When John Hawkesby moved to Waiheke Island 12 years ago, he was feeling battered after the very public collapse of his broadcasting career and was looking for a quiet life.
"I came out of a bruising encounter with TVNZ licking my wounds and just wanted to put my head down and grow tomatoes," says the former newsreader. He remembers well the experience of the state broadcaster trying to get him to present their primetime news bulletin, only to have to pull him out following a backlash from viewers.
"I needed a place of renewal and, luckily for me, Waiheke was it. It was the antithesis to the first 55 years of my life, and as it has turned out, moving here was the best thing I could have done."
The island haven John has called home since 2001 is now the subject of a book he has written, called Waiheke: An Island and its People.
It's a look at the region in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf through the eyes of a handful of its 8700 residents – many of whom, like John, have come to regard it as a sanctuary from the stress of 21st century life.
"There's a great sign as you come off the car ferry at Kennedy Point that says, 'Slow down, you are here already' – and that kind of sums up this place," says John (66).
"It has its own heartbeat and is very relaxed, like New Zealand was in the 1950s, but with better food and wine.
"There are no McDonald's or Starbucks, there are no traffic lights. You can even buy T-shirts at the Saturday market that say 'Free Nelson Mandela'. I think there may be some people who don't realise he has been out for a while."
He's joking, of course, but it is the laid-back attitude of folks on Waiheke that led to John falling for the place.
A born and bred Aucklander, he visited numerous times during his childhood, but had forgotten about its attractions until friends shouted him and wife Joyce a weekend away to a B&B in 2000, in the wake of the TVNZ fallout.
Wowed by the beaches, restaurants and cafes, friendly people and slower pace of life, John and Joyce asked locals to let them know about any land that came up for sale.
A few weeks later, they got a phone call about an available site in Church Bay, which was west-facing, with views of the city in the distance.
"We got on the ferry, saw it, and signed up 30 seconds later. The real estate agent said it was the easiest sale he'd ever had. We couldn't believe our luck."
Three weeks later, the Hawkesbys were offered double what they had paid for the land by someone who also recognised what a great spot it was.
"We could have bought a street in Thames or the town of Twizel with what we were offered, but we weren't tempted by it," says John, who received a $5.2m payout when he left TVNZ.
Some of his friends were surprised when they heard city boy John had decided to move to an island.
"They said, 'You won't last two weeks. It's not urban enough for you, there won't be enough to keep you stimulated,' but that hasn't been the case."
Wine buff John keeps busy writing about his passion for magazines and talking about it on radio, as well as other freelance articles.
"I seem to spend my life going to wine lunches and dinners, which is very pleasant, but not so good for the figure," he chuckles.
Along with building a stone home on their land, he and Joyce planted olive trees and grapevines, and tending them also takes time.
"I've got the world's smallest vineyard, but there's just enough to make wine that I give to our family and friends."
Hanging out with his 11 grandchildren, who visit as often as they can, or popping over to Auckland to attend their school or sports events also occupies his hours, and he likes to be involved with the local community – he's currently protesting plans to build a marina near the ferry terminal at Matiatia Bay.
John says the only time locals seem to care that he was one of the best-known faces on Kiwi TV for more than 20 years, is when they need someone with a bit of public speaking experience to MC an event.
"People aren't bothered who you are. They're not impressed by fame or lots of money, you're just one of them. You don't have to dress up to come to town.
"Yes, there are some very wealthy people here, but they don't flaunt it, they don't drive around in flash cars. Everyone gets treated the same."
John's neighbours include millionaires from overseas, who love the fact that the island is so close to a busy metropolitan centre (downtown Auckland is a 35-minute ferry ride away), yet is so peaceful and unspoilt.
"They think we Kiwis are a bit dumb for not taking advantage of it. They say, 'Why isn't this place over-run? Don't people know about it?'"
A few more people will be made aware of the island now John's book is out, but he's not too worried that he is letting the cat out of the bag about what a great place Waiheke is.
"People do know already, but I think those who end up here come for the right reasons.
"Like me, they come because this place offers such a fantastic lifestyle. This place is a glorious refuge."
Waiheke: An island and it's people by John Hawkesby (Penguin $45)
Photos: Caren Davis
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