When San Francisco food & travel writer Marcia Gagliardi visited New Zealand a few months back, I had the pleasure of accompanying her on a day-long excursion to Waiheke Island as she met with winemakers and restauranteurs (see: Hitting the town with Marcia Gagliardi).
It was the first time I’d spent a day at the island, even though I’d been in New Zealand for over two years and live just a thirty minute ferry ride from Waiheke. The casual, beachy environment was seductive and the winemakers & restauranteurs were charming to a fault, so my partner and I blocked out a couple of days on our schedule to return and take in the sights after the tourist season had subsided — so that maybe we could get a sense of Waiheke at a quieter, more relaxed volume.
We stayed at The Boatshed, a small boutique hotel with an airy, spacious vibe and a friendly, conversational staff. The rooms were clean and comfortable, the included breakfast was delicious and locally sourced, with fresh produce and herbs grown in the hotel’s own extensive garden, and there was the always pleasing sound of crashing waves from the pristine public beach just a short walk (and an even shorter drive) from the hotel’s front steps.
Which was a genuine concern I’d had — what if the great food and hospitality I’d experienced with Marcia were due solely to her position as a paid food & travel writer? Yet the food and service at The Oyster Inn and Cable Bay were top notch, even on a slow, off-season day.
We were particularly impressed with Cable Bay as we were the only late-lunch diners in the place, yet the service was impeccable and the kitchen performed with as much attention to craft and detail as when I’d sat at a table with the owners six weeks back.
*NOTE: Which was gratifying, since we’d just been turned away from Casita Miro twenty minutes earlier as they’d shut their doors to customers due to it being “a slow day” — which I hate (even if I can understand it). When a restaurant’s website says they’re open for lunch “from 11:30″, then I certainly don’t expect to arrive at 2pm only to have the staff shoo me back out into the rain with a shrug.
So yeah, Cable Bay won my undying admiration and respect that day. They could just as easily have used the same excuses as Casita Miro — it was a slow day, we hadn’t made a reservation, the chefs have shut down the ovens, maybe we could come back some other time, etc. — but even though we were likely the only people who showed up at the Cable Bay restaurant for lunch on that entire rainy, off-season afternoon, we were ushered to the best table, the wine flowed and the kitchen cranked out four courses of a crackin’ good meal without a bit of fuss or complaint.
In other words, they made us feel welcome and entirely at home.
The grapes are handpicked, every bit of non-grape matter (twigs, leaves, etc.) is sorted out and removed before the fruit is crushed and fermented (a surprisingly rare production step in the wine world, but one that results in a distinctive, fruit-only taste), and while the production runs are low (about 2,000 cases of wine a year, total), the high levels of skill, creativity and passion involved are evident in every bottle.
*NOTE 2: You can find Destiny Bay owner Michael Spratt’s polemic against the corporatization and commodification of the wine business in his book, “Grape-A-Hol: How Big Business is Subverting Artisan Winemaking and the Future of Fine Wine“. It’s as eye-opening as Dana Thomas’ “Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster“, and after reading it, you’ll view the mass market “fine wine” industry with a radically overhauled perspective.
It was only a couple of days that we spent winding our way through Waiheke’s narrow roads (I think we may have scraped off about half our wheel rims in the process), sitting on benches by the sand watching the waves roll in, eating and drinking incredible local wines and food — but the vibe of the island was so relaxed and soothing that it felt like we’d been there for much longer, and I seriously didn’t want to leave.
Thankfully, Waiheke is so close to Auckland that we can easily slip back anytime we want (the dishes of light, crispy calamari at The Oyster Inn are already calling my name). And we have our bottles of stunning Destiny Bay wines to keep us warm in the meantime.