The Unexpected Piano

The Unexpected Piano


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Image courtesy: Akos Kokai
This post is part of Project Pacific Circle, a journey of more than 25,000 miles from Orlando to Los Angeles, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.

Playing a set of Beethoven sonatas on a piano used for a tour by a Polish performer a hundred years earlier, on an island off the coast of Auckland, was not a way I’d ever anticipated spending an afternoon, but exploration tends to lead to unexpected and whimsical results.

Waiheke Island has 8,400 residents, which is enough to make it New Zealand’s third most populous island, behind the North and South Islands that comprise the majority of the country’s territory. It was initially settled and used for farming in the 1800s, but by the early 20th century had become a popular vacation destination for Auckland residents.

In World War II, Waiheke served a critical role in the Auckland Defense Network. American troops were stationed here, alongside New Zealanders, and many of the gun placements, shelters and bunkers built then can still be seen dotting the island, with underground burrows and tunnels connecting most.

The island transformed into a home base for New Zealand’s hippies and counterculture in the 60s and 70s, a history that lives on in its arts and crafts community today. Treks to Waiheke were once a tall order; the fastest boat rides could take nearly three hours to reach one of its two major ports. That all changed in the 1980s when fast ferry service was introduced between the island and Auckland’s central harbor. The trip now takes just a half hour on ferries departing hourly.

This has led to a real estate boom on the island. Wealthy white collar employees working in Auckland have in recent years begun purchasing and building homes on Waiheke and using the ferries to commute each day. The median price for a home on the island has soared to $550,000 despite many of the homes being very modest. The nicest, like this one, go well into the millions:

Electric service on the island is provided by the mainland through an underwater cable, but there’s no water service on Waiheke. Every home is equipped with a giant tank; most collect and treat rainwater for the majority of their water needs. Many also treat was treat wastewater and put it back into use, since freshwater is such a scarce commodity on the island.

Waiheke Island is perhaps best known for its multitude of boutique vineyards. It’s wine heritage began in the postwar 1940s, when the Goldwater family planted the type of grapes best suited to producing a Bordeaux. Today, the Goldwater estate no longer commercially produces wine; it was willed to the University of Auckland and is used as an agricultural research facility delving into the science of wine. More than 30 vineyards carry on what the Goldwaters started, though, and more than half focus on making Bordeaux.

The most popular time of the year to visit Waiheke Island is in the summer, when horse races are hosted on Onetangi Beach.

My visit came in the dead of winter. The beach was empty on this overcast and rainy day except for a few kids with a rugby ball. Most of the vineyards were closed except on weekends, given that few crops are growing at this time of year. That’s why instead of the beach or vineyards, I ended up at Whittaker’s Music Museum. I walked by out of curiosity. I stepped in because I didn’t feel like heading back to Auckland just yet and there wasn’t much else to do. I discovered a bit of unexpected magic inside.

A man was playing a piano on a center stage when I walked in. A few people were seated and listening. I thought it was perhaps a minor recital or some sort of daily performance, but a woman came up to greet me at a volume that indicated it was nothing so formal. The man, whom I later learned was named Regis, was simply one of the volunteers at the museum, and was putting the chief exhibit through its paces. It was a Bechstein concert grand, built around 1897. The maker was a small name in the business, but its piano’s brighter sound and easier touch was so much preferred by its buyer that the man reneged on a contract with Steinway in order to bring the Bechstein with him on tour.

Ignacy Paderewski, who later in life would serve in Poland’s government-in-exile in Paris and New York following Nazi Germany’s invasion, was a renowned pianist who conducted a grand tour of New Zealand and Australia with this piano in tow in 1904. His performances swept both nations. Old ladies were so taken with him that they threw rings and other jewelry on stage as gifts. Female fans sent love letters requesting a lock of his bright red hair. Not without a sense of humor, Paderewski often replied, but with a tuft from his red-haired dog enclosed instead of any hair from his own head.

After the tour, Paderewski sold the piano to a wealthy Auckland family, which held onto it for 96 years before donating it to the museum in 2001. Though it is the centerpiece of the collection, a range of other interesting instruments are also on hand. A self-playing organ is among these, an offshoot of player pianos that relies on a similar paper reel for its operation. A piano with a keyboard that folds up into its cabinetry – built in 1835 for use on ships – also stands out, as does a theater organ used to accompany silent movies, capable of producing far more sound than its small size would belie.

As Regis showed me these, he’d coax me to play something on each. I was at a loss, being put on the spot, and mustered little more than a few chords on each. I’d eventually been urged to play enough times that I wanted to actually do so, if only to prove I was actually the musician I’d claimed to be, and was relieved to see a thick book of Beethoven sonatas sitting on one of the pianos. I asked if I could borrow it and sat down to Paderewski’s concert grand.

At first, I played tentatively, wanting to only indulge the request to play the instrument without making too much noise or drawing too much attention from the people milling about. That changed when I flipped to another selection after some kind words. Still not going all out, I put more effort into the second sonata. By the end, I decided to let it rip for the last few measures of the piece’s climax. I learned what had drawn Paderewski to the instrument so many years before.

After a bit more conversation, I dropped a couple dollars into the museum’s donation box and headed back to the ferry. Rather than taking the bus back, I took a hiking trail that went far above the paved road, winding through some of Waiheke’s woods. I’d already taken the road into the island’s town that morning. Thanks to the Whittaker Music Museum, I’d been reminded of what good can be found on paths not yet taken.

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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