Waiheke Island – Auckland art escape

A 40-minute ferry from Auckland, discover a resort that lives and breathes art

Waiheke Island – Auckland art escape ‘Other People’s Houses’ by Neil Dawson, at Connells Bay Sculpture Park - © Sarah Bourn
Chris Bourn

Art on Waiheke  |  Wine on Waiheke

New Zealand's Waiheke Island is upscale Auckland's offshore beach resort of choice - but its thriving creative community means it's also a paradise for art lovers of all stripes...

Volcanically sculpted, framed by the Pacific and resplendent north to south in Jurassic green – New Zealand's fantasy landscapes have made it something approaching the world’s dream destination in recent years. But spare a thought for the Kiwis themselves – where on earth are they going to find their Xanadu? Where do affluent Aucklanders drift away to as they’re, say, idling their Remuera tractors (ie showroom-clean 4x4s, the vehicle of choice in the well-to-do suburbs), while stuck in the city's notorious rush-hour traffic on the Harbour Bridge, staring out from their cage into the inviting blue of the Hauraki Gulf?

The answer is likely to be in their direct line of sight. Not so long ago Waiheke Island, just a 40-minute ferry commute from downtown Auckland, was little more than a sparsely populated outpost of hippy hermitage and Maori heritage. Now, though, it's widely regarded as the North Island's most desirable 92 square kilometres of beach-bound real estate. In the past two decades it’s become famous – in Kiwi consciousness, if not yet beyond – for three things: wine, wealth and art.

The fact that this small, bumpy island is home to many of New Zealand's most celebrated winemakers (Passage Rock, Stonyridge, Mudbrick…) only makes sense once you take a drive into the looping hills and troughs of the interior. Geologically, Waiheke is a chunk of Tuscany that's been cookie-cuttered out and shipped to its equivalent southern latitude. Naturally, the success of the local wine industry explains the influx of rich people (rich people, as we all know, love pricey plonk). But the art is unexpected. Waiheke is weighed down with art works – signposts for galleries and open studios clutter the intersections; unexplained roadside sculpture out-populates the pedestrians; billboards and flyers promoting art happenings are everywhere in the chi-chi beachside micro-resorts. Like any free spirit recently come into money, Waiheke Island is giddily ostentatious about its collection – a symptom, perhaps, of a 20-year process of gentrification that's seen it shift from beatnik backwater to boho millionaire's row.

The artist – Church Bay Studio Gallery

Artist Gabriella Lewenz with a work-in-progress in her studio  © Sarah Bourn

Waiheke’s always been an island of artists,’ says Gabriella Lewenz, a Greek-born American painter who moved here from Connecticut 17 years ago to set up her studio and gallery. She remembers the neighbouring Mudbrick restaurant – on the next hill over and currently at the pinnacle of New Zealand's vineyard dining scene – was ‘scruffy and sort of struggling’. This was back when Waiheke ‘wasn’t quite a place that buyers and collectors had necessarily thought about… It’s becoming a destination now.’

She’s reluctant to admit it, but the home that she, her husband, Claude, and four hired hands built from local earth-brick on a superb outlook in the billowing Church Bay area has probably had something to do with Waiheke’s cultural upswing. The striking structure is their own take on a Mediterranean villa (with a mission bell shipped in from Inveraray Castle in Scotland, no less) clad in beacon-bright orange, which belongs in a pastoral scene by Titian rather than on any hillside in real life.

Casale di Terra - Gabriella's studio and home in Church Bay  © Sarah Bourn

Adjacent to the courtyard is Gabriella’s large studio-gallery, open to browsers and potential buyers. The place is strewn with her paintings in various stages of completion. Richly layered Rothko-esque colour-fields are suffused with the vistas and elements she has chosen to surround herself with – a hemisphere and several palettes away from the black-and-white canvases she says she used to exhibit in New York. ‘There’s something vibrant about this part of the world,’ she explains. ‘Here, every day has this incredible show of colour and texture.’

The island's upscale creative community, Gabriella included, have helped bring this spectacle to wider attention on the mainland by organising Waiheke's biannual Sculpture on the Gulf festival – a monumental art walk that winds its way around the western headlands. During its three-week run in January 2013 the event attracted up to 40,000 art trekkers – well over four times the island’s permanent population – and they're planning for more in 2015.

The collector – Connells Bay Sculpture Park

If it's a paradise for artists, Waiheke is also a playground for collectors. In the opposite corner of the island from Gabriella's studio is an ambitious project that outshines most big cities' approach to public art. Connells Bay Sculpture Park, everyone agrees, is Waiheke's mantelpiece. In the past 21 years, owners John and Jo Gow have carefully commissioned, curated and occasionally helicoptered in large-scale contemporary pieces to enrich their Arcadian vale by the sea. It's essentially a private collection, but the couple are keen to share it with an appreciative public and conduct tours by appointment from late October to late April. 'It's much bigger than our little timespan,' says John, a vigorously good-natured man who made his money brokering West End musicals for Cameron Mackintosh, ‘in the sense that we die one day, and these monumental works are left here.’

‘The Best Laid Plans Go West’ by David McCracken  © Sarah Bourn

The real monument, though, is the generous sweep of land itself. A two-hour wander around the beautifully maintained gardens reveals a keen site-specific sensibility. From Cathryn Monroe's Mayan-ziggurat take on New Zealand's hydroelectric engineering works, at the start of the trail, to the monolithic Robbie Burns poem half-submerged in a hillside towards the end, the sculptures are all in close dialogue with their setting, not so much installed in the park as embedded.

The park’s 25 hectares are host to a panoply of styles: eerie alien kinetic structures by Phil Price breach the canopy in the wooded areas; classical imagery meets Kiwi contemporary in the bronzes of sculptor Paul Dibble (whose New Zealand War Memorial has been in Hyde Park since 2006); while a variety of traditional Polynesian styles, courtesy of celebrated Samoan artist Fatu Feu’u – including an update on the iconic Easter Island head carved from an ancient treestump – are a reminder that we’re a long way from Goodwood. Yet the works all complement each other with easy conviviality – a tribute to the Gows’ painstaking commissioning process.

‘Skeleton Trees’ by Regan Gentry  © Sarah Bourn

John's enthusiasm for his art works, and their creators, spills over when we come across one of his favourites, by Regan Gentry: two trees woven from 4.5 kilometres of No 8 fencing wire – the secret weapon of Kiwi livestock management, it turns out - so as to be barely distinguishable in form from their non-metallic neighbours. These ‘Skeleton Trees’ are a balance of homespun iconography, homegrown talent and the requisite attribute of ‘just naturally sitting there in the landscape’ that epitomises the unique aesthetic he and his wife have created at Connells Bay.

‘Vanish’ by Gregor Kregar  © Sarah Bourn

Worth the NZ$30 admission alone, though, is a showstopping work by Slovenian sculptor Gregor Kregar. His ‘Vanish’ is grandiose self-portraiture as seen through the ego-crushing homogeneity of a totalitarian state. Featuring 150 meticulously cast clay models of himself, arrayed in a grid in which each row diminishes in stature, 'Vanish' delivers menace, industrial oppression and something like garden-gnome kitsch in equal measure. It’s an illustrative example of John Gow’s topline brief for Connells Bay commissions: ‘We tell them, “Come up with any idea you want – but think big.”’

Why do artists love Waiheke?

With passionate patrons like the Gows around, it might be a fair to assume the artists are brought here more by the average annual income of Waiheke’s 8,500 residents than by the relaxed allure of the place. But Gabriella Lewenz insists that the real draw is the song it sings to people's creative impulse. She and her husband are in the process of establishing an artists’ retreat at their villa, called Artstay, in which practitioners from all disciplines will be able to recalibrate their mojos, enjoying a charge of inspiration from that special something that makes Waiheke so artistically exhilarating.

View from the courtyard at Church Bay Studio Gallery  © Sarah Bourn

As far as Gabriella is concerned, there’s really no enigma. ‘For the arts the light is quite unique here,’ she explains, ‘and it’s simply because you’re surrounded on all sides by water. So you have the sun bouncing off the water, hitting the sky and it creates a particular light for visual artists, photographers, anyone who's in that sort of area – they can do more with it.’

Turner had the Kent coast's Isle of Thanet, possessed of skies he described as ‘the loveliest in all of Europe’ – and Auckland's contemporary art set has Waiheke. With all due respect to England’s greatest Romantic painter, though, all we’re saying is it’s hard to find a decent flat white in Margate.

Travel information

Where to stay on Waiheke

The Boatshed Luxury accommodation that's boutique and unique, in fitting with the general vibe of the island. Socialise in the lounge with other guests over a relaxed and beautifully prepared dinner, or retire to your quarters to enjoy spectacular views over Oneroa Bay.  
Corner of Tawa and Huia Streets, ‪Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand.‬ +64 9 372 3242. www.boatshed.co.nz

Oyster Inn Minimalist decor and maximal fun at the sociable heart of Oneroa.
124 Ocean View Road, Oneroa, ‪Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand. ‬+64 9 372 2222. www.theoysterinn.co.nz

Connells Bay Sculpture Park Nestle amid the art works in the Gows' guest cottage within the park itself. With a private beach and a bay's worth of natural beauty out front - and all the artistic beauty of the sculpture garden out back.
Cowes Bay Road, ‪Waiheke Island, Auckland, New Zealand.‬ + 64 9 372 6643. www.connellsbay.co.nz

Island tours

Contact Ananda Tours for bespoke themed tours of the Waiheke. The guides accept individual or group bookings, are extremely well informed and are on first-name terms, it seems, with virtually everyone on the island.
+64 9 372 7530. www.ananda.co.nz

Getting there from Auckland

Passenger ferry from downtown Auckland. There is a regular ferry from downtown Auckland to Waiheke's Matiatia Wharf. For timetables and fares see www.fullers.co.nz

Vehicle ferry Departs from Aratai Drive in Auckland's Half Moon Bay, operated by Sealink. +64 9 300 5900. www.sealink.co.nz

Car hire Book ahead for a taxi (+ 64 9 372 6643; www.waiheketransport.co.nz) or rental vehicle (+64 9 372 8635; www.waihekerentalcars.co.nz).

More on Waiheke

Read about wine lovers’ escapes on Waiheke Island