Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand, the de facto capital of Polynesia and is changing rapidly, but few people seem to stay there. For travellers, it’s long been a stepping stone either to the rest of New Zealand or the South Pacific. Some elements have always been there — the easily accessible islands in the Hauraki Gulf, which offer wildlife and wine, the ancient forests of the Waitakere Ranges and the west coast’s black-sand beaches. But others are emerging. Several new restaurant and shopping areas are springing up: the appallingly named but actually rather impressive Britomart Transport Centre downtown or Ponsonby Central, somewhere between posh food court and restaurant strip. A new metro system is being built and the city centre is smartening up. Accommodation is also improving. Historically, the scene has followed the wider trend in New Zealand — slightly underwhelming hotels plus some genuinely interesting B&Bs and lodges that ramp things up a level. Now, though, there are a growing number of exceptions to this rule and there’s never been a better time to stay in Auckland.
For harbour views: Hilton Auckland
At first glance, it’d be easy to think a massive cruise ship had bagged a prime spot next to the ferry terminal. But it’s just the Hilton, sticking out into the harbour. The lobby’s light-wood floor looks like a planked deck, dangling ropes with knots are used as decoration and massive yachting murals drop down from the mezzanine. The marine theme is a little more subtle in the recently refurbished rooms, though the wave pattern carpet is rather lovely. The pool is surprisingly small and shaded, so if you fancy a dip it’s best to hop next door and take a ferry to Waiheke for a day at the beach.
Rooms: From NZ$331 (£186), room only.
For island life: The Oyster Inn
Waiheke Island is a near-perfect slice of loveliness, a 40-minute ferry flit from the city centre. It’s (somewhat reluctantly) part of Auckland, but has become a handsome haven of beaches, scenic clifftops, olive oil makers and wineries. Oneroa is the main settlement and the Oyster Inn has a justified reputation as its prime seafood joint. But it also has three rather dreamy rooms upstairs, which all give off a Scandi-meets-Cape Cod vibe. Light-wood floors, white-painted ceiling beams and pictures of sailing yachts are topped up with stripy umbrellas and beach towels, covering most weather eventualities. Palm trees stand proud outside and shipping maps adorn the corridors, echoing the island vibe nicely.
Rooms: From NZ$245 (£138), room only.
For foodies: SkyCity Grand
Of Auckland’s business-centred hotels, the SkyCity Grand is arguably the slickest. Vast comfy beds, bold lobby art, eye-popping views from the rooms on the higher levels… It does what it does well, and is connected by a footbridge to the SkyCity casino complex. But what’s far more interesting is what’s grown up around it. The block of Federal Street that SkyCity occupies is now a hive of restaurants. These range from the smart Sugar Club on the 53rd level of the Sky Tower to the chilled Federal Delicatessen, as well as relative stalwarts such as tapas trendsetter Bellota and ultra-hip Kiwiana.
Rooms: From NZ$290 (£163), room only.
For local life: Ponsonby Manor Guest House
Barring Waiheke Island, Ponsonby is by far Auckland’s best area to stay, and Ponsonby Manor Guest House channels the locale’s historic side — the building is around 150 years old. Black and white photos of trams hang proudly above the beds, and there are some cute vintage desks. But there’s more to it than just a wistful longing for the past. There’s a communal kitchen and barbecue in the garden for guests to use. The other draw in the garden at Ponsonby Manor is its very own crop of bananas, grapefruit, strawberries and feijoa — feel free to help yourself to ripe ones if you’re feeling peckish.
Rooms: From NZ$152 (£85), B&B.
For style: Hotel DeBrett
The Hotel DeBrett is proudly trying to do something different. Theatrical red and green tassels replace do-not-disturb signs, bedside tables look like Lilliputian school desks, and old-fashioned dial radios sit on top of them. The furniture looks like it’s been lovingly picked out by someone trawling antique shops, and the walls have been covered in paintings. The overall feel is one of vintage and modernity, and the air of careful curation stretches as far as the mini bars with their Auckland-roasted coffees, locally made chocolate and manuka teas.
Rooms: From NZ$390 (£219), room only.
For longer stays: Quest Parnell
Inside a boxy, brutalist building, the Quest Parnell is one of the strongest options outside the city centre. That’s partly because it’s in schmoozy, old money Parnell, where pretty Victorian architecture mixes with a big concentration of cafes and gift shops. But it’s also because it has rather snazzy monochrome apartments — try and bag one with a big balcony looking out over the Sky Tower. There’s a weird and wonderful heated lap pool on site, and anyone hunkering down for more than a couple of nights will be pleased to find that apartments come with a mini-kitchen, washer and dryer.
Rooms: From NZ$189 (£106), room only.
For heritage: Peace and Plenty Inn
Forget contemporary cool, this deluxe B&B in seaside suburb Devonport goes the whole hog for vivid Victoriana, and pulls it off. Big lavender bushes in the front garden give way to a kauri timber building brimming with old-fashioned travel chests, stained-glass windows and furniture passed down through generations. Mammoth servings of complimentary port and sherry sit on the chests of drawers, all the food is organic, and the owner has arranged for discounts at several Devonport cafes for anyone showing their room key. There are also two gorgeous chocolate cocker spaniels and you’re more than welcome to take them out for a walk.
Rooms: From $257 (£144), B&B.
For backpackers: Verandahs Backpacker Lodge
Neatly sandwiched between Auckland’s two most enjoyable strips — hip Ponsonby Road and eclectic Karangahape Road — Verandahs is by no means a new generation hostel, but does have some pleasant surprises. There are several individual bathrooms and no bunk beds. The lounge has a piano, guitar and board games, there are balconies to sit out on, plus a large garden with sun-loungers, a barbecue and pizza oven.
Rooms: Dorm beds from NZ$32 (£18), doubles from NZ$82 (£46), en-suite doubles from NZ$102 (£57), room only.
For wildlife: Tiritiri Matangi Island Bunkhouse
Standing in the shadow of New Zealand’s oldest working lighthouse is the former keeper’s cottage, now turned into basic accommodation for those who want to stay on a rather remarkable island. Tiritiri Matangi — in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf — is used by the Department of Conservation as a haven for rare bird species including the little spotted kiwi, which only come out at night. That’s where the bunkhouse comes in. Bring your own food and linen, and the views are majestic.
Rooms: Beds from NZ$30 (£17), room only.
For art: Great Ponsonby Art Hotel
The love that has gone into the Great Ponsonby Art Hotel shines through at every turn, from the Fairtrade teas and hot chocolates in the rooms to the work-of-art rugs on the creaky floors. Fijian tapa cloths are used as decoration, windows have Pacific Island patterns on the glass and door numbers are tile art. The lounge area is a fine place to enjoy the free welcome drink while asking the friendly staff for local restaurant tips. And then you can check out the private art collection.
Rooms: From NZ$162 (£91), B&B.
Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)