Statendam: Auckland to Sydney
Day 2: Monday, Auckland/Christchurch
Later today, after a quick commuter flight from Auckland, we'll overnight in Christchurch. We're looking forward to a day or so of more relaxed sightseeing there (it is more compact than Auckland); we'll board Statendam in Christchurch tomorrow.
But first: We're not yet done with Auckland. Indeed, in this city of 1.2 million people (it is home to a significant percentage of New Zealanders), you definitely need two or three days to see just the major sights -- and even then we missed quite a few.
On our second day -- which we were devoting to a visit to Waiheke, one of Auckland's best known outlying islands -- the jet lag woke us up very early and by 8 a.m. we'd breakfasted and packed up again. That's because the one hotel we really wanted to experience (and this is no criticism of the Heritage Auckland, which was immensely comfortable) was the Hilton. Yes, you read that right! The Hilton Auckland, which had been sold out last night and so offered no room at the inn, is tailor made for cruise travelers because the sleek, contemporary hotel was designed with a ship in mind. There are portholes on the outside, most rooms come with balconies and the entire structure juts out over the water so when sitting on your verandah you really do feel like you are at sea.
Plus, the view, particularly on the hotel's "port" side (or left when you're facing the registration desk), is lovely -- you look out over the islands of Huaraki Gulf, the commercial port (can be slightly noisy) and the city itself. One warning: Cruise ships literally dock across a narrow concrete passageway and if in port you may well find that a looming ship obscures your view. A spokeswoman at the hotel says that they have an advance schedule of cruise ship calls and that reservation agents advise travelers when booking -- but you'd also better ask if that matters. Some people, she says, love it!
The Hilton is also the most sophisticated hotel in town, and aside from its nautical style is known for its sleek and spare decor, and White, its fusion-forward restaurant (we didn't get there; the menu seemed both overwrought and overpriced).
Once we dumped our bags we strolled over to Fuller's Ferry, just a five-minute walk, and boarded a boat to Waiheke Island; ferries leave on the hour all day long. What's really fun is that this being the heart of summer here in the southern equator, the sizeable ferry is filled with Aucklanders heading off to the island themselves -- kids and dogs, too.
Waiheke, just a 35-minute ride away, is the most popular of the islands in the Hauraki Gulf and it's easy to see why: It's got lovely beaches, gentle coves whose waters typically feature nary a wavelet, and great opportunities for kayaking, sailing, cycling and swimming.
It's also an island whose near-Mediterranean climes have made it an up-and-comer in winemaking. There are numerous vineyards with wineries you can tour, and restaurants on site at which you can dine (some also grow olives, and olive oil is made in Waiheke). Very Napa Valley!
Beyond that? It's hard to believe that bucolic Waiheke is actually part of the city of Auckland, and yet its tourism entrepreneurs are pretty sophisticated. When you step off the ferry you'll see people holding signs offering a variety of tours, most of which revolve around the vineyards, eco adventure and "island discovery." There are stalls where you can rent a car, bicycle or motor scooter. Island buses -- the cheapest way to get around -- meet each ferry and funnel people into Oneroa Village, its commercial hub, and beyond. Taxis also are available.
One bit of advice though: If you travel to Waiheke with no plans, figuring you'll just "explore" on your own, you may regret it. It's a sprawling place. Much of its interior feels suburban (we expected it to feel more exotic). Oneroa Village, perched above Oneroa Bay, has a couple of interesting craft shops (and a wine store with an excellent selection of island bottles) though there's only one restaurant (Vino Vino) with anything like a scenic view. Also be forewarned: It's a hot and sweaty 30-minute schlep, uphill, from the ferry terminal, though you can ride the bus.
That's why the tours are important -- they'll show you the more intriguing nooks and crannies of this island, which really came of age in the 70's when members of New Zealand's hippy movement settled there (that was a time when Waiheke was more remote, cheaper and artist friendly ... and definitely before the advent of 19 daily ferries made it a viable suburban locale). There's still a trace of its former raffish air, though, especially visible in some of the wacky boutiques in Oneroa.
We had made a plan -- and that was to lunch at a restaurant that's known as the island's finest. Te Whau is a vineyard, first and foremost, growing Bordeaux varietals and its wines are highly acclaimed. But the restaurant? Even better! Housed in a small, very sleek Grecian-like white round building out on a finger of land, it offers 360-degree views over the island, the harbor and even the city of Auckland. Te Whau is the kind of place that could serve mediocre cuisine and still be jammed.
It doesn't. From the open kitchen, Te Whau's chef creates unique dishes using regional ingredients. You start off with homemade bread and accompaniments like the freshest pesto, with spiky flavors of basil and cheese, and a rich extra virgin olive oil made from olives grown on Waiheke. What's odd is that you have to pay $15 for it! We thought it was a splurge ... but didn't regret it.
Our appetizer course followed, with choices like sticky prawn salad and grilled scallops with smoked bacon, garlic and thyme. Entrees included pan fried salmon with parsley risotto, lamb, duck, fish ... every dish we tried offered special combinations of flavors (save for dessert, oddly enough, a kiwi tart that was limp and soggy with a burnt crust). And though this restaurant's winery is known for its red varietals, it's also lauded for a (very) limited edition chardonnay -- a literal labor of love for the owner whose wife pleaded with him to plant a few vines. It was crisp and clean and dry, and it's a shame that they only make two barrels (about 800 bottles) a year cause you can't buy any extra to take home. It's only available by the bottle (another splurge) if it's available at all.
Te Whau was the highlight of our experience not only on Waiheke but also during our entire visit in Auckland, at least culinary-wise. Do reserve early -- we e-mailed the restaurant a few weeks before we departed.
After the ferry ride back to Auckland (be sure to wear sun screen with a significant protection factor -- the sun is really strong here), we ventured to Auckland's Ponsonby neighborhood. Like Parnell it's known for its boutiques and cafes. Unlike Parnell it's more trendy than charming (though off the main drag the neighborhood, quite expensive to live in, is replete with lovely bungalows featuring Victorian touches). The hippest clubs and bars and restaurants are here.
You might think that after the sumptuous lunch at Te Whau we'd be replete for the day and, mostly, we were. Still, we headed to Prego, one of the neighborhood's best-established eateries, and had delicious if tiny mozzarella salads (catch your breath: this appetizer was $19!) and then headed back to the Hilton to soak up the waterfront's atmosphere. Adjacent to the dock on which the hotel sits is the Viaduct, a marina for America's Cup Yachts that is also chock-a-block with cafes and bars. All the young Auckland locals were out, partying boisterously as if there were no tomorrow. At Degree, a bistro-style joint, we took a table at a bar, sipped New Zealand pinot noirs and shivered. Even at this, the prime of summer, evenings are deliciously cool.
Next Day: Onward to Christchurch!
A painless 1 1/2 hour flight on Qantas got us to Christchurch before lunch time (the highlight was the sight of New Zealand's "southern Alps," flecked with snow, we saw as we descended). We dropped off our luggage at the city center Holiday Inn and set out to explore. It was immediately apparent that there were so many differences from Auckland. Even further from the equator, Christchurch by day -- even in summer -- was still a bit brisk. Though the sun shone warm, the wind was nippy.
Christchurch, with more than 300,000 residents, offers more of a sense of history than does Auckland. The city dates back to the mid-19th century, and is known for its English character. Anglophiles will enjoy the British touches: red phone booths, the river Avon, lush gardens and the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral that anchors Cathedral Square.
Get your bearings first by taking a hop-on, hop-off tourist tram that makes the rounds of the city's best known attractions; it includes a stop at Cathedral Square. From there, we trundled around, spying highlights such as the "Strip" (the very lovely Oxford Terrace, which comprised a strip of sidewalk cafes fronting the River Avon), the Christchurch Art Gallery, the Arts Centre Christchurch, the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park before heading back to the city. The roundtrip takes a whopping 25 minutes. All of these sites are walkable (some more of a stroll than others) but the tram is a nice convenience.
Christchurch was named by one of the early settlers in honor of Oxford's Christ Church College and one irony here is that the town's most historic college -- Canterbury University -- actually moved to the suburbs about 30 years ago. Its Gothic Revival-styled buildings now house many of the city's most interesting tourist attractions. One is the Arts Centre, which features fabulous artisan boutiques specializing in original designs in fabric and handmade wooden bowls. It also has a handful of intriguing restaurants, from Le Cafe with its lovely outdoor plaza to Dux de Lux for casual vegetarian fare.
Just beyond, the Canterbury Museum is a must-see. The museum itself dates back to the city's founding days and is a great place to learn about local Maori lifestyles, arts and culture. As well, check out the Hall of Antarctic Discovery; Christchurch has long been a jumping-off point for Antarctic missions. Note: There's more if you're interested in the Antarctic -- at the International Antarctic Center, located outside of town, you can actually experience a simulated storm, among other things!
Completely contemporary, sleek and stark -- in fun contrast to its Gothic neighbors -- is the Christchurch Arts Gallery. It only opened a few years ago and its design is meant to replicate the wavy sails of sailing ships. Beyond a revolving series of exhibits, there's a cafe and a fabulous gift shop selling artisans' wares.
Of all these, my favorite place was the Botanic Garden, right next door to the Canterbury Museum. You simply wander in through the gates (no ticket necessary) and let yourself get lost amongst its winding pathways that line the River Avon and wind in and out of themed gardens. Keep an eye out for the towering "monkey puzzle": the branches on one of the most bizarre looking trees I've ever seen feature snakelike fronds of stubby palm-like leaves. When the wind blows they twist, eerily, looking more like snakes, frankly, than chimps.
Back in town, a great spot for lunch, particularly on a sunny day, is one of the dozen sidewalk cafes that line Christchurch's "strip" along Oxford Terrace, facing the River Avon. Don't miss a chance to "punt on the Avon" -- the British equivalent to gliding in Venice's gondolas.
Downtown Christchurch shutters up early in the evenings. But Oxford Terrace's numerous restaurants, just off the center, still bustle, and that's the place to go for a drink or a meal during these long white nights (the sun sets about 9 p.m.). This time we ended up at the Coyote Street Bar and Restaurant, sitting outdoors with steins of Speights, the local beer, and listening to a band playing U.S. pop tunes by the Avon River.
It was too nippy to stay out after dark, so we ducked into one of the city's numerous Greek takeaway shops, picked up a couple of gyros to go, and headed back to our hotel. An early night. We're saving ourselves for the nightlife on Statendam.
At Last: We Board the Ship!
The prospect of finally boarding the ship that we traveled all this way to experience hovered over our first morning in Christchurch and though we managed to find time to (again) ride the tram, take a long stroll through the Botanic Gardens, buy a fabulous hand-made evening purse at one of the Arts Centre's boutiques and listen to an impromptu organ concert inside the Cathedral, it was soon enough time to go.
Christchurch is about a half hour's drive from the port city of Lyttleton (over the mountains or, as it were, through a historic tunnel carved in it) -- and the city was offering bus service from the ship to town at a cost of $15 NZ or $10 U.S.
Lyttleton itself is first and foremost a town that serves cargo shipping -- and while there are a few artsy craftsy boutiques, along with cafes that either hadn't yet opened or were already closing (at lunchtime?), we made a quick foray into the supermarket, picked up some water and soda, and got onboard Statendam.
Boarding the ship felt like coming home for me, already a veteran of Holland America's older, mid-sized ships. The four-tier atrium was cozy and welcoming. There were paneled walls resembling dark wood with artwork more reminiscent of Rembrandt than Picasso. The ship itself was in full "in port, nobody's home" mode -- lovely, peaceful and quiet.
And if you haven't been on one of Holland America's S-class ships before? Don't worry, you'll figure your way around quite easily.
In my case I figured my way to the Rotterdam Dining Room where I indulged in an American hamburger and french fries for lunch.