February 19, 2020
Avoiding the crowds: The best time to visit Waiheke
Not so long ago Lonely Planet, the doyen of all travel guides, styled Waiheke Island ‘the playground of the Gods’. The beautiful beaches, idyllic olive groves, the sprawling hillsides patinaed with well-ordered rows of grapes and pastoral vineyards shimmering under a gentle heat haze kindled by the island’s now famous microclimate, inspired the guide’s authors to great heights of arcadian literature.
Yet, if you credit everything in the media, you might be forgiven for thinking that for much of the year Waiheke Island is so awash with visitors that were it not firmly anchored to the seabed, like the mythical Delos, birthplace of the Gods Artemis and Apollo, it might capsize and despatch its inhabitants, mortal or otherwise, in to the arms of Poseidon.
For about two weeks of the year the island is indeed bustling with visitors. Well-heeled Aucklanders have long viewed Waiheke as the ideal spot for their second home and it’s now said that as many as 40-percent of the island’s properties are holiday homes, or baches as they’re known in this part of the world. Christmas time witnesses an influx of bach-owners who bring vibrancy, and much needed commerce, to the island. It’s claimed, though no one seems to know where the numbers come from or, indeed, if they’re even vaguely true, that during the two and half weeks immediately following Christmas the island’s population explodes from its customary 9,000 inhabitants to nearly 30,000. There’s no doubt that it’s busy, both with holidaymakers and the friends and relatives of islanders, many of whom make an annual pilgrimage to the island at Christmas.
Traditionally it’s from the second weekend in January that this human tide starts to ebb, as those who only managed a fortnight for their summer break disconsolately leave the island for a return to work. From then until the final bank holiday of the summer, when Aucklanders celebrate the city’s anniversary weekend, the island becomes progressively quieter. By the end of January many of the baches are closed up; some will reopen briefly at Easter, but many will stay padlocked until next Christmas.
But the benefits of the season are now in inverse proportion to the visitor numbers.
Where in early spring rain and sudden, unseasonal, southerly chills are not uncommon, by mid-January the weather has settled down. Long, fine periods of tranquil weather, with cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid 20’s make for balmy summer days. By late-January the sea temperature will reach its zenith and sit comfortably in the early 20’s, where it will stay until April. The golden sand beaches of Oneroa, Palm Beach and Onetangi which, between Christmas and New Year, rang with the animated shouts and laughter of families swimming and playing beach cricket become quiet. Now it’s possible to lay down a blanket in the cooling shade of a pohutukawa tree and, save for wandering up to one of the beachside cafes to order a refreshing drink, have no need to engage with humanity should you so choose. And this is no flash-in-the-pan, the island’s ‘beach days’ can easily persist into late May or even early June.
Take to some of the island’s beautiful coastal walking tracks and you’re unlikely to encounter other walkers, though you’ll be assured of a cheery, passing hullo if you do. Restaurants and vineyards which buzzed at Christmas are less harried; it’s easier to find a table now and a leisurely, Mediterranean pace has started to permeate the island’s hostelries. The food, service and wine are still excellent, of course, but the unhurried, languorous, cadence of high summer is now perceptible. The island’s pace has slowed palpably. Where between Christmas and New Year tables needed to be smartly turned-over, now that table is yours for the afternoon if you want it.
With all of this fun comes to the island. Summer is the time of the beach races at Onetangi or the biannual sculpture festival. Plus, there’s myriad other events, largely related to food, wine, music and the arts, that pepper the summer and autumn calendar with interest, colour and vibrancy.
For day-trippers from Auckland there’s a bonus as ferry ticket prices decrease; though if you buy from EcoZip we sell ferry tickets at the low-season price all year round. Visitors planning a night or two on the island benefit too as accommodation prices tend to fall once the Christmas rush is over.
As February arrives, the island’s vineyards are cloaked in nets to prevent the birds from feasting on the grapes, now swelling under the summer sun, and that will be picked in early autumn. For the island’s more spiritual wine makers now is the time to start offering up prayers to Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest and wine-making – a little rain is needed, but not too much. Fortunately, the island’s weather tends to consistency at this time of year, that or Dionysus is happy to answer the prayers of the faithful, as is evidenced by the successive outstanding vintages of recent years.
So if Waiheke is the playground of the Gods, the late summer and autumn is their basilica, and you’re assured there’s plenty of room for everyone. And with all that wine around, it would be a crime not to toast your good fortune to have arrived at such a perfect time of the year.