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Waiheke Island, Hauraki Gulf, Auckland, New Zealand

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Paula Waby is a Vocational Advisor/Communications Instructor with the New Zealand Foundation for the Blind who has a love of travel, research and writing. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.

When planning a trip to Auckland earlier this year, we decided to visit Waiheke Island. Just a 35-minute ferry ride from down town Auckland, Waiheke Island prides itself on maintaining a unique island atmosphere despite its proximity to the most heavily populated area of New Zealand. With only two public entry/exit points, one has little choice but to arrive by boat unless you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to come by helicopter.

It was easy to book our ferry tickets and bus tour via the Internet using very accessible web sites, though a surprise awaited us upon arrival at the ferry terminus. We were assured that the printed voucher we received following our booking was all we needed to present at the terminus. The ticket office there had other ideas, claiming it "looked dodgy." Eventually the situation was resolved, and we were permitted on board. I only mention the incident to alert people to the importance of considering making one quick call to verify a booking. The fact a Guide Dog accompanied us did not pose any problem .

We drew into Matiatia Wharf accompanied by a school of dolphins, much to the excitement of everyone on board. It was an easy transfer from there to our bus where an extremely enthusiastic inhabitant of the Island gave us an entertaining commentary on all we passed. Interspersed with this information were facts about Waiheke Island history, commercial development, weather and more. Had we felt more energetic, we could have hired a bike or a horse to tour the Island. Rental cars were also available and there are numerous accessible walking tracks. New Zealand has no snakes or scorpions. With the most dangerous creature being the katipo spider, Waiheke Island is a safe haven for those who enjoy the outdoors.

Katipo is Maori (New Zealand's indigenous people( for "night-stinger". A relative of the black widow spider, the female katipo can inflict a painful bite but no reliable records exist of there ever having been a fatality in New Zealand. The second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island has a population of over 7500. Many people choose to build lifestyle blocks, though housing varies from a home worth seven million New Zealand dollars, one-bedroom apartments for $250,000 to small holiday homes (batches).

Surrounded by 98 kilometres of sandy beaches, Waiheke Island is 25 kilometres in length and 20 kilometres wide. The Island beaches are peppered with gas barbecues that are available free of charge and are cleaned every morning by the Council. The nudist beach is right next door to Palm Beach. Our tour guide informed us that overseas tourists all want to visit Palm Beach where they find nothing but sand, a dairy (convenience store to those from the northern hemisphere) and a little cafe.

The Island terrain is steep and narrow in parts so one needs to be fit if travelling by foot. There is an abundance of native trees including the New Zealand Christmas tree the pohutukawa. A beautiful tree with full red flowers, the name pohutukawa is derived from the Maori words 'po-' and 'hutukawa'. 'Po' has many meanings, but can refer to the night or underworld. 'Hutukawa' is a head dress of red feathers and this could be compared to the trees' flowers. The name 'pohutukawa' is also said to mean "splashed by the spray", very appropriate for a tree commonly found by the sea. Every tree on the island is lotted down, and there are heavy penalties for removing any without permission.

With 46 vineyards on the Island, Waiheke could be considered a wine-lover's paradise. Stony Ridge, Mud Brick Cafe, Gold Waters Estate and Peninsula's Estate have won top awards overseas. Olive groves, macadamias and avocados are now also becoming quite popular island crops. The Island is solely reliant on rainwater to fill their tanks. Every home is served by its own septic tank, which is serviced every two to three years by a company with the slogan, "your business is our business" .

There is a variety of accommodation from lodges, motels, back packers, private homes to sleeping under the stars. This is to cater for the estimated 70,000 people who swarm over to the Island during the summer season. Ostend is the industrial area of the Island whilst Oneroa has the shopping and cafes. Our tour ended at the little shopping village where we got off and had some retail therapy. It was a simple matter to wander into a shop and ask what they sold. We found all the shopkeepers very friendly and willing to assist us. We found our way to a cafe by using our noses and partook in a satisfying lunch. The biggest excitement of the trip was using the wrong toilets because some witty person had removed the raised letters W and O from the door.

All in all, this trip and others we have taken around New Zealand had proved relatively easy. One really needs only some good orientation and mobility skills, enough assertiveness to ask for assistance when required, and good old common sense.