The delicacies on the island are arguably the best in the world and this trip will prove it, writes Michael Lamb
Party buses go all the way to Passage Rock Vineyard in the far east of Waiheke. Orapiu Wharf is a few clicks away, where disappointed self-driving visitors find the gates closed to the private Orapiu Pavilion and a small pier with barely anywhere to park.
At first glance, with no village, no shops and a deluge of “no access” signs, this is the non-commercial part of Waiheke. But greed is the root of many deadly obsessions, and my enthusiasm for the sea salt goodness of Te Matuku oysters led me here, so I’m determined to start my own Waiheke Island Oyster Festival at Ground Zero Bivalve.
In no time I found the phone number of John, the farm manager at Te Matuku Bay, owned by the Fenwick family who, run by the late conservationist and businessman Sir Rob Fenwick , rebuilt the oyster farm in the 1990s.
We soon find ourselves perched on John’s side-by-side farm truck, climbing steep tracks above Te Matuku Bay. (Matuku, I will learn later, is the Maori name for the Australasian Bittern, a critically endangered heron-like coastal bird of which there are less than 1,000 left.)
The ladder of the oyster farm unfolds, rows and rows of culture frames, in slow motion in the refreshing blue waters of the bay. And this place, producer of arguably the best oysters in New Zealand (after those Bluffies), is no ordinary place. It is, remarkably, the only oyster farm in the world in a marine reserve. With this in mind, the Fenwicks are heroic stewards here, dedicated to the ecological restoration of land and sea, with their land now committed to remaining forever free from development.
Although the environmentally sensitive farm itself is not open to visitors, the Fenwicks understand that public access is an important part of keeping the project alive, so they have created a short hiking trail that anyone can cross, called the Te Matuku Walk (about 1.5 hours each way, and is part of the full Te Ara Hura Waiheke walk, a solid 100km route).
Back side by side, John fires up the engine and takes us to Jennie Fenwick’s house, where we linger to admire the expansive views of the gulf, cutting a wide arc from the Clevedon coast to the town.
With an intensive stoat and rat trapping operation in full swing, the wildlife here is returning. John says they now have a fair number of pāteke (brown teal), banded rails, dotterel and kāka. The sea also brings back its wealth: a secret spot on the farm is teeming with rare long eels and kōkopu (giant white bait).
As a visitor, you can get closer to it all by staying in pretty Whites Bay or Circular Bay across the headland – or try the new budget wine stay ‘Cabin in the Valley’. From these locations, explore the 690-hectare Te Matuku Marine Reserve by kayak, taking in views of the oyster farm. Or go bird watching, swimming, diving, snorkeling.
Turns out this end of Waiheke isn’t just for car-buying tourists – you can take the ferry straight to Orapiu from downtown Auckland. For day access, walking the trail from Orapiu to Pearl Bay is another great way to walk to the marine reserve. Or bring a bike (or e-bike) and all sorts of possibilities open up: the Sculpture Park on the corner of Connells Bay and the Poderi Crisci Winery and Restaurant in Awaawaroa.
There is also a rich history here: Orapiu was the main settlement for Maori and Pākehā at the time. Te Matuku Bay was a vital gathering place for food and landing waka for the Maori living on the coast and on the nearby mountain pā of Maunganui. As the site of Waiheke’s first European settlement, there are remnants to discover, such as the first schoolhouse and the pioneer cemetery.
We seek out the cemetery, tucked away just off the main road to Orapiu. Beneath the beautiful dappled light, filtering through the tall trees, rest the first European residents of this region. It’s atmospheric and beautiful, and you can’t help but wonder what life was like for these people back when this end of Waiheke was considered the gateway to the island.
We would like to linger but the oyster route has only just begun, and we have shellfish to pursue. We stop by Passage Rock but owner David says they prefer to serve their bay friends’ little wonders at their best in the winter, so after a few glasses of house pinot gris we return to dinner at the legendary Oyster Inn in Oneroa.
Here Josh Emmett has taken the reins and when we walk in he’s not working on a complicated sauce or flaming steaks. No, the man himself is masked and happily shucking Te Matuku oysters.
We order a dozen, which arrive on a bed of chipped ice, and we laugh at them like starving convicts, enjoying the dreamy nighttime view of Oneroa Bay. The Oyster Inn is a mandatory stop on any Waiheke oyster itinerary. The service is excellent and the oysters are perfect, served with a simple but relevant vinaigrette made with chardonnay vinegar. Oh, and insist on a balcony table.
The next day, we continue the quest for oysters with lunch at the Spanish-inspired Casita Miro (or “Miro’s little house”), above Onetangi.
Here you can order your oysters in singles, served with finely diced shallots and the wonderful Ximenez Spinola sherry vinegar. Happiness.
Island chef Anthony McNamara, who organizes catered events, is another true believer: “[The oysters] grown in the waters of Te Matuku Bay are some of the best in the world and that’s because of the terroir of the water in which they grow. »
Now, if you just want a big oyster feasting session in your Waiheke accommodation, without all the restaurant fuss, head to the Te Matuku seafood market in Ostend, where oysters are available unshelled, in half-shell, in oyster flesh and even frozen. Tip: if you want them fresh, get there early (before 11am) or the day’s supply might run out.
We plan to visit the Ki Māha restaurant on Onetangi beach, which offers tantalizing freshly shucked local oysters accompanied by a champagne reseda, or beaten with a watercress mayonnaise… but our time is short and our wallets are empty.
Oneroa and Onetangi, Palm Beach and Ostend, and of course all the scattered vineyards: these are the major assets of a stay in Waiheke. But there’s another kind of holiday in Waiheke if you want to dig a little deeper…a DIY Oyster Festival with a historical edge.
And it’s an adventure worth starting away from the maddening crowds, all the way to the other end of the island.
For more things to see and do on Waiheke Island, go to aucklandnz.com
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