Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, is a common starting and ending point for Australia/New Zealand cruise itineraries. Perched near the upper end of the North Island, it has an ideal location for cruise lines looking to schedule calls in other North Island ports (Wellington, Napier, Picton) and South Island towns (Dunedin and Christ Church) in between here and Sydney.
Auckland is, no doubt about it, the most bustling and cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. But what surprised me when I first arrived, after nearly 26 hours spent traveling from the U.S. East Coast, was that it didn't feel at all as exotic as I expected -- at least at first glance.
As far as architecture is concerned, downtown Auckland has experienced a building boom in the past 30 years or so. Unfortunately, that means that there's little historic charm; indeed, the concrete and glass Sky Tower, a massive "needle" type attraction built in 1996, is the city's most iconic landmark. With the overuse of concrete, even buildings currently under construction look like they've stepped right out of the 1970s, rather than appearing dynamic and modern. There are a few signs of the city's past -- the revitalized Ferry Building by the waterfront, which houses a couple of restaurants and a gelato bar, is a good example -- but downtown's growth by and large has been marked more by knocking down old buildings than by renovating them.
What makes Auckland a truly unique destination is its fabulous proximity to the water. Lining the Waitemata Harbor -- which leads to the Gulf of Hauraki and the Bay of Islands -- the city's waterfront bustles with ferry traffic. From downtown it's an easy hop to Waiheke Island, a one-time hippie hangout that's now earning recognition for its beautiful vistas and thriving winemaking culture. There's Devonport, on the north shore, a charming coastal town (with a great view of Auckland across the harbor); it's replete with cafes, parks and shops. Beyond the more urban waterways you can travel to other scenic spots -- from the gentle Seabird Coast to the south to the rugged Pacific-fringed Northland in the opposite direction. Both are easy daytripping options.
Another geographic highlight of Auckland, which sits on an isthmus, is its 46 volcanic hills that are scattered around the city. They're easily identifiable, rising suddenly and steeply and featuring flat tops. On some, such as Mt. Eden, the craters are mossy and furry with grass. You can drive or walk to the top. The views, stretching past the harbors of Waitemata and Manukau and bordered by mountain ranges, are almost as good as those from Auckland's famous Sky Tower.
What will also impress you is the friendliness of the folks who live and work there. The sense we got, over and over again, is that Aucklanders really do revel in the city's relatively newfound popularity amongst tourists -- whether from the South Island, Australia (a three-hour flight away and the closest major land mass) or from Asia, Europe and the U.S. The people we've met after three days here are quick to display a strong sense of pride in their city and take it upon themselves to make sure you've enjoyed your visit.
Nearly everyone working in the hospitality arena -- hotels, shops, restaurants, taxis -- is superbly gracious and efficient (and, interestingly, it's not the anticipation of a gratuity that spurs them -- tipping, outside of restaurants, is not really encouraged here). The friendliness is intrinsic, starting with the city buses operated by Stagecoach Auckland; those not carrying passengers offer signs saying "sorry" before they move into "out of service."
There were numerous other examples of excellence, like the cab driver who got lost -- and said "my fault, let's start that meter over." At our hotels, all requests -- a quick turnaround on our dry cleaning, an American-friendly electric plug, extra furniture for the balcony and even a quick jump start when our rental car's battery went dead -- were met with smiles and quick follow-through.
The only place where we encountered big-city brusqueness was, ironically, in the Viaduct, a place basically designed to attract tourists (locals, too). Lining the Viaduct Basin, it's one of the few old structures that has been restored and is chock-a-block with cafes, pubs and bistros. One night, we slid into Pat O'Hagan's, an almost eerily quiet Irish pub. The girls behind the bar were so consumed with wiping plastic-covered menus that they were too busy to wait on a lone table of two walk-ins. After spending an awkward 15 minutes being ignored, we walked out, only stopping to ask: "What do you have to do to get service here?" One of the barkeeps smirked and said, "You come to the bar." She couldn't have been an Aucklander -- or even a New Zealander, come to think of it. Her manners were too poor.
Princes Wharf is located right in the heart of Auckland's waterfront. Numerous cafes, bistros, cyber centers and shops are within minutes by foot (and the city's main shopping district is about a 10-minute walk).
The Sky Tower (Victoria and Federal streets) is the perfect "I just got to Auckland" place to visit. At 1,082 feet high, it towers above the city. Its observation deck offers a superb 360-degree panoramic view; visual guides are provided. One of the creepiest features of the observation deck -- at least for this vertigo sufferer -- is the thick, clear glass panels placed in the floor. Step on them and look down many hundreds of feet to the street level. Kids seemed to have no fear of walking on them but I could not, for the life of me, force myself to do it! There's a terrific gift shop at the basement entrance to the observation deck.
And there's more to Sky Tower than merely observing the view -- the truly daring can also leap off the Sky Deck, a bungee-jumping experience that drops more than 600 feet (192 meters). Fees start at $28 for adults to visit the observation lounge, and they escalate rapidly for the more adventurous activities. (The bungee-jumping fee, for example, is a steep $225.)
Sky Tower is part of the Sky City complex, which also has a huge casino and some of the city's most popular restaurants, such as The Depot, The Grill and The Sugar Club by Peter Gordon.
The Auckland Museum (Auckland Domain, Park Road) is not to be missed. You'll spy it immediately from the Sky Tower vantage point: the Greek Revival-style structure makes it easily the most distinctive building in Auckland. Many of its exhibits center around New Zealand's Maori people, the original inhabitants of the island, but it also has displays focusing on local history and geography.
Go shopping along Queen Street, the city's major hub for fashion, restaurants and cafes. Those interested learning about New Zealand's fashion designers should make sure to visit Smith & Caughey, the city's main department store, and Vulcan Lane (between Queen Street and O'Donnell), where many of its most interesting boutiques are clustered.
For those in search of local charm and character, don't miss a foray into Parnell or Ponsonby, two of the city's most interesting neighborhoods. Parnell is a bit more elegant; there you'll find jewelry and artisan boutiques, cozy sidewalk cafes and the Parnell Rose Gardens. Ponsonby is hipper and funkier, with trendy designer shops, sleek restaurants and, for those who overnight in Auckland, the city's sleekest bars and nightclubs.
Waiheke Island, located a 35-minute ferry ride away from the Auckland waterfront, reminded me a bit of the U.S. Virgin Islands' St. John. Like that island, Waiheke was once famed as a nesting spot for people in search of alternative lifestyles and really gained prominence as a destination for arty folks in the 1970s. These days, it attracts Auckland commuters and active types drawn to its great beaches and water sports. It also appeals to connoisseurs of food and wine -- Te Whau Vineyard (open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for lunch and tastings, and for dinner from 6:30 p.m.) is one of the most storied restaurants in Auckland, with stunning views of Waiheke Island, Rangitoto and the Auckland Isthmus. The ferry ride is $36.50 roundtrip.
For a first-time visit to Waiheke, your best bet is to book a tour; we had a marvelous food-and-wine-themed day, via Ananda.
Kelly Tarlton, New Zealand's most famous treasure hunter, has launched Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World and Antarctic Encounter, a marine park located harborside that offers everything from a fisheye view of the sea to an Antarctic adventure.
Devonport, which dates back to the mid-19th century and was the first settlement on the north side of the harbor, is simply a very pleasant town in which to while away an afternoon -- particularly if you've succumbed to sightseeing burnout. A small village with a main street of shops and boutiques, Devonport faces Auckland proper from across the bay. Attractions there include the tunnels of North Head and the Navy Museum, but we simply enjoyed a meal at the Victorian Esplanade hotel and went window shopping.
Rangitoto Island, which emerged as an erupted volcano, is a great place for hiking through lava fields and into lava caves. You can even stroll around the crater's rim. Fullers' ferries offer year-round departures.
There are three primary ways to get around the city of Auckland and its nearby attractions. Walking is the best way to explore downtown. To get beyond the central business district (CBD), look for a bus called "The Link." Taxis are relatively plentiful; many, such as those that serve the airport, accept credit cards.
Downtown (Casual Dining): Head over to the Viaduct for a whole range of restaurants including Degree Gastrobar (204 Quay Street) and Soul Bar. We loved the Belgian-influenced Occidental Cafe (3 O'Connell Street), a great place for a pint and a bowl of steamed mussels.
Downtown (Big Night --or Day -- Out): Harbourside specializes in seafood and even better, it offers the finest harbor views, via its second-floor outdoor deck; definitely try to snag one of those tables on a nice day (or night). Locals unanimously recommended the French Cafe (210 Symonds Street) though, alas, we didn't get there. Don't miss out on the steamed mussels (and a great local wine list) at the O'Connell Street Bistro.
Downtown's Sky City: This massive entertainment and dining complex houses some of the city's best -- and trendiest -- restaurants. On our trip, we had a great meal at The Grill (Saturday to Thursday, midday to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, and 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. for dinner). It's got fabulous local seafood (oysters, king crab) and outstanding steaks with duck fat French fries. The Depot (7 a.m. to late) is a fast-paced oyster bar that wouldn't feel out of place in New Orleans. And, for romantic evenings, try The Sugar Bar by Peter Gordon (5:30 p.m. to 9.30p.m.).
The Neighborhoods: In Ponsonby, you really can just stroll up and down the main drag and pick an eatery based on your mood (they come in all shapes and sizes); we enjoyed Prego (226 Ponsonby Road) for its wood-fired pizzas. Options also include Malaysian, Thai, Japanese, regional New Zealand, French, Italian, and on and on. The restaurants are pretty much clustered in the 100 to 200 blocks of Ponsonby Road. Nightclubbers: There's a lot of action here after dinner as well.
Waiheke Island: Take a cab from the ferry dock to the aforementioned Te Whau (reserve before you leave home). VinoVino Restaurant and Bar (3/153 Ocean View Road), is the only place in the town of Oneroa that offers scenic waterfront dining.
Ships dock at Princes Wharf, right alongside the Hilton Hotel in the heart of downtown Auckland.
The currency is New Zealand dollars (check www.xe.com for the current exchange rates). ATMs are plentiful, as are banks and currency exchange operations. Let's be honest: New Zealand is an expensive country to explore.