Auckland may not be New Zealand’s capital but its inhabitants will claim superiority in everything from art and culture to cuisine and entertainment. And who can blame them? To the rest of the country, Aucklanders are sometimes seen as a bit snooty and insular. That, of course, is fine by them. They’d most likely agree.
A metropolis defined by volcanoes, villages and water, New Zealand’s largest city demands to be seen from above. Take to the dizzying heights of the 1,076ft Sky Tower — the tallest man-made point in the Southern Hemisphere — whose needle punctuates the city skyline from almost every viewpoint. Or for an entirely different angle, leap off the top of this soaring structure via the notorious Sky Jump for giddying vistas of sprouting skyscrapers, grassy volcanoes and piercing blue sea.
It may have once been a swamp, yet this aspirational waterfront city now sparkles on bright summer days — you can spend an age exploring the city just by hugging the shoreline.
First-timers shouldn’t miss the Viaduct Harbour, built for New Zealand’s hosting of the 1995 America’s Cup. From here, it’s easy to see why it’s called the City of Sails — with around 135,000 yachts and launches, there’s more water craft per person than any other city in the world.
Head inland and you’ll no doubt stumble across the Wynyard Quarter, a piece of industrial dockland converted into a strip of buzzing restaurants and bars — the striking result of the city’s major regeneration project, prior to New Zealand hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Further round the shore is Mission Bay, where summer barbecues, fish and chips on the beach, and gelato scoffing are the order of the day.
If action is more your thing, hop on a moped and explore its myriad villages. Fifteen minutes away by ferry is Devonport — a small suburb by the sea with classic Kiwi architecture. And a little further out is Waiheke Island — once home to hippies seeking escapism from the big city but now home to dozens of vineyards and some of Auckland’s best foodie haunts.
Food glorious food
Auckland’s bounteous backyard of vineyards and fresh seafood, bolstered by its cultural heritage means you’ll be bowing to the fork on arrival. European sensibilities dominate, although a recent influx of Asian immigrants is giving the food scene an extra kick. The city may lack a single defining cuisine, but that doesn’t stop its residents demanding fresh, local produce prepared in innovative ways.
For breakfast, Kokako Cafe & Roastery, in the suburb of Grey Lynn, offers up organic fare and freshly roasted coffee in a former post office. Though it’s not advertised as such, the menu is strictly vegetarian; the organic potato hash with grilled goat’s cheese and avocado is a favourite.
Elsewhere, Depot Eatery and Oyster Bar — located in the shadow of the Sky Tower — exudes a casual atmosphere, with wine served on tap. But it also has some of the best fresh seafood dishes in the city. For dinner, Coco’s Cantina on Karangahape Road is a sure bet. Although ‘K Road’ was once known as the city’s red-light district, it’s since morphed into a lively social hub, with more salubrious temptations. Coco’s brings rustic Italian flavours combined with a laid-back New Zealand style, dishing up the best steaks in town.
Heading out of the central city, along Dominion Road, you’ll stumble upon myriad cheap, low-key eats. Take your pick from its small family-run establishments or try Cinta for a no-fuss Malaysian experience.
On Saturday nights, the Pakuranga Night Market is home to all sorts of sizzling cuisine, spanning New Zealand’s array of ethnic communities. Whether its hangi pies, steamed pork buns, curry or churros, you’ll find it here.
After a night out, there’s no other stop than The White Lady — a food-truck takeaway that’s been a stalwart of the Auckland after-hours scene since 1948. It’s greasy, cheap, tasty and open until the early hours.
Kokako Cafe & Roastery: 537 Great North Road. T: 00 64 9 379 2668. www.kokako.co.nz
Depot Eatery and Oyster Bar: 86 Federal Street. T: 00 64 9 363 7048. www.eatatdepot.co.nz
Coco’s Cantina: 376 Karangahape Rd. T: 00 64 9 300 7582. www.cocoscantina.co.nz
Cinta: 452-454 Dominion Rd. T: 00 64 9 623 2808. www.cintarestaurant.co.nz
Pakuranga Night Market: Corner Ti Rakau Drive and Reeves Road, Pakuranga. www.aucklandnightmarket.co.nz
The White Lady: 18 Commerce Street. T: 00 64 9 379 5803.
Come 5pm on Friday, Auckland’s suits spill out onto the city pavements and head to the nearest watering hole.
One of these is Northern Steamship Co, in Britomart. Around 130 years ago, this was the headquarters of a shipping company. Today it’s big with young professionals seeking cold beer and snacks in an airy, high-ceilinged space.
Just down the road, the Britomart Country Club is a Kiwi take on an English institution. If you’re into pints, Pimm’s, pétanque and mini golf, you can enjoy them here in a curious green astroturfed courtyard.
Further uptown, in Ponsonby, you could be forgiven for walking straight past Golden Dawn; there’s no signage and its windows are blacked out. Here’s where some of Auckland’s hipsters like to hang out, sipping home-brewed beer and dancing beside the DJ’s decks.
If wine is your thing, then head to Wine Cellar, on Karangahape Road, hidden down a flight of stairs. It usually has some eclectic live music to go with the Pinot Noir and the equally eclectic crowd. It makes do with old sofas, rugs on concrete floors, and simple tables and benches — all nicely bohemian with a grungy tinge.
For a more rowdy night, slip on your party gear for Snapdragon in the Viaduct — a popular spot for the marauding evening crowd looking for a chance to sing along to some well-worn classics on a sticky dance floor.
Elsewhere, Vector Arena usually houses big name international music acts but the smaller, more intimate affairs, are equally popular. Head to The Kings Arms Tavern for a close-quarters rock ’n’ roll experience.
And then there’s sport. Eden Park is a good place to check out some of the best rugby (and sometimes cricket) in the world. After the game, drown your sorrows or celebrate the win at Neighbourhood in nearby Kingsland.
Northern Steamship Co: 122 Quay Street. T: 00 64 9 374 3952. www.northernsteamship.co.nz
Britomart Country Club: 31 Galway Street. T: 00 64 9 303 2541. www.britomartcountryclub.co.nz
Golden Dawn: 134 Ponsonby Road. T: 00 64 9 376 9929. www.goldendawn.co.nz
Wine Cellar: 183 Karangahape Road. T: 00 64 9 377 8293.
Snapdragon: 204 Quay St. T: 00 64 9 357 6147. www.snapdragonbar.co.nz
Vector Arena: Mahuhu Crescent. T: 00 64 9 358 1250. www.vectorarena.co.nz
The Kings Arms Tavern: 59 France Street. T: 00 64 9 373 3240. www.kingsarms.co.nz
Eden Park: 169 Dominion Road. T: 00 64 9 630 6610. www.edenpark.co.nz
Neighbourhood: 498 New North Road. T: 00 64 9 846 3773. www.neighbourhood.co.nz
Piles of style
The suburb of Ponsonby enjoys a reputation among New Zealanders as a place where people sip lattes, wear big sunglasses and drive large 4WDs. You can often find what passes for Auckland celebrities manning the outdoor cafe tables, while sporting their designer fashion threads. Appropriately, it’s also home to some of the city’s best up-market shopping.
Juliette Hogan is a relatively new presence in the world of New Zealand fashion. Her store is full of light, feminine and simple womenswear. Nearby, Wunderkammer is more than just a place to buy things — it’s an aesthetic experience. The store looks like an old, rustic holiday home, with wood-panelled walls and an array of antique jewellery. The clothes are mostly for men, but there’s a small selection for women too.
For a simpler shopping experience, your best bet is Newmarket’s Broadway, whose stores have a little bit of everything, from retro finds to homeware. Try the shopping mall Two Double Seven for clothing classics, including Country Road, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss.
For the less mainstream, pop into Made, with its peeling archways and exposed brickwork. The store sports a huge range of clothing and shoes by international designers such as Miss Crabb, APC and Deadly Ponies. Also represented here is local lady Karen Walker, whose playful and whimsical creations have a huge local female following.
If that’s all a little too pricey, there are plenty of markets to sniff out a bargain in. The Otara Flea Market is a taste of the city’s South Pacific influence — Auckland, after all, has the largest Polynesian population of any city in the world. Browse stalls of clothing, fresh fruit, vegetables and food stalls, and stock up on arts and crafts, created by the local Maori, Samoan, Tongan and Niue communities.
Juliette Hogan: 170 Ponsonby Road. T: 00 64 9 360 9347. www.juliettehogan.com
Wunderkammer: 76a Ponsonby Road T: 00 64 9 360 4090. www.wunderkammerjewellery.com
Two Double Seven (officially Westfield 277 Newmarket): Level 1, Office Tower, 277 Broadway, Newmarket.
Made: 30-32 Customs Street. T: 00 64 9 366 1693. www.otarafleamarket.co.nz
Karen Walker: 2/171 Ponsonby Rd. www.karenwalker.com
Otara Flea Market: Newbury Street. T: 00 64 9 274 0830.
Top 10 local tips
01 Pop into Auckland Art Gallery for a free tour of New Zealand’s high culture. www.aucklandartgallery.com
02 In winter, Aotea Square is rigged with lights and an outdoor ice rink, so you can don your winter jacket and go for a skate.
03 For cheap laughs, head to Classic Comedy and Bar on Queen Street. www.comedy.co.nz
04 Q Theatre on Queen Street is the city’s newest, hosting local productions and international acts — with a great bar. www.qtheatre.co.nz
05 On summer nights, bring a blanket, grab some free popcorn and find a spot on the grass at Wynyard Quarter to watch classic movies projected onto an old concrete silo.
06 Take a ferry or a bus to Devonport and explore the WWII tunnels at North Head or check out the kite flyers and paragliders playing in the wind.
07 Hop over to Waiheke Island and rent a scooter to explore myriad vineyards. Te Whau Restaurant has one the best wine lists in the world, including its own award-winning vintages, plus great views of the city. www.tewhau.com
08 To enjoy the Auckland shoreline, rent some roller blades or a tandem bike and ride along Tamaki Drive.
09 Hire a car and explore Auckland’s rugged west coast beaches, home to black sands and wild weather.
10 Head up the Sky Tower and leap off! A cable clipped to your jump suit means SkyJump’s 630ft free fall will deliver you to the pavement in one piece.
Mr Ponsonby, by Ian Middleton. RRP: £5. (Lyndon)
In my Father’s Den, by Maurice Gee. RRP: £16.99. (ReadHowYouWant).
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)