The two worlds of Waiheke, New Zealand’s paradise island

Sipping a succulent syrah inside of the beachfront tasting room at Man O’ War winery, a quick glance of the room is all it takes to confirm I’m out of my element.

To my left, a middle-aged man sporting crocodile shoes and hair of a dubious authenticity casually flashes a credit card for $500 of the vineyard’s finest vintage. To my right, a suntanned yachtie with a bushy white mustache gesticulates to an acquaintance about the strength of the new varnish recently applied to his helm station.

Then, sandwiched between the two socialites, is me, a wandering travel writer who temporarily lives in a van which was shipped to the island on a 45-minute ferry. Meekly performing a free wine tasting just trying to learn a little about Waiheke wines, the contrast is pretty black and white.

Luckily for all parties involved, however, Waiheke Island is more multi-dimensional than simply being a playground for the uber-rich. Sure, there are expensive rave-parties at vineyards, hidden beachfront mansions, and trendy, high-priced boutiques lining the island’s main thoroughfare, but there is an entire other side to Waiheke which can’t be invested in, can’t be corrupted, and definitely can’t be bought.

I am here to explore that side of Waiheke.”It’s paradise island!” claims my friend Barlow, a couldn’t-be-happier Waiheke Island resident.

“It’s like living in the 1970′s! Come stay for a year!”

A recent transplant to the island from Australia, Barlow is one of the few workers swimming upstream against the river of Kiwis “jumping the ditch” to Australia for a share of the booming mining business, an industry where average salaries hover around $124,000 U.S. dollars per year. Don’t believe me? Check out this chart.

Barlow, however, wants no part if it. Instead, he’s enamored with the antiquity of Waiheke and the pervasive sense of island calm. There are no malls on Waiheke, and there are no freeways. With a population of only 8,000 residents, Waiheke is the third most populated island in New Zealand, yet still retains a small town feel. He instructs me to park my van on the grass just off the side of the road.

“You can leave it there for a month” he claims. “And no need to lock it.”

Later in the afternoon we take a hike along a coastal trail accessible only at low-tide. Although the island is only 36 square miles and crawling in private boats over from Auckland, there are still a surprising amount of hidden coves with nary a person on them.

Confirming the notion there are still places to escape the “see-and-be-seen” areas of Waiheke, the first person we encounter on the two mile amble along the coast is a woman opting to sunbathe in the total nude. A turquoise t-shirt placed ever so delicately over her face, we decide to scamper further down the trail and allow her to erase her tan lines in peace.

Meandering around a few more empty points, we find a lone fisherman seated calmly on a rocky outcropping, a faded straw hat protecting his sun-shriveled neck. Though I notice no fishtails poking out of his white plastic bucket, he exudes the feeling he hasn’t a care in the world.

“Nice spot for fishing you’ve found out here” I acknowledge upon approach.

“Ah, the fish are just a bonus mate. I come out here to find myself. Have some time for my thoughts. Might dive for some kina when the tide backs out a bit.”

A local seafood delicacy, kina is a a type of sea urchin endemic to New Zealand waters where the bitter tasting roe can reach prices of $25/pound. Climbing a densely forested pathway away from the pensive fisherman, I reason that kina can, in a way, speak to the dichotomy of Waiheke. Some people on Waiheke prefer to buy their kina; others would rather dive for their own.

Treating myself to a glass of Te Whau syrah at the end of the hike, followed by a pint of Onetangi dark ale from Waiheke Island Brewery (what? I’m on vacation), I eventually find myself wandering Oneroa Beach beneath a sky painted pink by the setting Kiwi sun.

There on the beach is when it hits me.

This, I realize, does not cost any money. This soft white sand beneath my feet, the smell of salt wafting off the tranquil Hauraki Gulf, the easygoing atmosphere of the locals strolling the beach alongside me, this is all part of the Waiheke charm that doesn’t have a price tag dangling off the end.

So although Waiheke Island may boast a glitzy reputation, travelers to New Zealand should remember that Waiheke is still just an island, and as is often the case, the best parts of island life always comes free.