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The land of the flat white crowd

Grapes, beans and beer on wonderful Waiheke Island

by Thor Iverson

Prism sentience

Don’t talk to me about rainbows. Those partial-arc terrestrial versions are, at best, pale imitations of what I’m seeing now. I rub the crust of a long airborne snooze from my eyes and gaze, dumbfounded, out the tiny airplane window at vivid lasers of color streaking across the pre-dawn horizon. Above and below are two themes on uninterrupted grayscale, but in-between is the most wondrous display of prismatic brilliance imaginable, the pure refraction of the planet’s encircling atmosphere unhindered by the distractions and diffusions of earthbound land and sky.

I fire up the in-seat video screen and thumb the controls to channel one: the overhead map. The long, island-dotted crossing of the Pacific is, mostly, behind us, and Auckland – our destination – inches centerward. As I twist and stretch stillness-abused muscles and joints, cabin lights stutter and stagger into illumination, while roasted esters of morning coffee drift from the galleys. It’s morning, and New Zealand approaches.

[Ferry Building & NZ flag from ferry]

Flagging down a ferry
Energy crisis

Perhaps just a little bit of familiarity breeds ease, but this trans-Pacific crossing seems much less body-destroying than the last one, and we arrive at Auckland International Airport fairly refreshed and energized. That energy is tested a bit by a long wait at the other end of customs (a reminder to self: carefully clean golf shoes before flying to a country with obsessive agricultural neuroses) but returns as we step out into the sharp, sunny clarity of an early summer morning. The sky is blue, the grass green, the air clear, and after many months of endless snow, wearying cold, and dreary gray back in Boston, it’s a wake-up call to surpass all others. Our senses are alive, our anticipation peaked. The heart of our long-planned voyage is finally at hand.

A half-hour later, all our energy is gone…sapped by the deadening heat of an airport shuttle caught in a rush hour traffic jam and without compensatory air conditioning (or windows that can be opened), but with the noisy and unavoidable drone of two monitors blaring an endless litany of touristy advertainment. Only the entry into Auckland itself stirs our senses, as we point out familiar landmarks and remembered sites like old friends in a crowd. We’re deposited at the end of Queen Street just across from the glowing orange-gold of the Ferry Building, quickly cross a street that’s nearly devoid of traffic (where’d the rush hour go?), and purchase a small handful of ferry tickets. We’re headed for the sedate retreat of Waiheke Island, a half-hour ferry ride from the sailboat-and-shipping-filled waters of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and into the island-dotted expanse of the Hauraki Gulf. We’ve just missed the 9 a.m ferry – curses on traffic jams everywhere – and so, settled into uncomfortable red plastic chairs, we wait for the next…which arrives on the hour in a clanking, creaking din of metal against wood and a hissing vapor of choking exhaust.

The Gulf and its low-slung islands still glisten in bright sun, but every glance westward – back across the towered rise of Auckland and over the mainland – reveals an oncoming wall of rain. It chases us onto the ferry, pauses at the thermal barrier of the Harbor, and then rushes forward once again. It is thus that we have a clear, calm, and sunny passage – the brisk and sweet-smelling wind reviving our travel-dulled minds – but arrive at the sedate and rustic Matiatia passenger terminal on Waiheke Island just as a first few experimental drops of rain fall. The slow trickle of passengers through the cavernous and largely empty terminal is calming enough that the energy of the city already seems a distant memory. We collect a grossly expensive rental car (someone could make a lot of money offering a cheaper alternative to the island’s two rather larcenous automobile agents) and gingerly edge out of the parking lot, Theresa at the wheel and me repeating our British Empire mantra at each intersection and turn: “left…left…on the left…you’re driving on the left…left…left.”

We’re on a road to somewhere

I wouldn’t say that driving on the other side of the road is as unforgettable as the proverbial riding of a bicycle, but all subsequent times are less intimidating than the first, and the only things that keep us from confident motoring are the twisty, narrow, variably dilapidated roads and the self-conscious vagueness of the island’s signage. The unwary navigator, sans map, will struggle in vain against signs that point only towards nearby town centers and popular beaches, leaving details and diversions from such meta-cartography up to the kindness and accuracy of locals. There are similarities to the European model in that certain destinations must be reached before signs to the next will appear…though unlike Europe these signs are somewhat haphazardly placed and often difficult or impossible to read until it’s too late, necessitating the occasional U-turn. Nonetheless, for all these initial difficulties, only the most geographically obtuse will be unable to navigate the entire island by sight and feel after just a few attempts; here, the general lack of expanse in the inhabited areas of the island works in the visitor’s favor.

[Rocky Bay from Villa Pacifica]

Rocky Bay, sunny day
A villa, a Cliff & a kabob

The rain spits and threatens, but continues to hold off as we carefully pull into a narrow, flower-lined driveway. Atop a steep incline overlooking the deep turquoise of Rocky Bay and, in the distance, the metallic blue-gray glint of Auckland, the Villa Pacifica bends in clean, window-laden angles. There are two buildings, and we’re not sure which is ours, but soon a deeply-tanned gentleman in unquestioned island garb – open shirt and bare feet – strides towards us. It’s Cliff, our host, and he’s as warm and welcoming as we’ve come to expect from New Zealanders.

We’ve taken a two-bedroom adjunct to the main house, allowing the owners to stay on-site. Compact yet airy, our apartment features a modern kitchen, two quiet bedrooms (one bright and breezy, the other darker and more enclosed), and a lovely main room and patio overlooking the bay. Cliff gives us a brief lay of the land and a few local tips, then leaves us to our unpacking. But the day is advancing, and at the moment we’re more interested in a quick shower and lunch than our luggage.

Showers are quick – scarce well-water on a saltwater-surrounded island means that they pretty much have to be – but the refreshing waterflow gives us just enough energy to brave the roads once more, in search of lunch. Our villa is isolated on a surprisingly quiet and gently forested hillside next to Waiheke’s largely-unused airfield, far from what passes for commerce on the island, and so pretty much all activities will require the use of our pricey little rental car, which incurs fees by the kilometer. Well, there’s no way to avoid it, and so off we go.

Despite being well-armed with maps, Theresa testifies to the power of memory by recognizing our lunch destination’s exterior long before I identify the address. Nourish (3 Belgium St., Ostend) is a small, ultra-casual café where we had a restorative lunch with Auckland-area wine writer Sue Courtney on our previous visit to Waiheke, and the memory of the simple excellence of the food and wine is enough to bring us back. Amusingly, both times we’ve landed on New Zealand’s shores, we’ve made this the site of our first meal. There should be some sort of plaque or something.

The café, which has the feel of a village bistro done in subdued Kiwi style, is as good as we remember, though apparently under new management since our previous visit. We eschew an exterior table, as the rain is now coming in 30-second deluges interspersed with bright, warming sun…a weather pattern that will be our near-constant companion later in the trip…and order a few glasses of wine to begin our reintroduction to the culinary and vinous pleasures of this most green of lands.

Passage Rock 2002 Chardonnay “Unoaked” (Gisborne) – Melon and pear show clean and decently acidic, but there’s some deadness on the palate. A quaffing wine, no more. As little as I like overt oak, I’m increasingly convinced that completely unoaked chardonnays are – outside a few nervy examples from Chablis, the Mâcon, and Beaujolais – generally not very good. That said, they’re still better than their woody, buttery, and rather monstrous brethren.

[another view from Villa Pacifica]

Not exactly overdeveloped
Passage Rock 2002 “Sisters” (Waiheke Island) – A blend of the cabernets, merlot, and malbec, but frankly it shows as if there’s a heavy dose of syrah in the blend (there’s not). In any case, it’s slightly gobby at the moment, with thick, dark blackberry, boysenberry, and plum dressed with vanilla and richly spiced oak. While this clearly needs time, it’s not entirely promising and may be too weighty for its own good.

Goldwater 2001 Cabernet/Merlot Wood’s Hill (Waiheke Island) – Despite almost overwhelming kindness from the Goldwaters on a previous visit to their winery, the more wines that I taste, the less I like this estate. They’ve got an unquestioned local history and the respect that comes with being pioneers, and they also have an unquestioned collection of variably solid efforts behind them, but it seems that they’re being surpassed by better work at a growing number of Waiheke wineries. I’m not quite sure what the problem is, but it’s a shame given their reputation. Anyway, this wine shows mostly ripe cedar, cassis, and blueberry in a firm, balanced package. The finish is rich, but the midpalate that precedes it is a touch watery. A structure necessary for further development is clearly there, yet the weak midpalate is a minor flaw that will only grow in magnitude and importance with age. Put it in the cellar, I think, but with a wary eye on its development.

I wolf down a delicious platter of tandoori chicken “wraps” with tzatziki and mango chutney, but Theresa’s rosemary-infused lamb kabobs with red onions, summer squash, and a bed of incredible saffron pilaf luxuriant with cinnamon, raisins, and cloves both steals the show and proves a better match with the hefty reds. In yet another recollection of our previous meal here, we split a bowl of crisp, perfectly salted fries (halfway in thickness between frites and English chips, but possessing the wonderful exterior bite of the former) accompanied by a thin, garlicky aioli, and follow it with two excellent coffees; one straight from the press, the other a ubiquitous adulteration known as the “flat white” (a more intense, less frothy and insubstantial, and incredibly tasty variation on the cappuccino) that has been unquestionably perfected in New Zealand.

Au lait, olé

…and what is it with New Zealand coffee, anyway? From north to south, home to restaurant, breakfast to dinner, the sustained excellence of the coffee in this country is superior to anywhere I’ve ever been, save Italy. France would be so lucky as to make coffee of this quality. There’s a rich smoothness to the purest versions and a deft touch with the dairied variations that simply astounds, and the café culture here is a hundred times more vibrant than that of just about any city in the United States (though on scant evidence, it’s possible that Australia surpasses it…though on similarly scant evidence, the coffee’s not as good). Generally missing are the strange, dessert-like concoctions so beloved by the well-known chains, and also missing is the charred-yet-watery flaw endemic to so much else that passes for coffee these days. Herein a paean to coffee, then, in the Land of the Long White Cloud: Aotearoa, please, and hold the sugar.

The price for all this decadence? $69 NZ. That’s just silly cheap…and that, too, is one of the things that brings us back.

The waitress chats us up – a conversation that soon turns into “the conversation,” that lovely New Zealand ritual of genuine caring and concern expressed to tourists and locals alike in which one’s itinerary is examined, dissected, commended and appended…always for the better – while a large group files into the now-sunny courtyard. It’s a birthday party for a woman who looks to be on the young side of 70, but the waitress informs us is freshly turned 90, surrounded by relatives and three generations of descendants. She’s youthful and vibrant, like the land she inhabits, and before she’ll pick up the menu she quaffs a few lusty swallows of the Goldwater “New Dog” Sauvignon Blanc, a satisfied smile on her face. Food, wine, and coffee; living well leads to living well, and in this party is our living proof.

The cat in the vat

Puss – a winery cat with rather spectacular coloring – lolls on a countertop illuminated and warmed by the afternoon sun, taking an extreme and somewhat convulsive liking to Theresa’s belly-scratching. In the end, my wife spends more time with the cat than with the wine in front of us. But to be honest, she’s not missing a whole lot.

We’ve come to Onetangi Road Vineyard in search of some fermented beverages to get us through our first few dinners and picnic lunches (it’s close to our villa, it’s open, and we prefer to buy direct whenever possible), but it’s soon clear what’s on offer won’t carry us through too many pleasurable meals. Nothing is bad or flawed, certainly, but little carries that extra dash of excitement that lifts a winery above mere competence, and I know better can be wrested from Waiheke’s soils. George Craddock, the manager – friendly but reserved – helms a quiet tasting room, the silence broken only by my swirling and spitting, the murmur of a few visitors picnicking on the lawn outside, and the gentle purr of the cat as it writhes around Theresa’s hand.

[Onetangi Road vineyard & statue]

Statue of (Onetangi’s) limitations
Onetangi Road 2004 Rosé (Waiheke Island) – 85% cabernet, 15% merlot. Bright strawberry and dry, spiced raspberry are balanced, with aromatics a touch on the hot side (it could just be the tasting room, which is itself a bit under-cooled) and a medium-short finish. A fun quaffer, though perhaps somewhat hefty for its raw material; in this, it’s not unlike many hundreds of Mediterranean rosés, of which the most nagging flaw is an obvious alcoholic bite.

Onetangi Road 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc/Malbec (Waiheke Island) – Herbed liquor, strawberry, red cherry, and ripe plum with nicely-balanced but hard tannin; too hard for the fruit. Good for short-term cellaring, but the tannin needs to be softer, and that isn’t going to happen here.

Onetangi Road 2000 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waiheke Island) – Much richer than the previous wine, with plumy fruit and some buttery notes. Maturing quickly, and already starting to show soft roasted fruit characteristics; one could ask why a 2000 red is already headed for the downslope, or one could just enjoy it as a simple, yet tasty, dinner red. I’ll choose the latter, and leave the questions for the winemaker.

Onetangi Road 1999 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waiheke Island) – A little more herbal than the 2000, with blueberry, dark plum skins, and more tannin. Slightly underripe, and thus brighter, and longer than the previous wine, but while it will age longer I think the 2000 is a more drinkable wine, at least at the moment. The underripe notes, however, are worrisome and indicate against positive future development.

Onetangi Road 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Malbec “Reserve” (Waiheke Island) – Smooth and balanced plum and tight, dark, tarry tannin with some unfortunate dill aromas. Hard and structured. It’s not particularly compelling right now, but one wonders if it will develop well with that pickle component.

The winery is also home to Baroona, a microbrewery, and while I’m losing energy to taste their brewed offerings, I snag a Trappist-style ale for further contemplation.

Two wives, one pan

Exhaustion (coupled with a determination to tough it out and not get off-schedule due to jet lag) leads us to make one of the few culinary mistakes we’ll make on this trip, avoiding the twisty navigation to a known high-end food store at one corner of the island in favor of the ease and nearby convenience of the island’s one supermarket, a decision encouraged by the recommendation of Cliff from our villa. Well, it’s not a particularly good choice. Though we’ll come to find better Woolworths branches elsewhere in New Zealand, this version is dismal from entrance to exit, and we struggle to piece together more than the barest skeleton of a worthwhile meal. The checkout girl is friendly, however, looking up in surprise at our American accents and initiating our fourth “Conversation” of the day (after the automobile rental agent, Cliff, and the waitress at Nourish). The overly-private must be driven nuts by this sort of thing, but we just cannot help but find it endlessly charming. Would that people everywhere cared in equal measure for the well-being of strangers.

Back at the villa, I sort through my luggage while Theresa takes a brief nap. I’ve got plans to make later in the trip, and so I knock on Cliff’s door and inquire after any internet cafés on the island. What happens next should really no longer surprise me, and yet it does: he opens up his garage, offers me the free use of his computer (said garage is free of cars, but filled with servers and expensive equipment; Cliff is a professional photographer) and his high-speed connection, and returns a few minutes later with a key to his garage in case he’s away the next time I need to use it. Amazing hospitality, to be sure, but an even more amazing trust. Is it any wonder that I love this country?

Just as I’m finishing up, I hear footsteps behind me. A soft voice calls out, “hi, lovey.”

[patio view from Villa Pacifica]

The view from the villa
It’s not my wife.

I turn around, which brings the owner of the voice to a dead, somewhat shocked stop. It’s a woman, who I assume (correctly) to be Cliff’s wife Gaye. I quickly identify myself and why I’m there, but can’t resist answering “…and by the way, ‘welcome home, dear.’” She laughs uproariously. And again I marvel; in another place, another culture, this entire encounter couldn’t…wouldn’t…happen. Too much fear, too much suspicion, too much danger. She trudges up the stairs with her packages, and I hear her and Cliff sharing more laughter. I shake my head, smile, and log off, closing the garage door behind me.

Back upstairs, Theresa is awake and a bit peckish. In a bit of a hurry, I make somewhat of a mess of dinner – rental kitchens are always an adventure, but I fail to properly assess the number of pans before diving into the cooking – and by the time I sort things out the lamb steaks (which aren’t that good to begin with, thanks to the aforementioned supermarket ) are overdone. Sautéed spinach with spring onions and garlic round out a simple first-night dinner, with which we enjoy one of the day’s vinous catch:

Onetangi Road 2000 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon (Waiheke Island) – A touch soupy, but good, showing ripe red fruit and blueberries with lots of spicy melted chocolate oak. It’s interesting how food brings out the wood in this wine, which faded into the background at the tasting room; it’s an effect that I think catches a lot of un-cautious tasters by surprise. While there’s decent balance for this particular blend, it leans a bit towards the low-acid (no shock, really). I find this bottle to be a bit better than the tasting room version, despite the more prominent oak, but while it remains quite drinkable, it also remains nothing special.

Sunset of the mind

We clean up and send Theresa straight to bed, but while my body is exhausted my mind is still alive and refuses unconsciousness. So many adventures yet to come, so many new experiences yet to process, so much wonderful uncertainty and discovery on the horizon. The last colored streaks of a cloudy sunset tint the sky as I scribble furiously in my journal, but despite my fatigue the off switch just won’t toggle.

I need a beer.

Baroona “Full Malty” Trappist Style Ale (Waiheke Island) – A winter release from this brewery, and thus carrying a bit of age. Well, that’s rarely a problem in this genre, is it? Thick, spiced fig and malted dark chocolate water are a bit denser than one might like, even in this rather heady style. Dark and somewhat sludgy, and while it’s tasty now, I don’t think age is actually helping this one. Surprising.

Drowsiness overtakes me and I stumble through the evening’s ablutions and into a soft, pillowy bed. Beer, as ever, is the answer to the great questions and dilemmas of life.

At least, it is in the absence of a flat white.

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Copyright ©2005 Thor Iverson.