WHAT TO DO
Auckland is a delightful city on the North Island of New Zealand. It is located in the Auckland Region, which includes the outlying towns and the islands of the Hauraki Gulf - making it the most populous urban area in the country. It is a diverse, multicultural and cosmopolitan city, home to the largest Polynesian population in the world. The Maori (indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand) name for Auckland is Tamaki Makaurau, meaning 'Tamaki desired by many', in reference to the desirability of its natural resources and geography. The city's surrounding hills are covered by rainforests and the landscape is dotted with dozens of dormant volcanic cones. The isthmus on which Auckland resides was first settled by the Maori around 1350 and was valued for its rich and fertile land. The Maori population in the area is estimated to have peaked at 20000 before the arrival of Europeans. A British colony was established here in 1840 by William Hobson, the Lieutenant Governor of New Zealand. He named the area for George Eden, Earl of Auckland, British First Lord of the Admiralty. Maori - European conflict over land in the region led to war in the mid 19th century. Today, this pleasant place at the bottom of the world offers so many delights. There's plenty to see and do in the city center, but be sure to get out onto the waters of the Hauraki Gulf and explore its many islands. One of the closest to the mainland is Waiheke Island, home to emerald waters and world class wineries.
Start your adventure at the country's most important museum, the Auckland War Memorial Museum. This imposing neoclassical temple dominates the vast Auckland Domain (public park) and is a prominent part of the city skyline. Its collections concentrate on New Zealand history, natural history and military history. The displays of Pacific Island and Maori artifacts on the museum's ground floor are essential viewing. Highlights include an impressive war canoe and an extant carved meeting house (remove your shoes before entering). There's also a fascinating display on Auckland's volcanic field, including an eruption simulation, and the upper floors showcase military displays, fulfilling the building's dual role as a war memorial. Be sure to take in a Maori cultural performance before you leave. Note: the museum is open every day from 10a-5p. From there, make your way to the Auckland Art Gallery, found at the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Street in the Central Business District (CBD). The city's premier art museum has a striking glass and wood atrium grafted onto its 1887 French chateau frame. It has the most extensive collection of national and international art in New Zealand. The gallery showcases works by Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin and Matisse. Highlights include the intimate 19th century portraits of tattooed Maori subjects by Charles Goldie and the starkly dramatic text scrawled canvases of Colin McCahon. Note: the gallery is open every day from 10a-5p. Not far away is Auckland's most famous landmark, the Sky Tower. At over 1000 feet, it is the southern hemisphere's tallest structure. An elevator whisks you up to the observation decks for commanding views of the city and surrounding islands. Spectacular lighting renders it space age at night and the colors change for special events. Note: consider visiting at sunset and having a drink in the Sky Lounge Cafe & Bar.
Located at 149 Quay Street in Viaduct Harbour is the New Zealand Maritime Museum. It traces NZ’s seafaring history, from Maori voyaging canoes to the America’s Cup sailing yachts. Recreations include a tilting 19th century steerage class cabin and a 1950s beach store and bach (holiday home). 'Blue Water Black Magic' is a tribute to Sir Peter Blake, the Whitbread Round the World and America’s Cup winning yachtsman who was murdered in 2001 on an environmental monitoring trip in the Amazon. Note: the museum is open every day from 10a-5p. Next, head to majestic Mount Eden. From the top of Auckland’s highest volcanic cone (650ft), the entire isthmus and both harbors are laid bare. The symmetrical crater (165ft deep) is known as Te Ipu Kai a Mataaho (the Food Bowl of Mataaho, the god of secrets hidden in the earth) and is considered tapu (sacred). The volcano erupted 28000 years ago. Do not enter it, but feel free to explore the remainder of the mountain. Paths lead up the mountain from six different directions and the walk takes about fifteen minutes. Recently, a network of boardwalks was installed to help protect the historical and cultural significance of the site. Note: start and finish your exploration of Mount Eden at the nearby Maungawhau Visitor Experience Center. Opened in late 2019, this excellent visitor center showcases the geological and Maori cultural history of Maungawhau/Mount Eden. Highlights include an interesting ten minute video about Auckland's volcanic field - and there's a cafe with brunch fare and splendid views of the city. Close by on Reimers Avenue is Eden Park. It is New Zealand's largest sports stadium (50000 capacity) and the home of the world renowned rugby team, the All Blacks. Note: if you cannot attend a match, behind the scenes stadium tours (90 minutes) run at 10a and 2p Monday through Friday.
Another magnificent site is One Tree Hill. This volcanic cone was the isthmus’ vital pa (defensive settlement) and the greatest fortress in the country. At the top (600ft) there are 360 degree views and the grave of John Logan Campbell, who gifted the land to the city in 1901 and requested that a memorial be built to the Maori people on the summit. Nearby is the stump of the last ‘one tree’. Allow time to explore surrounding Cornwall Park with its mature trees and historic Acacia Cottage (1841). The Cornwall Park Information Center has fascinating interactive displays illustrating what the pa would have looked like when 5000 people lived here. The Stardome offers regular stargazing and planetarium shows (7p and 8p Wednesday through Sunday) that aren’t dependent on Auckland’s fickle weather. From One Tree Hill, make your way to the James Wallace Arts Trust, located at the Pah Homestead - 72 Hillsborough Road in the suburb of Hillsborough. Housed in a historic 1879 mansion with views to One Tree Hill and the Manukau Harbour, this arts center is endowed with contemporary NZ art from an extensive private collection, which is changed every four to six weeks. Enjoy lunch on the veranda at the excellent Homestead Cafe and wander among the glorious trees in the surrounding park. Note: the center is open from 10a-3p Tuesday through Friday and 8a-5p Saturday and Sunday; it is closed on Monday. Back in the CBD, stroll along Queen Street - Auckland's main commercial thoroughfare. It slides down to the sea in a straight line. Upper Queen Street has studios, art galleries and vintage clothing shops. Past Karangahape Road, between the Baptist Tabernacle and Auckland Town Hall, are tasty ethnic restaurants, the totally awesome Real Groovy Records and the Q Theatre. The elegant Auckland Town Hall (1911) hosts the NZ Symphony Orchestra and Auckland Philharmonia. Found at 520 Queen Street, Real Groovy is the best record shop in town. Another worthwhile destination is the Civic Theatre, located at the corner of Queen and Wellesley Street. Opened in 1929, it is one of only seven ‘atmospheric theaters’ remaining in the world and a fine survivor from cinema’s Golden Age. The auditorium has lavish Moorish decoration and a starlit southern hemisphere night sky in the ceiling, complete with cloud projections and shooting stars. It's mainly used for touring musicals, international concerts and film festival screenings.
It is now time to enjoy the outdoor beauty Auckland has to offer. I recommend renting a bicycle in the CBD for a lovely ride along the coast out to Mission Bay (follow the glorious Tamaki Drive for about thirty minutes). Mission Bay is a relaxed seaside suburb with a popular beach, iconic fountain and a wide range of eateries. It is a celebrated destination for locals and visitors alike. If you're hungry, stop in to Mission Bay Cafe (85 Tamaki Drive) or De Fontein (77 Tamaki Drive) for excellent fish and chips along with a tasty pint of Belgian beer. After a bite, chill in a waterfront park or on the beach. Mission Bay's beach is safe to swim year round, with awesome views of Rangitoto Island forming a backdrop to this beautiful vista. An additional open air option is taking an enjoyable harbor cruise or a thrilling sail on a racing yacht. Leaving from the downtown ferry terminal (behind the historic Ferry Building) in the CBD are frequent departures for a ninety minute sightseeing cruise with informative commentary from the crew. You’ll glide past Auckland Harbour Bridge, Bean Rock Lighthouse, the Sky Tower and historic Devonport (Auckland's oldest suburb). The racing yacht tours set off from nearby Viaduct Harbour. Enjoy an unforgettable two hour sailing experience in the 'city of sails' with a unique opportunity to participate as crew on an actual America's Cup yacht. Take the helm, exert energy on the grinders or simply sit back and soak up the atmosphere and stunning harbor scenery. Note: the America's Cup is the world's oldest and most prestigious sporting trophy and ultimate yachting regatta.
Conclude your tour of Auckland with a visit to a few of its harborside suburbs and spectacular islands. Boats depart from the downtown ferry terminal in the CBD. It's a brief fifteen minute ride aboard the Fullers ferry out to Devonport. With its picturesque Victorian villas, stylish shops, beaches and relaxed seaside ambience, it is the perfect place to spend a day. Beyond the quaint cafes and shops on Victoria Road, Devonport boasts some of Auckland's best vista points. Climb to the top of Mount Victoria, the North Shore's highest volcanic cone, for a 360 degree lookout. On North Head (it was a Maori pa), explore military tunnels, bunkers and gun emplacements before visiting the neighboring Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, found at 64 King Edward Parade. The navy has been in Devonport since the earliest days of the colony. Its history is on display at this well presented and often moving museum, focusing on the stories of the sailors themselves. Or you can simply relax on Cheltenham Beach, a local favorite. With its long stretch of sand, calm waters and view straight across to Rangitoto Island, Cheltenham is the perfect spot for a swim or picnic. Stop in at the nearby shops on Vauxhall Road for takeaway fish and chips or a baguette sandwich from Chateaubriant (number 87), a quaint French cafe. Next, ferry to the volcanic Rangitoto Island - one of the most iconic landmarks in Auckland's city skyline. Sitting majestically off the coast, its distinctive symmetrical cone rises 850 feet over the Hauraki Gulf. Climb to the summit or take a 4 wheel drive (4WD) tram to the top for epic views. Note: Rangitoto erupted from the sea approximately 600 years ago in a series of dramatic explosions. Two episodes 10 to 50 years apart are thought to have lasted for several years each. This makes Rangitoto the youngest island in the Hauraki Gulf - the last and largest volcano to be formed in the Auckland volcanic field. Finish with a visit to the delightful Waiheke Island, approximately a forty minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland. Recently rated one of the top island escapes in the world, it boasts miles of pristine beaches, stunning coastal headlands, vineyards, olive groves and seaside villages. Home to more than 30 boutique vineyards, Waiheke has become known as New Zealand’s 'island of wine'. This group of winegrowers have successfully matched the maritime climate and ancient soil structures to produce some of the country’s best wines. You can stop in to as many vineyards as you like or join a small group tour that covers several of the wineries. My top 5 vineyards to visit are: Mudbrick, Stonyridge, Man O' War, Obsidian and Cable Bay. Before leaving Waiheke Island, be sure to go for a swim at Onetangi Beach.
WHERE TO EAT
Auckland has plenty of great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Chuffed, located at 43 High Street in the CBD. This hip joint is the place to go in the city center. Grab a seat on the indoor outdoor terrace and enjoy breakfast with some really good coffee. Another solid spot is Atomic Coffee Roasters, found at 420 New North Road in Kingsland. Java hounds should follow their noses to this, one of the country's best known coffee roasters. Tasty accompaniments include pies served in mini frying pans, bagels and cakes. One of the excellent cafes in revitalized St Kevin's Arcade, Bestie is a perfect refueling stop after searching the galleries and vintage shops along Karangahape Road. Try to secure a table overlooking leafy Myers Park, and pair coffee or kombucha tea with signature dishes such as the ricotta doughnuts, or flatbread with chorizo, labneh and a chili fried egg. Odette's is inside the City Works Depot at 90 Wellesley Street in the CBD. Do try the lamb meatballs with saffron mustard or the wild mushrooms served with a truffle pancake and cashew cream - you won't regret it. For some Americana nostalgia, head to Federal Delicatessen, found beneath the Sky Tower at 86 Federal Street. Celebrity chef Al Brown's take on a New York deli serves simple stuff like bagels and pastrami sandwiches, matzo ball soup and lots of delicious comfort food (turkey meatloaf, spit roasted chicken, NY strip steak). Be sure to save room for a slice of the famous lemon meringue pie. White butcher tiles, vinyl booth seating and waitstaff in 1950s uniforms add to the experience. If you're craving Italian comfort food, Coco's Cantina is your salvation. Located at 376 Karangahape Road, it is one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Treat yourself to Coco’s iconic spaghetti and meatballs. Made with love, succulent mince and lashings of delicious homemade sauce, this cult status spaghetti will have you slipping into a Sicilian daze with each slurp. If you fancy venturing into other pasta territories, there’s an ever changing pasta of the day and a decadent ravioli on the menu.
The Blue Breeze Inn can be found at 146 Ponsonby Road in Ponsonby. Regional Chinese flavors combine with a funky retro Pacific ambience at this stylish eatery. The waitstaff are sassy, the rum cocktails are deliciously strong and menu standouts include roast pork belly and pickled cucumber steamed buns, five spice eggplant steamed buns and cumin spiced lamb. You’ll also be treated to a long list of dumplings and wontons, with fillings along the lines of black tiger prawns and sesame. For dessert, there’s raw cheesecake, soft serve ice cream or a heavenly chocolate pot on the menu. Located at 85 Customs Street in Viaduct Harbour is Giraffe. It combines a casual harborside dining room with a seasonal menu, which is packed with superior versions of comfort food such as lamb shanks, fish pie and roast chicken. Local seafood takes a starring role with NZ oysters, mussels and fish often worked into the various plates designed for sharing. Nearby, on level 1 of the Ferry Building is Harbourside Ocean Bar Grill. As one of Auckland’s best seafood restaurants, a visit here wouldn’t be complete without indulging in their exquisite seafood dishes. You’ll find whole, grilled fish on the menu, served on the bone and off from game fish to the coveted Fiordland crayfish. There’s also a lineup of classic seafood dishes like west coast whitebait fritters, seafood chowder and the iconic flash fried New Zealand paua (sea snail). Note: the outdoor deck facing the water has excellent views of the harbor and North Shore. When it's time to satisfy your sweet tooth, hit Giapo at 12 Gore Street in the CBD. This boutique ice cream shop is always busy, even in the middle of winter. Expect elaborate constructions of ice cream art topped with all manner of goodies, as Giapo's extreme culinary creativity and experimentation combines with the science of gastronomy to produce quite possibly the southern hemisphere's best ice cream extravaganzas. Note: the menu changes often - I destroyed a cone of coconut cookies and cream with dark chocolate and almond cookies. For the best chocolate in New Zealand, pick up a creamy milk chocolate bar made by Whittaker's since 1896. Note: they have a store at Auckland Airport.
Located amid the restored heritage architecture of St Kevin's Arcade at 183 Karangahape Road, Gemmayze St presents a stylish update on Lebanese cuisine. Mint, orange blossom and rosewater cocktails are prepared at the copper bar, while shared tables encourage lots of sociable dining on mezze and expertly grilled meats. Try the hummus (roasted garlic, chickpeas, tahini, paprika), tabbouleh (parsley, lentils, pickled garlic, lemon) and ghanam (lamb shoulder rack, red onion, herbs). The 'jeeb' set menu is a brilliant option for a leisurely feast. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Occupying a dimly lit basement at 5 Fort Lane in the CBD, Cassia serves modern Indian food with punch and panache. Start with a pani puri, a bite sized crispy shell bursting with flavor, before devouring a decadently rich curry dish. The Delhi duck is excellent, as is the signature lamb kebab. Artisan gins and NZ craft beer are other highlights. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Cassia's sister eatery, Sidart, can be found in Three Lamps Arcade at 283 Ponsonby Road in Ponsonby. No one in Auckland produces creative degustations quite like chef Sid Sahrawat. It's food as both art and science but, more importantly, food to fire up the taste buds, delight the brain, satisfy the stomach and put a smile on the face. Expect superior and innovative combinations of European, Asian and Indian flavors. The Chef's Table Experience is a personalized insight into some of New Zealand's finest dining. Note: reservations are recommended and the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Nikkei cuisine, an exciting blend of Japanese and Peruvian influences, is the focus at Azabu - located at 26 Ponsonby Road. Amid a dramatic interior of striking images of Tokyo, standout dishes include the tuna sashimi tostada, Japanese tacos with wasabi avocado and king prawns with a jalapeno and ponzu dressing. Note: arrive early and enjoy a basil and chili infused cachaca cocktail at the restaurant's Roji Bar.
For top notch izakaya (a type of Japanese bar in which a variety of small dishes are served to accompany the alcoholic drinks), make your way to Ebisu at 116 Quay Street in the CBD. This large space does it right, serving magnificent plates of rolled sushi, tempura, sashimi and nigiri. If selecting from their extensive menu proves too much to handle, opt for the sushi and sashimi or mixed meat platter for an exquisite taste of some of their best creations. Note: the restaurant has an impressive sake menu that includes many rare and interesting varieties. Around the corner at 66 Tyler Street is Amano. This sleek Italian eatery is set in a repurposed warehouse and does some dynamite pasta. Hand made daily using locally sourced ingredients from the owners' farm in West Auckland, it’s safe to say that it’s in a league of its own. There’s also a stellar range of seasonal meat and seafood dishes, featuring the likes of shellfish, cured meats, succulent steaks and even a thirty day dry aged bone in Angus ribeye steak. Note: if your sweet tooth is tingling for a treat, make sure you stay for dessert or swing by the attached bakery on the way out to pick up one of the city's best pastries. Another solid spot for modern Italian cuisine is Cotto, found at 375 Karangahape Road. This K' Rd eatery is one of the best restaurants in town to help you curb your carb cravings. On the menu, highlights include spinach and goats' cheese raviolis with fried sage leaves, and grilled eggplant with whipped feta cheese. Their cocktails are also impressive - in fact, they’re liquid art. From the peppery lemon, berry and gin blend right through to the vodka, granny smith apple and maraschino blend, each sip of these divine drinks is a journey to the heavens. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday. One of my favorite places in the city is Depot, located next to the Sky Tower at 86 Federal Street. This popular spot offers first rate comfort food in an informal setting. There is an oyster bar along with a sophisticated list full of New Zealand wines. Start with a dozen local Te Kouma oysters, then move on to the kingfish ceviche with crispy shallots and taro chips, and finish with the turbot sliders with pickled lemon mayo and watercress. Wash it all down with a carafe of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Note: the restaurant is open every day and does not take reservations, so get there early. Lastly, there is O'Connell Street Bistro at 3 O’Connell Street. This cozy space has wonderful food and wine in the theme of a contemporary European back street bistro. Menu standouts include the crispy peppered squid with wasabi aioli and chili soy caramel, and the house smoked Big Glory Bay salmon, watermelon gazpacho, Clevedon Buffalo curd and horseradish marshmallow. Enjoy it all with a bottle of Hawkes Bay Chardonnay.
End your evening in Auckland with a drink or two. Found at the corner of Wyndham and Queen Street in the CBD is Little Culprit. Some of the city's most interesting cocktails feature at this stylish bar and the owners' background in restaurants also shines through. Graze on a platter of cheese and charcuterie or indulge in a savory waffle with duck liver parfait. My beverage of choice was the Miso Old Fashioned (cask strength bourbon washed with nougat, miso and white chocolate). You can people watch at pavement level or adjourn to the more intimate lounge downstairs. Note: the bar is closed on Sunday and Monday. Nearby on Roukai Lane (40 Customs Street) is Caretaker. New York style infuses this downstairs cocktail bar, concealed behind an old door, inscribed with the title 'Caretaker'. The decor is equally eclectic, and a handful of tables and leather sofas means the bar always feels intimate and cordial. Choose from the impressive cocktail list or just describe what you like and the bartenders will work their mixology magic. Note: the bar is open every day from 5p-3a. Auckland's only bar specializing in the potent Mexican spirit mezcal, La Fuente (Snickel Lane, 23 Customs Street) is also a fine spot to partner an excellent selection of wine and craft beer with Latin American inspired snacks - including ceviche, and cheese and jalapeno croquettes. The knowledgeable staff will guide you through more than 20 different mezcals from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Note: the bar is open every day from 11a-late. Pineapple on Parnell is located at 207 Parnell Road in Parnell. Push open the door decorated with a subtle brass pineapple to discover this elegant bar with leather furniture and an Old World ambience. Savvy bartenders concoct interesting cocktails - try the citrusy Imperial Blush with gin, aperol, pink grapefruit juice and orange marmalade. Note: the bar is open Wednesday through Saturday from 5p-late. The Chamberlain is a solid city pub and craft beer venue that can be found at 120 Quay Street in Britomart. Friendly bartenders pour the best of New Zealand craft brews from 14 taps - breweries to look for include Liberty, Behemoth and 8 Wired. A splendid wine list and superior bar food are also fine reasons to drop by. Note: the bar is open from 12p-late and is closed on Sunday. Galbraith’s Alehouse is at 2 Mount Eden Road. Brewing real ales and lagers on site, this cozy English style pub in a grand heritage building offers bliss on tap. There are always more craft beers from around NZ and the world on the guest taps - the pub grub is also very good. Note: the bar is open every day from 12p-11p. Finally, there is Madame George at 490 Karangahape Road. Two patron saints of cool (Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando) look down in this compact space. Shoot the breeze with the amiable bar staff over a craft beer or cocktail, or grab a table out front and watch the passing action of K' Rd. Note: the bar is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5p-late.
WHERE TO STAY
Auckland offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Cordis Auckland, located at 83 Symonds Street in Grafton. This elegant hotel is a short ride from the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Mount Eden. Classic rooms come with free WiFi, flat screen TVs, minibars, and tea and coffee makers. Upgraded quarters add separate living areas and feature access to a private lounge with butler service. Amenities include a polished restaurant, a lobby bar offering afternoon tea, a spa and an outdoor pool with a hot tub.
A second option is the Sofitel Auckland, located at 21 Viaduct Harbour Avenue in Viaduct Harbour. With views across the harbor, this upscale hotel is near the New Zealand Maritime Museum and not far from the Sky Tower. Rooms are furnished in a contemporary manner and feature complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and iPod docks, along with Bose sound systems and minibars. Upgrades add living rooms. Other perks include a stylish restaurant, a lounge bar and a spa with an indoor pool.
Auckland is loaded with natural beauty, fascinating culture, fantastic food and magnificent art. It treated me well and I look forward to returning. Kia ora.