In awe of Auckland

In awe of Auckland

From azure waters to lofty mountains, cool cafes to boutique vineyards, Keith Bain finds plenty of reasons to be impressed by New Zealand’s largest city

The Maori who first settled the narrow swathe of land called it Tamaki Makaurau (Isthmus of 1 000 Lovers). It’s a moniker that resounds with a sense not only of its geographical shape, but also its physical beauty. In fact, Auckland’s loveliness is still evident.

It’s in the voluptuous sprawl of hilly suburbs and villages arranged within a convoluted coastline that twists around the contours of Auckland’s two harbours: Waitemata and Manukau. It’s revealed by the many neighbourhoods – some linked by bridges – studded with volcanic mounds, that spread outwards from the compact, modern city. And it’s obvious when over-looking the southern hemisphere’s largest marina, where the thousands of yachts have given rise to another of Auckland’s telling nicknames: City of Sails.

Beyond this, peppering the azure waters of the Hauraki Gulf, lie its multiple islands, most still raw and unspoilt. And, while this sublime scene alone may seem like reason enough to visit, Auckland is also blessed to be within easy reach of lofty mountains, prodigious vineyards, wild beaches and rugged coastlines clawed by big surf. All around, in fact, there exists the kind of rapturous beauty that is sure to conquer your heart the way it won those of the land’s first inhabitants.

LOOK UP…

Poking up in the middle of Auckland’s compact urban hub and affording the best possible views of the city’s swirling good looks is the landmark Sky Tower. This skyline-defining edifice houses a casino, a theatre and several restaurants – including a revolving one, Orbit, that’s loads of fun. The tallest structure in New Zealand, the lofty edifice rises 328m; a glass elevator whisks you up to one of the three viewing platforms that afford wraparound views.

On clear days, you’ll be able to see as far as the Waitakere Ranges to the west and Great Barrier Island to the east, the Leigh Peninsula to the north and Bombay Hills to the south – reminders of the many natural wonders just awaiting exploration. For a more adrenalin-fuelled perspective, try the Tower’s 192m bungee drop. You can also bungee off another city icon, Harbour Bridge, which connects Auckland to North Shore. Of course, it might be a slightly less terrifying experience (and more conducive to sightseeing) to simply stroll from one side of the bridge to the other.

…AND DOWN

Back on the ground, there are interesting neighbourhoods to explore, including the gentrified Ponsonby, a transformed inner-city arts district filled with design studios and fine restaurants – it’s a good place to glimpse the city’s multiple facets. Another key stretch is Karangahape Road (K Road, as the locals call it), which unfolds as an endless line-up of vintage boutiques, live music venues, quirky galleries, and spots for after-dark carousing. Just about every cuisine known to humanity can be found here too.

By day, free walking tours take in the strip’s historical architecture, and there are treasures such as St. Kevins Arcade, with its second-hand stores and cool cafes. After dark, you can ease into one of the strip’s fabulous cabaret joints, where drinks and meals are served to the accompaniment of dolled-up drag artistes. The original spot for this brand of velvety lip-sync swagger is Caluzzi.

The chic, up-and-coming district, though, is Britomart, a waterfront precinct with a large concentration of heritage buildings, many of which have been given a new lease on life. Its Saturday-morning City Farmers’ Market is a must-do. After you’ve stopped by, there are plenty of restaurants to pick from, including Ortolana, a wonderful bistro that’s a study in comfortable dining, and where they grow all their own vegetables. At the end of the day, you can bid the city goodnight with drinks at 1885 Britomart, a buzzing live-music venue boasting an unforgettable bar.

EXPLORE the RING OF FIRE

Sure, Auckland has grand museums and art galleries, but its most popular family attraction is definitely Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium. It’s entirely below ground: you walk through a transparent acrylic tunnel while rare marine species glide through the water all around you.

New Zealand is not really a country where you want to spend too much of your time indoors, though. Because it forms part of the Ring of Fire that wraps around the edge of the Pacific Ocean, it’s absolutely riddled with volcanoes. More than 40 extinct craters and mounds dot the greater Auckland region – many of them now the focal points of grassy parks, with trails leading up to great views from their summits.

You can join a Maori guide on a walking tour of the volcanoes, or pack a picnic and head off for the top of Maungawhau, 196m above sea level. Also called Mount Eden, it’s the city’s highest natural point, with a 50m deep crater to peer into and breathtaking 360° views. Also well worth visiting is the beautifully landscaped Cornwall Park, which is centred on an iconic volcanic cone known as One Tree Hill (or Maungakiekie). On its slopes are remnants of a former Maori p, a terraced fortified village that predates European settlement.

Next, hop on a ferry to explore Rangitoto Island, a cone-shaped land mass covered in volcanic rock, steadily being reclaimed by coastal forest. Scientists say it popped up out of the ocean less than 600 years ago, making it New Zealand’s youngest volcano. There’s no soil on the island (and it’s 100% pest-free). However, there are 200 species of native trees and flowering plants – including orchids – and 40 different ferns growing in its field of lava rocks. A track that climbs through the world’s largest
phutukawa forest leads to Rangitoto’s 259m summit. It’s a lovely hike with huge rewards at the top.

WANDER THROUGH AN ISLAND

Auckland’s volcanoes also mean that the soil here produces fantastic wines – there are rolling vineyards to the north and south of the city. And, in Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island boasts almost 30 boutique wineries; plus olive groves, lovely swimming beaches such as Onetangi, and swathes of pristine protected wildland where you can get a full sense of a more ancient place.

Waiheke is a mere 35-minute boat ride from downtown Auckland, yet it manages to feel totally otherworldly and faraway. Once known as a Bohemian outpost, the island still has a lively art scene, with plenty of galleries and studios for visitors to check out. (The artistically inclined should also pay a visit to the colossal outdoor artworks at Connells Bay Sculpture Park.)

At one end of the island stands Stony Batter. This was a military zone during the Second World War and the emplacements erected for the massive guns that would’ve been used to defend Auckland against a Japanese invasion are still there, and you can walk through the tunnels that formed part of the defence system. Another, more peaceful, pastime is oyster-shucking at The Oyster Inn, a three-room hotel where you can spend the night if you choose to miss the last ferry back to the mainland. (No one will blame you.)

SOAK UP SOME COASTAL BLISS

Just 25 km to the west of Auckland, the Waitakere Ranges are a string of hills known for their virgin kauri pine forests and giant tree ferns. Beyond them lies the Tasman Sea and the West Coast – a wild strip of seaboard fringed by rugged hills, high bush, and sandy black shores that are pounded by epic waves. Here, you’ll find heaven-sent big-surf beaches such as Piha and Karekare. And, a little farther north, a bit harder to get to, there’s Muriwai with its wonderful sand dunes. Swimming along this raw, untamed coast will make you feel alive, but be warned that the surf can be as treacherous as it looks, so stick to the designated bathing areas.

An hour south of the city centre, there are marvellous panoramas from Manukau Heads Lighthouse at the tip of the Awhitu Peninsula – another worthwhile outing that feels off the beaten track. Aside from its various beaches (some have black sand and some white), there’s a terrific clifftop vineyard and also the magnificent Awhitu Regional Park, which has walking trails and mountain-biking routes. Its rugged, wind-blown landscape is the ideal playground for all sorts of adventure-seekers too –paragliders, hang-gliders and off-road enthusiasts will be in heaven.

Photography: Alamy, Gallo/Gettyimages

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