlooking the three zip lines.
What is EcoZip?
The best way of describing EcoZip is to show you the video of the second of the three zips:
You’re attached by your harness to a pulley on a wire strung up high above the native bush. When the all clear is given that the landing zone is free, you push off into nothingness and let gravity take you whizzing down to the platform. I may have mentioned that I’m not the best with heights, but this kind of adventure activity gives you all the great views of being high up without the danger. The best part of it is that you go down the zip two at a time, so you can share the ride with someone else.
Preparing to go down Zip One
“Landing” after Zip One. Myra is holding out the ropes for you to grab as you land.
After landing, Myra gets you to climb the ladder and then disconnects your harness from the wire.
After everyone in our group gets through the zip, we head off down to Zip Two (see video).
So we’re waiting our turn for the third and final zip and the procedure halts abruptly. Usually the sender hooks you up and attaches a safety wire to you so you can’t head off prematurely, and then you wait until the previous zippers are unhooked in the landing area and vacate the platform. Then the “landing person” walkie talkies the sender that the platform is clear and they send you down.
This time though, Dulcie says that the line I’m on is now closed and to start sending the zippers down one at a time from the left hand line.
When we reach the bottom we find out what’s happened – there’s a tangle in one of the ropes that can’t be reached so as a precaution they’ve temporarily paused people coming down that line – safety first! There’s a flurry of walkie talkie activity as they organise someone to come and see to the tangle.
After that little bit of excitement, we’ve finished our three zips and begin the walk back up to the HQ buildings. Up until now there’s been no need for fitness or mobility, as the walks between zips have been short and mostly down hill. But the hike back up to HQ is a little bit longer and with a lot more steps to climb. So in terms of mobility requirement, you do kind of have to be able to get around.
It’s a relief to get back to the HQ buildings, to shrug off the harness and retrieve our belongings. We don’t have time to get the files off the GoPro, so I give them my email address and they promise to get me the files via DropBox. We’re whisked away to Stonyridge Vineyard for the beginning of the Wine Tasting part of the tour.
We’re pretty much dumped off the bus and left to fend for ourselves at Stonyridge, as the driver has to go back to the wharf to meet the next ferry to collect the next batch of zippers, so we sort of wander around aimlessly before someone asks where we should be going.
It appears that the tour group that we are merging with has been delayed and so we’re waiting for them to arrive before having a mini-tour of the vineyard and then to lunch. We amuse ourselves with looking at the photos of the celebrities who have visited before us and chatting with the other tourists from the EcoZip.
The vineyard is preparing for a New Year’s party and there are rows upon rows of portaloos, a steady stream of workman preparing a stage and general hubbub associated with varied logistical movements of people and material.
Eventually the bus arrives, disgorging harried looking tourists. We find out over lunch (a good sized quiche, salad and cheese & crackers to finish) that they’d had quite the adventure getting to the vineyard – apparently they’d had mechanical problems with the bus and it had started rolling towards the water before the driver had got it under control, causing quite the consternation amongst the passengers! The delay had been caused by waiting for a replacement bus to come to the wharf from the depot.
We’re given two glasses of wine at Stonyridge with lunch, and before we know it its time to get onto the bus and head to the next stop. Unfortunately the replacement bus is a couple of seats short, so a couple of people have to stand in the aisles. Fortunately it’s not too far to the next stop.
A couple of the new tour participants mutter “I thought this was supposed to be a wine tour” as we get given a look around an olive plantation and dip little bits of bread into various olive oil concoctions. The stop is certainly listed on the tour itinerary and is in character of the tour so I think they may have just been a little negative.
It is set up a little like a commercial stop to encourage people to buy and most of the us end up outside soaking up the sun and chatting quietly amongst ourselves. It’s a good bunch of folk and conversation becomes amusingly animated when an American tourist asks one of the Kiwi tourists to explain the sport of cricket.
Casita Miro The Batch
While we were inside, our driver has managed to swap buses yet again, and we head off. We’re told that our advertised next stop Casita Miro is closed today and so we head up hill to The Batch. The last section of road is a little too steep for our bus and we end up having to reverse and then take a run up before we can actually reach The Batch. Much merriment ensues, and we get kudos from others for selecting a seat beside the emergency exit!
Inside we get three glasses of wine – a welcome rose Prosecco, a dry white which pretends to be sweet and a drinkable red. The patter from our host seems more rehearsed and confident and we end up buying a bottle of the “crowd pleaser” the dry/sweet wine.
One of the alternatives to doing the tour that Ange considered was a flight around the island, but she couldn’t quite make the transfers work – amusingly the airport is right beside this vineyard. Flight Hauraki has a $100pp (~£56) 25 minute “Waiheke Buzz Around” which apparently is a good way of seeing the island from the air. They also have a “Waiheke and Wine” trip which leaves from and returns to South Auckland’s Ardmore Aerodrome and includes wine tasting, a lunch and VIP tour of one of the vineyards for $338pp (~£192)
After our wines we join the rest of the tour and climb up the hill. There are great views from the top and there’s a decent sized restaurant onsite perfectly located to soak up the views.
Mudbrick is an iconic vineyard now with two independent restaurants on site with unparalleled views back to Auckland City and it’s a favourite spot to get married for many. It very much feels like a Tuscan villa and the “oohs” and “aahs” from the other tourists make the decision to leave this vineyard to the end to be well justified.
We get through a Sauvignon Blanc and a Rose before we elect to get back on the bus instead of trying the Syrah – our driver was adamant that we would need to leave by 5 to 4 in order to be at the wharf in time for the 4:15 ferry. With a bit of luck with the traffic we’re there in time to drop those off who want to return to Auckland. We elect to stay on and the driver kindly drops us off at Oneroa on her way back to the depot.
We head down the hill from the township of Oneroa and decide to wander around the beach and go around the rocks to Little Oneroa Beach. Its a gorgeous day but the beaches aren’t packed, reflecting that while we’re only 35minutes from town, we really are away from it all.
Little Oneroa Bay
We spend a little time lazing on the grass over looking Little Oneroa Bay and eventually we decide that it’s time to go home. We head back to Oneroa and are tempted to take the bus down to the wharf to catch the ferry, but seeing how long the line is waiting for the bus we decide to walk it. The walk itself is exposed and the NZ sun is harsh, so Ange is glad she brought her hat – be warned: the ozone layer above NZ is very thin making the UV exposure very high, even when it’s cloudy.
Fifteen minutes later we’re confronted with a line out the door at the ferry building – many tourists returning home after a day trip. Concerned about the capacity of the ferry we ask at the counter if we will even get on board. We’re assured that the ferry will take a good 600 passengers and so we’re sure to get a seat. Relieved, we eventually board the Quick Cat and head back to the city.
Would I do it again?
It was a great experience and a great way to get a brief taste of Waiheke – and yes, I’d certainly go back. I’d be tempted to try a combination EcoZip/wine/flight package: the thought of VIP treatment at the vineyard and seeing the island from the air really appeals. It’s not an option available at the moment, but who knows? Tourism is always evolving.