Standing on the city docks in Auckland, I’m here with four U.S. and Canada meeting planners preparing to transfer to Waiheke Island, locally referred to as “The Martha’s Vineyard of New Zealand.” Originally I had thought a nice, well-proportioned sailboat would be a great way to cross the Hauraki Gulf, something with generous Ivy League lines and weathered teak decks. But that’s not going to happen because Tourism New Zealand has other plans. This trip is designed to showcase the city for corporate executives, and there’s no better way to showcase a city than with a 105-foot luxury superyacht.
The gleaming white, 4-stateroom Pacific Mermaid has hosted Sir Sean Connery, England’s PM Gordon Brown and the Royal Family of Bahrain. I’m a little overwhelmed at the super-wattage wealth factor for five people and hosts. For 45 minutes. Walking up the gangplank to board a blinged-out boat that rents for over $2,000/hour is rather cool. This is my first sail aboard a superyacht and we’re dutifully welcomed with champagne, Stilton blue cheese and smoked salmon canapés with a zingy lemon dill and itty bitty chile bits.
We chat around the baby grand piano sipping bubbly while the diesels rumble to life and make way out of the harbor. For the short ride across the Gulf, we take in the sun on the upper decks with the fresh spring breeze blowing lightly off the South Pacific. This is one of those moments when you get a glimpse of life among the one percenters. It’s a pretty life and I’m appreciative, but I clearly need to visit a Paul Smith men’s section before my next superyacht passage. I mean, there are rules.
Pacific Mermaid can host up to 80 passengers and the totally over-the-top voyage has everyone feeling pretty content. When you work out the per person rate for a full boat, this is really something any planner should consider for their international VIPs.
Waiheke Island is about 100 square miles with a number of postcard beach coves scalloped into the leafy, low mountain coastline. It’s both the weekend retreat for New Zealand’s upper crusts and full time home for eclectic middle age men and women who spend a lot of time in modern art galleries and herb gardens.
Steve Robinson is one of the latter, approaching 50 in shorts and flip flops with an easy smile and genuine way about him. A tour guide with Ananda Tours, he picks us up at the dock for an abbreviated version of “The Premium Waiheke Wine & Food Experience.” Waiheke has over 30 wineries, but first Steve provides a little background info about the island. He says it’s the last permanently inhabited real estate in the world, outside of the poles, due to the geographic location.
“We have less than 1,000 years of human history on Waiheke, which is understandable since we’re pretty much hanging off the bottom of the map,” he laughs. “Whaling and sealing were really the first industries. Then the British came for our kauri trees. They’re free of knots and some of the strongest trees in the world, so they were especially good for wooden masts on boats.”
Our first stop is the Rangihoua Estate olive oil farm that plays host to the annual Waiheke Olive Oil & Artisan Food Festival every November. The owners also use the oil to make a wide array of organic spa products, which seemed fairly impressive to a few of the women in our group. Rangihoua offers tours of the facility and tastings of its six or so varietals of award-winning oil, and it’s worth a stop just to take in the bucolic setting at the base of the valley lined with olive oil trees.
Steve asks me, “Did you know a sip of olive oil before bed prevents snoring?” I tell him I did not know that.
The 250 year-old Tuscan stone wheels at the front gate are a nice touch, once used to crush the olive fruit into oil.
“We have a similar climate to Bordeaux, hence the cabaret and merlot grapes do well in Waiheke,” says Steve. He knows his wine, and it’s always fun to hang out with people who say words like “hence.” He likes “whilst” too.
We’re at the strikingly handsome Cable Bay Vineyards for a tour and tasting. The natural setting is staggering on a wide grassy bluff overlooking the Gulf, with contemporary sleek metal art sculptures lining one side of the grand lawn. The modernist architecture is low and flat with lots of glass, wood and concrete, which I’ll come to learn is common in New Zealand. The Kiwis were building this way for decades before the California Case Study Houses phenomenon.
And the wine is through the roof.
Typically, I’m drawn more to whites during the mid-day in warm climes by the sea, so I opt for the chardonnay. I’ve never tasted a chard like this with such a light demeanor bursting with flavor and character.
“I’m not a wine guy,” I tell Steve, “but this seems quite different from chardonnay back home.”
“A lot of people here got put off because of too much oak, so these are a lot more fruit driven,” he explains. “I’m a big believer in the restrained use of new oak.”
Steve’s a wine guy.
Lunch during a New Zealand spring at Mudbrick Vineyard is one of those lifetime events you compare with other memorable daytime meals at places like Beau Rivage in Lausanne on Lake Geneva, or brunch at Stein Erikson Lodge in Park City. The photo below is some of our group on the terrace, which is also somewhat of a marriage factory in these parts. Lunch takes place just to the right past the French doors in a private loft with a huge open window on the other end. Helps with the breeze.
Here’s the menu: Seared king scallops with oxtail, kumara and beef jus; Eastherbrook Farm duck breast with passionfruit salsa and parma ham; Waiheke snapper in a shellfish reduction; and black angus pure eye fillet with béarnaise and garlic smoked shallots.
The whole farm-to-fork concept is about as old as the kauri trees in Waiheke, and the freshness in both the food and the air pervades the entire spirit of the lunch.
Mudbrick is a bit of a fairytale story. The land was purchased in 1992 by a married couple in their late 20s, Robyn and Nicholas Jones. They planted the vineyard themselves and built the cafe and barn/house/winery. Kiwis think if you can get three uses out of one building, then “good on ya,” as they say. The buildings are constructed out of mud bricks that keep the temperature indoors consistent to within a few degrees, which helps with the wine storage.
Robyn eventually had a couple kids. Nicholas no longer works as an accountant full time. You can immediately see the love, passion and commitment they have for their stead, with big sunflowers gracing the pathway up to the cafe. Could have easily spent a long weekend here remembering how to breathe deeply again. But the superyacht is waiting and at $2,000 per hour, there’s no time for a second helping of garden fresh raspberry tarts.
To book a New Zealand program, contact Celeste Jones, director of incentives, at IDNZ Destination Management.