AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- If first-time visitors know anything about this country apart from its wealth of sheep and ''Lord of the Rings" landscapes, it is the name of its largest city: Auckland. Set high on the west coast of the North Island, Auckland City and its surrounding municipalities -- a sprawling conurbation that rivals Los Angeles and Shanghai in area -- are home to almost a third of New Zealand's 4 million people.
As Reggie Price, who runs a bed-and-breakfast called ponsonBynB, said recently, it is difficult to ''separate out what is Auckland from what is Kiwi because the two are so intertwined."
Indeed, travelers on their way to the volcanic cliffs of the Coromandel Peninsula or the remote peaks that march across the South Island often overlook the city for being a mellow urban approximation of what is a wild, fascinating country. What most seem to miss is that Auckland is just as much a small wonder as New Zealand itself. Though its skyline may be architecturally modest, more than 30 volcanic hills swell its cityscape. Centered on an isthmus between two natural harbors, Auckland proper has scores of gorgeous beaches. The wind-whipped waters of the Hauraki Gulf and its many coves, amply televised during the city's hosting of the 2003 America's Cup races, have made the city a yachtsmen's paradise and earned it the nickname City of Sails.
Greenery abounds, and while New Zealanders elsewhere may deride big-city living, those who call Auckland home display a quiet civic pride in everything from waiting patiently at crosswalks to knowing the local zoo elephant by name.
Indeed, there are any number of beguiling and quirky things to love about Auckland; here, we list just a dozen.
Grey Lynn's suburban verve It still has a sleepy air and its denizens are just as loyal as ever to their dairy stores (New Zealand's answer to the old-time corner grocery), but the leafy Grey Lynn neighborhood, a 20-minute cab ride from downtown Auckland, has evolved over the last two years into a jaunty epicurean enclave.
Start the night at the Gypsy Tearoom for pub-style bonhomie in a space that once housed a film company. Then head up the block to the industrial-chic interiors of Craft, where the worldly tapas selection includes char-grilled squid with a sweet-spicy roasted chili sauce. Nearby, Savour & Devour is an all-things-to-all-people cafe that manages to excel equally at casual breakfasts and sophisticated savories like goat cheese souffle. Three doors down is another gem, Delicious, an open-kitchen Italian restaurant. It's as famous for its straight-talking servers as for its pastas.
The cafe life Auckland likes to sock away its favorite things in cozy places. The result is one of the most vibrant cafe scenes you'll find anywhere. There's no formula here -- the city's best cafes manage to appropriate elements of bakeries, cocktail bars, pizza joints, and more -- but they serve some of the best coffee outside Italy. The heart of this fast-evolving scene is cheery Ponsonby, a neighborhood of old Victorian homes and brightly painted shop fronts. Deservedly legendary is Ponsonby Pies, where Cornish pasties are turned out in dozens of flavors. Nearby, Cafe Cezanne is a funky cave of a place with an open garage-like storefront; they make a mean eggs Benedict and pineapple muffins to boot. Friends insisted on taking me downtown to Reuben (tucked away in the New Gallery of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki), where chef Natalia Schamroth delivers playful comfort food like salmon latkes. Another favorite of theirs is S.P.Q.R., a local institution with a sidewalk patio where the fashionable set gathers. I developed a soft spot for Agnes Curran Cafe because of its country-store feel and passion-fruit cake.
Hip haunts on Vulcan Lane Hidden behind downtown Auckland's main strip, Vulcan Lane is a pedestrian-only alleyway that rises gently over two blocks. Intersecting it are three streets --
The Polynesian equation Auckland has the world's largest Polynesian community and offers up vibrant Maori culture at seemingly every turn. At the weekends-only Otara Market, vendors sell farm-fresh vegetables from rickety tables, and dish out fried breakfast sandwiches and fragrant curries from trucks. Skim through the pages of city magazine Metro and you'll find plenty of club listings for Fijian hip-hop and Maori-style reggae gigs. It all adds a beguiling dimension to Auckland, where the respect for Polynesian traditions is quiet but vigorous.
On K Street, anything goes As my friend Tom Williams put it, there's a lot to the ''windy strip of weirdness" known as K Street (the actual name is Karangahape Road). Like what, I asked? ''Sex shops, head shops, crappy kebab shacks," he began to list. Indeed, K Street is the only place in this generally reserved city where people seem to let their hair down en masse. Every stripe of Kiwi, from businessman to fashion model, comes by for lunch, drinks, or a stroll. Among their favorite stops are an excellent cafe called Verona and a Malaysian curry-and-rice depot, Sri Penang.
Burgers at the White Lady She tends to arrive after dark, and works well into the night on Shortland Street, near the corner of Fort and Queen. She is known as the White Lady, and she is a mobile burger shack. Beyond the open windows of her long white exterior, cooks assemble monstrous greasy burgers with mountainous piles of bacon, beef patties, minute steak, and toppings ranging from the typical tomato and onion to pineapple rings. Customers enjoy them in the best possible way: standing nearby, soaked in neon light, late into the night.
Picnics with a view As a way of enjoying their great outdoors, locals have raised picnicking to a near art form. Whether amid the industrial lofts of the stylish Parnell neighborhood or the elegant old homes of Herne Bay, one sign abounds: TAKEAWAYS. Grab something, whether a pie or local sheep's cheeses, rent a car, hire a taxi and then drive somewhere beautiful. In Auckland, this is not difficult. In town, there is the splendor of Mount Eden and parks aplenty where grazing sheep are common. Better still, head to the beach. A mere 45 minutes from the city, the area around Karekare has nary a store or gas station in sight and weekend cottages open onto meadows of purple flowers and moss-darkened knolls. Surfers, families, and happy pets flock to the beach of the same name. Its black sand stretches for several kilometers in front of rolling dunes nipped with brush and wind-blown grass.
Touring Waiheke Island With its lush green slopes, vineyards, forests, and rambling beaches, Waiheke Island is perched between worlds rustic and swish. Though its 7,000 full-time residents like to decry its loss of innocence, Waiheke -- just 35 minutes from downtown by fast ferry -- is all about escapism, whether one is wandering amid the brush, skinny-dipping in one of the many private bays, or wining it up in style at Te Whau Vineyard Restaurant. Another popular foodie destination is The Shed at Te Motu Vineyard, where a clapboard cafe gives way to high-end indulgence thanks to its wine-making owner Paul Dunleavy's blockbuster reds. The high-style set prefers the more Mediterranean ambience at Stonyridge Vineyard next door. Here, viticulturalist and professional sensualist Stephen White spills his personal pursuit of taste into buttery olive oils from his own orchards and a wide range of wines. For those looking to spend a night or more, the cottage-like baches once favored by hippies and artists make for casual accommodations. Alternatively, check into one of the island's top lodges. At the Glass House (being renovated), contemporary architecture blends with nature and cuisine. Each of its three rooms has its own terrace, along with flat-screen TVs and modern artwork; guests congregate at night in the kitchen for lavish six-course meals before retiring to wooden terraces that look out over the Hauraki Gulf.
Creature comfortsAuckland has surprisingly few big-name hotels, but given the profusion of homey hostelries, that's perhaps just as well. The Victorian-style mansion that has been converted into Mollie's is part of the tranquil Herne Bay neighborhood and feels more like a friend's home, though a stylish one. Every room has modern European furniture, period detailing, and bookshelves full of English literature and opera history. ''We're just good people who like the good things in life," the manager, Jack, told me one evening as he delivered a complimentary snack of sherry and blue cheese. Even more personal (and a whole lot cheaper) are the city's many bed-and-breakfasts. Price's ponsonBynB is one of the best, with precisely one guest room and a spacious brick patio downstairs.
The sporting life Auckland is famous for its love of sports, whether world-class events (the America's Cup) or more obscure competitions (lawn bowls), and Kiwis seem to excel at all of them. Indeed, sport is part of the physical fabric of Auckland. Eden Park, the famous cricket and rugby ground where the world-beating All Blacks rugby team plays, is smack in the middle of the suburbs. Public greens, like Albert Park, are frequent weekend and holiday destinations for daylong affairs of cricket, field hockey, or touch rugby. All this translates into an equally keen pursuit of outdoor recreation (weather allowing), whether surfing, sailing, kneeboarding, or windsurfing on the Hauraki Gulf, or cycling, jogging, or in-line skating on seaside trails in places like Tamaki Drive.
It's easy being green There is no other way to put it: Auckland is green. There's almost a cartoonish, Pop Art vibrancy to the way the well-manicured yards and spunky trees array themselves here. Part of this is due to a prolific natural setting, with rich soil and gorgeous native trees like the kauri, puriri, and karaka. Ask anyone about the local flora, and you inevitably receive a soft-spoken disquisition on the pohutukawa, or New Zealand Christmas tree, which for a fortnight every year flowers big, bold, and red. Indeed, the one thing Kiwis seem to embrace with more verve than sports is gardening. It is arguably the most popular national pastime and if you should happen to be wandering in a place like One Tree Hill and see a gentleman in overalls gathering sheep droppings, you would be safe in assuming that, as they say of so many here, he is a ''keen gardener."
Mixing with the localsPeople here are quick to befriend you, and often use first names to describe the folks they admire, even if they don't actually know them. One evening, I overheard a group talking familiarly about someone called Karen, before realizing they were talking about designer Karen Walker, who has just begun to make it big on the world fashion scene. Despite the presence of ritzy restaurants like White at the Hilton Auckland, people still flock to anything with a TAKEAWAYS sign or, better yet, opt for a barbecue. On my last night in town we ate a meal of grilled red snapper rubbed with chili sauce and stuffed with basil, cilantro, and ginger. The fish was caught, by spear, that day. ''I would've caught more if I knew everyone was so hungry," said my new friend Geoff. The ability to find ways to make a big place personal is something at which Kiwis excel.
Rob McKeown is a freelance writer based in Asia.