Get to know the ins and outs of Auckland with David Whitley’s insider guide to the city.
New Zealand’s largest city is usually thought of as a gateway to the rest of the country or a hub connecting to the South Pacific, but thinking along those lines vastly undersells Auckland.
It’s a huge city – bigger than Greater London – and one with huge geographical scope. Islands, ancient forests, volcanoes, beaches and two natural harbours are all part and parcel.
Within that hodge-podge, however, some ’hoods have particularly high appeal.
Largely business-like with a few little outcrops of style, Auckland’s CBD is not exactly what people come to New Zealand for. But it is on the up – High Street has several interesting shops, a metro system is under construction and main artery Queen Street has smartened up its act.
Aotea Square is the heart of the city and is home to major performance venue the Civic Theatre, while most of the city’s accommodation can also be found in the CBD. This includes the SkyCity Grand (from £148), an ultra-slick five-star hotel surrounded by tempting dining opposite the SkyCity Casino.
“High Street has several interesting shops, a metro system is under construction and main artery Queen Street has smartened up its act.”
The complex wraps around the 328m-tall Sky Tower, which dominates the skyline. This is the spot to get that dose of Kiwi adrenaline with the SkyJump (£115), which involves leaping from the observation deck skydive-style, but attached by a wire.
Or try the SkyWalk (£77), a terrifying walk around the tower’s 192m-high ‘halo’, which is outside, with no handrails, leaning over the edge with just a safety harness preventing your fall.
Split into two parts around the ferry terminal, from where boats depart for the Hauraki Gulf islands, the Waterfront has had a lot of money pumped into it. This is most obvious around Viaduct Harbour, which was given a cash injection when New Zealand hosted the America’s Cup in 2000 and 2003. Expensive apartments, bars and showy restaurants wrap around a marina full of not-exactly-cheap yachts.
Two of them have seen serious racing action, and New Zealand-owned sailing specialist Explore Group has cruise options including the America’s Cup Experience (£92), where enthusiastic novices get to learn the nitty gritty of sailing such a speedy beast.
“Viaduct Harbour was given a cash injection when New Zealand hosted the America’s Cup in 2000 and 2003.”
On the other side is the Britomart, which is essentially a transit centre that has been dolled up. It’s become a place to eat, shop and enjoy public art, as well as to catch a bus.
Between the two is the Hilton Auckland (from £144) which has a bit of character beyond the standard chain hotel, with design and decor that takes its inspiration from the boats moored in the harbour, continuing the nautical theme inside.
There’s a slightly old-money, mildly snooty vibe to Parnell, which flanks the city centre to the eastern side. But it also has an endearing collection of quirky shops and quality restaurants, plus some marvellously maintained Victorian architecture. It looks very pretty, and is a pleasant place to mooch around.
It’s next to the city’s oldest park, the Auckland Domain, which covers 75 hectares and is home to duck ponds, grandiose winter gardens and some spectacular old trees.
“Parnell has an endearing collection of quirky shops and quality restaurants, plus some marvellously maintained Victorian architecture.”
The star of the show, however, is the Auckland Museum (£13). Inside are spectacular traditional Maori buildings, plus riveting sections on the culture of the Pacific Islands and New Zealand’s rather tempestuous geology.
The Quest Parnell (£97), which has spacious monochrome apartments with kitchenettes and a lap pool, is a good option if staying in the area.
On the other side of the city centre, Ponsonby offers a cooler, more inventive take on Parnell’s strollable dining, drinking and shopping scene. Several of the city’s most interesting restaurants can be found along Ponsonby Road, with the Ponsonby Central complex being particularly interesting. Here, several bars and restaurants cluster in what is something between a giant food court and a buzzing restaurant district. It spills down Melbourne-esque laneways, with the physical boundaries between establishments blurred. This makes it marvellous for grazing, and it’s where Auckland’s energy is most obvious.
Arguably New Zealand’s most notorious street, K Road was a major shopping hub before 1960s planning abominations brought in the motorways and killed it off. It then became a red-light district, and while strip clubs still remain, it’s now a good hedonistic all-rounder.
“The once-forlorn St Kevin’s Arcade has been gloriously refurbished to give pride of place to niche eateries and shops in a handsome heritage setting.”
Enjoyably raucous gay bars sit alongside restaurants covering the gamut from Filipino to Lebanese, and the signs of gentrification are there. Brunch cafes are spilling over from Ponsonby, the once-forlorn St Kevin’s Arcade has been gloriously refurbished to give pride of place to niche eateries and shops in a handsome heritage setting, and hopelessly bohemian stores try to sell hippy-ware. It’s not totally glossy yet, but Karangahape Road has morphed into Auckland’s heartbeat.
A 15-minute ferry journey from the waterfront, Devonport dials the pace down considerably. It has a few beaches – albeit none that would be regarded as world-beaters – and a seaside town vibe to match.
It’s a place for idling around, and it manages to pull off timelessness rather than dated or decaying. The restaurants and cafes, which range from Greek to Vietnamese, feel like old favourites rather than desperately trying to attain coolness.
And for shoppers, there’s a nice combo of galleries and bookshops.
A 40-minute ferry ride across the Hauraki Gulf, Waiheke Island is close enough to the city centre for many people to commute from there. Coming the other way are day-trippers intent on enjoying the good life. The island has some spectacular beaches and clifftop walks, but its key role is as a vessel for all things dolce vita.
Thanks to a microclimate that is often warmer, sunnier and drier than the city centre, it has sprouted dozens of vineyards. Most of these specialise in reds – unusual for New Zealand – with the syrahs being lighter and more complex than their Australian shiraz counterparts. There are several destination wineries: Mudbrick is big for weddings, Stonyridge is a regular in lists of the world’s top wines, and Casita Miro has a quirky Spanish flair.
“The island has some spectacular beaches and clifftop walks, but its key role is as a vessel for all things dolce vita.”
Elsewhere, the island has the food to match the wine – there’s a glut of good restaurants, especially around main settlement Oneroa.
Ferry company Fullers offers a nifty Taste of Waiheke package, which includes visits to three wineries and an olive-oil maker, as well as lunch at Stonyridge. The £77 price tag also includes return ferry tickets and use of buses on the island if you want to hang around after the tour has finished.
Waitakere Ranges and West Coast
Head west out of the urban sprawl and you end up in the Waitakere Ranges, which are thickly forested and give spectacular views on both coasts. The Arataki Visitor Centre is the best spot for learning about the landscape, and several walking trails lead from there.
“Head west out of the urban sprawl and you end up in the Waitakere Ranges, which are thickly forested and give spectacular views on both coasts.”
Keep going beyond the Ranges, though, and a steep descent brings you to the absolutely staggering black-sand beaches of Karekare and Piha. Karekare is arguably the more moody and magnificent, while Piha is very much a surfers’ hangout, backed by a couple of cafes. Both feel a world away from the city of 1.5 million people they belong to, though.
Bush and Beach runs excellent half-day tours taking in the Waitakere Ranges and the black-sand beaches for £79.
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