Highlife Festival calls itself as the ‘Ibiza of Matakana’. Set in the idyllic surroundings of Ascension Wine Estate, Highlife welcomed 2800 festival-goers for a boutique, Ibiza-style experience with a night of top-class DJ’s, fabulous food, and delicious drinks to bring in the new year. Read my full Highlife Festival review below to see why it’s one of the best festivals I’ve done in New Zealand so far.
Arriving at Highlife Festival
Having left Whangarei at 3pm, we arrived at Highlife Festival around 5/5.30pm. A longer drive than expected, but with multiple ‘wee’ stops and heavier than usual traffic, it was not a bad trip at all. We arrived, stepped off the bus and headed straight into the line to get in. All lines moved really fast and I would say it took no more than 10 mins to get in – perfect! They checked bags, Vaccination Passports, ID, and festival tickets of course. Upon entry, they gave you your AWOP festival wristband and away you went! Easy, simple, and quick – the perfect start to the festival ahead.
AWOP- Cashless Wristbands
Most festivals in New Zealand operate a cashless system called AWOP whereby everyone on arrival gets given a wristband which has a small chip inside. The wristband can then be topped up with money at a designated stand at the festival to then be spent on drinks, food etc. Not only is this a way for a festival to be more eco-friendly, it also saves time at the bar and makes it easier to budget your festival spending.
At Highlife Festival, the process of topping up the band and also getting a refund at the end of the night was super simple and fuss-free. No huge lines and a cash refund available at the end of the night should you wish to do so was fabulous. The other refund option available was post-festival, where you could easily go online and request a refund for the unused money on your wristband minus a small admin fee of around NZ$2.00.
Highlife Festival Site
The festival site was really well laid out and the perfect size for the number of people that attended. It was neither too crowded nor too sparse and had plenty of interesting areas to explore, relax or escape to.
The bars (there were plenty to choose from) were strategically placed around the festival site. This ensured that long queues and huge clumps of people all cramming into a single tent to buy drinks was avoided.
Toilets and water points were easy to access and tucked out of the way and out of sight so you didn’t have to look at them all day.
Seating and shade were also not an issue at Highlife. There was plenty of it! Cabanas and day beds gave an exclusive beach club feel to the festival whilst providing shady spots to relax, chat and take in the festival atmosphere. The Aperol Bar on site also had huge orange umbrellas , beanbags and rugs which anyone could use during the festival which, again, gave a sense of luxury and that Ibiza beach club vibe.
The majority of the festival site was flat, apart from a large, gradual slope which went from the back of the main stage up to the fence line. This bowl effect made the main stage a real spectacle from the top of the hill and meant that if you needed to sit and rest your feet from too much dancing, or you simply wanted to enjoy a beer or glass of Rosé in the sun and listen to music, you could! It was a very well organized layout with enough quirks to spark interest in intrigue.
There were plenty of bars and drink options at Highlife Festival. A big bonus was that there were hardly any queues for drinks at all! This meant getting a drink didn’t feel like you were embarking on a pilgrimage, queuing for ages in the sun, and leaving your friends wondering when you would see them again. Lines moved quickly, bars were strategically placed throughout the festival site so that people were not all bunched up, and there were plenty of options available whatever your pleasure or poison!
My personal favourite was an Aperol bar, which glowed bright orange on the hillside, welcoming you like a beacon in the distance. I love Aperol Spritz, plus a themed bar at a festival is always a winner in my books.
Prices for drinks were as you would expect. $10 for a beer or RTD (Longwhite / Cider), $11-12 for an Aperol Spritz, $12 for a Vodka & Red Bull, $11 for a glass of wine, and $3-5 for a non-alcoholic drink. Free drinking water was also available from specially designated areas on site.
The only thing I noticed (was told) was that they sold out of wine VERY quickly. Perhaps the rosé drinkers hit the day drinking harder than expected. However, I would say that for a winery I would have liked a larger wine selection and more stock available that lasted into the evening. There may well have been more wine in the VIP bar, however at the main bar they had run out relatively early and only had 1 wine option for red, white or rosé available.
Music & Stages
Not knowing anyone playing at a festival is a rarity, however for me it didn’t make any difference for Highlife – It was still absolutely amazing. Great variety, good quality sound systems and speakers ( never underestimate how important good speakers and sound quality is) and most of all, the music itself was great! General Lee and DJ Reminise were two of my Highlife highlights and artists I will be sure to keep an eye out for on other festival line-ups.
General Lee started his DJ career at just 10 year’s old! A kiwi DJ from Auckland, he played as the sun dipped below the grapevines and I can see why! His infectious energy on stage was electric, it got everyone up and dancing and ready to see in the new year. Plus he played some absolute bangers! A mix of house, and funky hip hop remixes were the perfect soundtrack for a New Year celebration.
DJ Reminise was another festival triumph. The name says it all really, a Kiwi talent that played songs which evoked nostalgia and flashback memories of dancing in clubs or at house parties which saw warm nights turn into early mornings. Throwback R&B, Hip Hop and Pop swirled around the wine barrels of the Highlife Winery Stage – it was INCREDIBLE. A totally different vibe to the outside main stage area, it felt like I was back in London at a cool secret gig at some boujie up-and-coming venue.
Although a small festival, Highlife had very well positioned and varied stages. There were 3 stages in total. A main stage complete with disco ball and rose covered rigging which complimented the vineyard setting really well. An indoor stage, aptly named The Winery Stage, had its own bar and was where traditional wine estate met festival fantasy. The Winery Stage was perched on a platform under beautiful wooden beams and snuggled next to walls lined with traditional wooden wine barrels. And lastly, the VIP Stage in the VIP area which was nestled under a large pergola with hanging chandeliers and rustic pillars to give an exclusive feel.
In terms of what to wear for Highlife – Highlife prides it’s self on its boujie ethos and Ibiza style festival vibe which means I would ditch the flip flops, sports-wear or singlets for this one.
Guys – Dust off your party shirt, style your shorts with a linen shirt or crisp T-shirt, then add trainers or boat shoes to round off your festi-look – Leave the super casual festi-wear for another time!
Ladies – Wear that festival dress that’s ‘too nice’ for another festival, or you could pair high-waisted linen or denim shorts with a shirt or nice top. On your feet wear boots, sandals or stylish white trainers – you still want to be comfortable and able to walk around the festival! Then simply finish off your outfit with a nice hat, bag & jewelry.
Once the sun went down, as I’ve found with other festivals in New Zealand, the temperature did drop dramatically and so I would recommend taking an extra evening layer. I took my sequin bomber jacket, but a cotton shirt, blazer, or denim jacket would do the trick!
Fireworks & Extras
It wasn’t just the music that was a feast for the senses at Highlife. The dancers and live performers were amazing and very in-keeping with the Ibiza-style ethos. Dancers in risqué glittery dresses took to the stage during the day, yielding ornate umbrellas and fashioning incredible hairstyles. When the sun went down, the festival performers really came out to play. Dancers in feathered costumes and knee-high pink, leather boots took center stage for a carnival style extravaganza. They were fun, sexy and added that little bit of extravagance to the event.
To top off a fantastic festival, the firework display at the stroke of midnight was incredible! A special addition to the festival which brought the whole festival community together to share in celebrating the end of one year and the start of another!
The busses at the end of the night at a festival are always a little chaotic. Combine alcohol fueled people, tired festival officials, plus heavy duty vehicles and you can understand why it’s a bit of a mess. Highlife was well organized though in that respect. Staff clearly signposted which line was for each bus destination point. Queues did look rather long, but busses flooded in continuously after the festival came to an end.
I had arranged for a private bus charter to drive myself and the rest of the festi-gang from Whangarei to Matakana and back again. Having organized a private charter I didn’t experience the festival busses, but from friends that did take them, they said they were pretty fuss free, good value, and easy to use. A private charter was the best option for our group given where we were coming from and how many of us there were. Plus for only $45.00 per person – it was ideal!
The food options at highlife were fantastic. From fries to dumplings, wings to burgers – there was a little of everything. I had the dumplings and WOW they were yummy! Normally at festivals it’s just the usual fries, pizza and noodles on offer – but the dumplings at Highlife made for a really nice alternative! Also every food vendor seemed to offer generous portion sizes giving you good value for money which is always great. Sharkey had a HUGE plate of chicken wings, which he said where delicious, albeit a little messy. A lady offered him a napkin from the neighboring table – he was clearly enjoying them!
Toilets and Facilities
The Toilets at music festivals can be alright or they can be utterly horrific and make you dread the ongoing circle of drink, wee, repeat. However, the toilets at Highlife were brilliant ( as toilets go). They were clean, had a good stock of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and best of all, no huge queues. The only thing which I think would have been great (and this goes for all festival toilets), they need a hook on the inside of the door to hang your bag on!
Free Drinking Water
Most festivals nowadays have free drinking water, Highlife was no exception. They had multiple water points dotted over the festival site. You could either use a cup from the bar or fill up your own water bottle. Just be sure to bring a plastic one – not a heavy metal bottle.
What would I have liked to see there or done differently?
- I would have loved to be given a branded wristband. The AWOP ones were great, functional and worked really well. However, I am a sucker for branded wristbands – I ALWAYS keep them! I feel like they bring people together, make you part of a special festival community from that year, and make a lovely memento from the festival.
- It would have been nice to see DJ Reminise play on the main stage. The Winery Stage was so fun, but SO HOT. Being indoors and full of people, soon made it very warm inside. Given that so many people were clearly LOVING their set, I think it would have worked putting them on a bigger stage and would have broken up the acts on the main stage (genre wise) to keep it varied and fresh.
- Lasty, I wanted it to keep on going! I was pulling at strings to find anything I would have done differently, it really was a well organized, well thought out and FUN festival, perfect for a New Year celebration and one I would recommend to anyone!
All in all, Highlife Festival was amazing! Everyone I spoke to and went along with said it was one of the best New Year’s festivals they had been to – and I agree! Specially designed for a ‘more seasoned festival goer’ this event was R22, meaning only those aged 22+ could attend. It made for a nicer festival experience in my opinion.
I would 100% go again and can safely say it is one of the best New Zealand Festivals I have done so far!
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Although all thoughts and opinions are my own, this was an affiliated post with Highlife Festival who provided me with Press/Guestlist accreditation for the festival. Thank you to Adam and the Highlife Festival team for their support!