To hedge my bets, I needed a traveling companion and a starter pool of Kiwis. My first bit of good luck arrived in the form of my girlfriend, Evyn, whose best friend happened to be getting married on Waiheke. The bride, Anna Weinberg, grew up on the island, a wind-slapped half-hour’s ferry ride from Auckland. She now lives in San Francisco, where she runs South, an Australia/New Zealand–themed wine bar and restaurant. One of her partners is the Australian celebrity chef Luke Mangan. Anna’s parents make wine in Hawke’s Bay. There would be guests from the New Zealand food, wine, and fashion industries. If any place was going to give us a shot at meeting people who could set us off on an interesting journey, Anna and James’s wedding promised to be it.
So after a series of flights we landed in Auckland and made our way by ferry across the emerald Hauraki Gulf to Waiheke. There we fell into the rhythm of things with the aid of great quantities of the local rosé. The island has a Nantucket-ish vibe by way of California surf-town cool. A place, as one resident put it, where “billionaires cohabit with hippies and a few of us in between.”
We sailed a catamaran around the coves. We played cricket (badly) in the surf at Oneroa Beach. By the day of the wedding ceremony at Mudbrick Vineyard, we’d acclimated to island life. Finally, it was time to cut the cord and go off on our own. Anne Moore, an old friend of Evyn’s, wanted us to see Hokianga, where she’d grown up. Anne is a quarter Maori, tall and striking, with big, dark eyes that suggest she is going to do what she wants to do. This is our first lesson in social traveling: Some people aren’t willing to just point you in the right direction; they want to take you there themselves.
Which is how we end up in Anne’s car driving 4 1/2 hours north of Auckland through rolling dairy farms and kumara country, cowboy towns and Maori land.
Arriving at Hokianga, you climb a steep hill and come to a remarkable vista: on the left is the Tasman Sea, to the right a river winding inland, and, in front of you, rising from the mouth of the harbor, a giant golden sand dune.
Anne’s friend who runs the boat-tour concession takes us across to the dunes. The full poetic name, he says, is Te Hokianga-nui-a-Kupe. “The returning place of Kupe, the Polynesian explorer who discovered New Zealand.”
This is Anne’s returning place, too, and it pleases her to share it. Growing up here, she’d somehow never gotten around to hiking the dune. Over the top we find a scene new to all of us, invisible from shore and boat: rocky red canyons, hidden forests, and undisturbed white beaches far below. This feels and looks like what it is—the start of a country at the end of the world.
We are again on the road, heading from Hokianga back to Auckland to meet friends who will steer us to our next destination. At Orongo Bay we pull off the road at a big blue sign that reads Oysters Open and find Clive, a giant with a yellow beard like the back of an unshorn sheep. He shucks us two dozen wild-spatch oysters pulled straight from the bay, and we eat them on the hood of the car with a bottle of the local hot sauce, Kaitaia Fire.
Somewhere near Elliots Bay a rainbow reveals itself over the ocean, so we stop again for a quick look. The hills are lime green and velvety soft. Surfers are in the water. Pipis and tuatuas are there for the digging. Behind us, on a little rise above the road, a cow is chewing grass and taking in the same view, looking as amazed as we are. The whole thing is so ridiculously pretty that we all just sort of shake our heads in the warm breeze and whistle, glad we ended up here, wherever here is.
“We reckon we’ve got one degree of separation in New Zealand,” Simon Woolley says.
Short-cropped gray hair, 53, fitted T-shirt, kind eyes behind artsy spectacles, Simon is an old friend of the bride’s. He’s a cofounder of one of the country’s big mineral-water brands, Antipodes. We’re back in Auckland to see off the wedding party and receive our marching orders.