If you’re going to be in Auckland, there seems to be little reason to leave the confines of the city. There is just so much to see and do (and eat!). But, if there’s one thing that entices you to venture away from the city, it will most likely be the fact that Auckland is perfectly positioned for some island exploring.
We knew that we wanted to do an island day trip but our first obstacle came when we had to decide which island we would go to. There’s Tiritiri Matangi for its nature and birdlife, the Great Barrier Island for adventure opportunities, or Kawau Island for the history (and there are more to choose from too).
In the end, the combination of the variety of things to do there, as well as the short ferry crossing, led us to pick Waiheke Island. And, while most people opt to go to the island on an organised bus day tour, we decided to discover the island from the seat of a bicycle – and I’m so glad that we did.
After the day we spent on Waiheke, I’m convinced that this is the best way to see the island. In this post, I’ll be sharing the highlights of our self-guided tour of Waiheke Island, as well as all of the practical information so that you can have your own cycling adventure too.
Getting to Waiheke Island
Before you hop on a bike, how do you get to Waiheke Island?
If you’re in Auckland, it couldn’t be easier. The best way to get to Waiheke Island is by water. Depending on how much money you’d like to spend, as well as how quickly you’d like to get there, you have a few different options.
Both Fullers and SeaLink offer this ferry crossing. In the end, we sailed with Fullers, as it has more daily crossings on its timetable and has a shorter ferry time of 40 minutes. We departed from the Wynyard Quarter quays in the early morning and, within the hour, we had made the approach to the pier at Waiheke’s Matiatia Wharf.
If a water crossing doesn’t suit and you really want to splash out, you could always choose to arrive by helicopter…
Once on Waiheke, there are local buses (usually timed with ferry arrivals/departures) that whisk you off to different parts of the island.
Choosing the best bicycle
We have been on plenty of bus day tours in our time, but we knew that we wanted to explore Waiheke Island differently. The very best thing about a self-guided cycle tour is this: we had absolute freedom when it came to deciding where we wanted to go and how much time we were going to spend there. I find that bus tours can be a little rushed at times so while a cycling tour might mean that you’ll be covering less ground overall, it also means that you’ll really be getting to know the destination while exploring at a slower pace. To seal the deal further, there is the additional bonus of cycling being far more environmentally friendly than cars or buses.
Having made up our minds, then came the important matter of deciding what sort of bicycle we’d need for our day tour. Trying to get out of doing any tough cycling myself, I immediately suggested that a tandem bike would be the best option, but, after hearing about eCyclesNZ, we knew that we had found a better fit.
The one thing you need to know about Waiheke Island is that it’s hilly. Really hilly, often with long, steep ascents and quick drops. While I love running and hiking, I’m not the strongest cyclist. So, when we heard that eCyclesNZ had e-Velos, I knew that Waiheke Island’s hills wouldn’t be a problem.
If you’re not familiar with e-Velos, these are electrically assisted bicycles that allow you to set how much help the bike will give you on your cycle. You can adjust this as you go, although keep in mind that the battery may die if you keep the highest assist function on all day!
Located in Oneroa, you can find eCyclesNZ on the main drag. The thing we loved most about the eCyclesNZ shop was how relaxed the staff were. They even assured us that we could return the bikes after their closing time, so that we could get full use of our day trip. And, to make navigation easier, they’ll also give you a laminated map (just in case it rains) of the island, pinpointing all of the major Waiheke sights.
– THINGS TO DO ON WAIHEKE ISLAND –
I’m not going to pretend that we stumbled upon a hidden gem with Waiheke; the island is well-established on the tourist trail, earning spots on Lonely Planet and Conde Nast lists of top destinations to visit. And it’s not just popular with tourists, as there are plenty of holiday homes and cottages that fill up as soon as warmer weather makes an appearance. It’s not difficult to see why Waiheke has earned this status. Even after just a day there, we could see that the island seems to have a little bit of everything: stunning coastline and beaches, excellent restaurants and cafes, an array of wineries and a large amount of adventurous activities too.
While there are set self-guided cycle tours you could take, usually designed around interests (wine lovers, nature enthusiasts etc), we decided to wing it on our own, simply because we wanted to see spots that showed off Waiheke’s variety of offerings.
So, once we had taken our e-Velos for a lap around the block (be warned – the e-Velo boost is something you need to get used to!), we were all set for our whirlwind tour around Waiheke.
Before you go – Grab a coffee from Doubleshot
Ok, before you start pedalling madly into the distance, if you’re like me and can’t really function before that morning coffee, Oneroa’s Doubleshot Espresso is here to save the day.
The little cafe, with its colourful exterior and bar-style setup, is popular, so you may have to wait a short while to get your drink. It’s worth it, though, as the coffee is good and strong, plus you could always match it up with a pastry. Chris couldn’t resist buying a pie – pork and kumara (that’s what sweet potato is called in New Zealand) – which he said was flawless.
As an added bonus, since it’s in the middle of Oneroa’s main street, it’s an ideal place to do some people watching as the locals go about their island life on Waiheke.
Since eCyclesNZ is located in Oneroa, this was the very first place we explored. On the northern side of the island, Oneroa has the main street as its centrepiece, which is lined with restaurants, cafes, clothing stores and tour operators. Even though it may be considered to be the main town on Waiheke, it can be a sleepy place depending on the time of year you plan to visit. Since we were there just before Spring, a lot of the shops were still in ‘hibernation’ but this peace and quiet was what I loved most about Oneroa.
Ducks and their babies owned the pavements, while the grocery stores, still fronted by hand-painted signage, received the most foot traffic. We may have only been an hour away from Auckland, but this was a complete contrast to busy city life. As someone who’s lived in London for four years, the slower-paced island life felt alien to me, but I’m beginning to understand the appeal of such a place.
Cycling down to the beach, we felt like we had it all to ourselves, apart from the few dog walkers in the distance. It may have been a bit too cold to go for a swim, but this strand is beautiful and I can imagine that it gets much busier in the summer months.
Oneroa is a great place to start your tour (and get used to the e-Velos), as it’s well connected to the other main thoroughfares of the island. Once we had figured out the map, we chose the correct direction and pedalled off to our next destination.
Get lost in Whakanewha Regional Park
If you’re a fellow hiking enthusiast, Whakanewha Regional Park is a must on your cycling itinerary. We cycled there at a leisurely pace in about 40 minutes, leaving our bikes at the Sculpture Park entrance. Since there are low theft levels on Waiheke Island, we left our bikes unlocked as per eCyclesNZ’s instructions, and set off on our walk.
There are a number of trails to choose from, but we opted for the 4km Nikau Track, which would lead us through native forest to the Cascades. Since Auckland was our first stop in New Zealand, this was our introduction to the country’s flora and fauna. Just a few hundred metres into the walk, the landscape became one of thick forest, with towering nikau palms and trees with exotic-sounding names like kohekohe and kanuka. Whakanewha can be translated as ‘to shade one’s eyes from the setting sun’ and, as we couldn’t often see the sky through the thick foliage around us, it felt like we were in another world entirely.
The trail is relatively easy, although you do have to negotiate some steps when you get to the Cascades. The latter are beautiful, with mini waterfalls making their way past moss-covered boulders. Waiheke’s name refers to trickling water, and this is where you can see one such water feature that might have given the island its name.
The Nikau track is a loop, but we managed to get ourselves lost (tip: keep an eye on the signs – we didn’t!) and found ourselves on the Tarata track instead. With its views over the treetops, it was impossible to feel too upset about the unplanned detour, but it did mean that we had a fairly long walk back to the bicycles!
Visit the vineyards
Waiheke has earned the nickname of ‘the island of wine’ and with its collection of 20+ wine estates – a large number for an island – it would be a shame to skip out on this part of the island’s offerings. Plus, I’m a wine fiend, so there was no way that this would be omitted from my itinerary!
Although the majority of the wineries on Waiheke Island focus on Bordeaux-style grapes, you can also find wines using Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc varieties. We ended up visiting three different estates in total, with our first stop at Goldie Wines. It took us 30 minutes to cycle there from Whakanewha, and, from the first spotting of the estate’s long drive and neat rows of vines, I thought that Goldie Wines was a stunning spot.
The sun had made an appearance so we took a seat at one of the outdoor benches, opting for wine tasting that allowed us to sample five different wines and, since we were rather hungry at this point, we ordered a Ploughman’s Platter to accompany our drinks. This combination was delicious, with the cold meats, dips and cheeses contrasting nicely with the different wine varieties. My favourite wine, predictably, was the Rose, as it was a refreshing partner to the sunshine we had luckily stumbled upon.
Even if you’re a little wary of drinking and cycling, visit Waiheke’s vineyards anyway. All of them appear to occupy some of the most photogenic spots on the island. We didn’t do any more tastings that day, but we ventured on to two other estates. Mudbrick, with its perfect manicured gardens, was just about to host a wedding when we stopped by. Cable Bay Vineyard holds a position overlooking the sea, so do yourself a favour and wander around its winery buildings for the best view. No matter which vineyard you choose, I have a strong suspicion that each one will be as unique as the three different ones we visited on our day trip.
Take in the coast and roadside scenery
I loved the official stops on our cycling adventure but – and I admit this as someone who doesn’t get to jump on a bicycle very often – the best part of our day was the cycling itself. Not only did we feel like we had much more freedom when it came to where we could go and when, but every spin of the wheels brought us into to contact with ever-changing scenery.
We followed coastal tracks, sometimes sharing the same narrow lanes with cars, which brought us to secluded beaches where, apart from a few small boats on the sand, it seemed like we had been the very first people to discover them. But the natural beauty doesn’t simply extend to these beach locations. While Waiheke is already known for its good food, wine and adventure opportunities, I wasn’t prepared for how pretty this island is. When we weren’t scaling hills only to be confronted with leafy landscapes, we were cycling down roads lined with water and fishing boats.
There are plenty of ways to see the island, but, biased as I may be, I can’t help but feel that cycling is the best way to experience Waiheke’s scenery. With the often salty air rushing past us as we cycled along, I remember wishing that we could stop and take a photo of literally every single thing that we saw.
Reward yourself with dinner at Cafe Fenice
As the light started to fade, we made our way back to Oneroa. Even though the shop was closed, at our morning briefing we were told to just leave the bikes and helmets outside. We said goodbye to our trusty steeds, and looked for a solution to the huge appetites we had managed to work up.
We had read really positive reviews of Cafe Fenice, so we made our way over to this restaurant, which is located on Oneroa’s main street. Celebrating all things Italian, Cafe Fenice offers Mediterranean staples like pizzas and pastas as well as an impressive list of Waiheke Island’s wines. If you were worried about drinking and cycling, this is a good place to try out any wines you may have missed on your winery explorations.
Chris and I settled on some Chardonnay and the Salsiccia Di Maiale pizza. The latter was topped with pork sausage, speck, mozzarella, basil and pecorino – and it was honestly the best pizza either of us had in a long, long time. Do yourself a favour and also order the duck fat potato chips – all other fries will seem mediocre when compared with Cafe Fenice’s version. Dinner here is also convenient, since the cafe is a short walk from the bus stop, where you can catch a ride back to the ferry terminal.
Even though our day on Waiheke Island was right at the start of this big trip of ours, it remains one of my highlights. I never thought of myself as a cycling enthusiast but getting to see Waiheke in this leisurely way has made me want to work in other cycling trips into my future travels. If you’re on your way to Waiheke Island, I recommend ditching the bus or car, and rather explore it all on a different set of wheels. In terms of reliability and cycling ease, I couldn’t recommend eCyclesNZ’s e-Velos enough.
Have you ever visited Waiheke Island? What’s your favourite way of exploring a day-trip destination? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: I partnered up with eCyclesNZ in return for a review but, as always, all opinions and inability to look cool in a helmet are completely my own.
If you’re keen to retrace my steps on Waiheke, check out the map below.
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