Of sails and scrums
AUCKLAND, New Zealand - This city was never at the top of our must-visit list. Not even close. Wasn’t it merely the jumping-off point to the country’s more exotic locales? But here we were standing on the summit of the Mount Eden volcano, plotting our return. The view was dazzling. Looking down, we stared into a vast ancient crater. Ahead, we saw the Auckland skyline with its famous Sky Tower and the Harbour Bridge, surrounded by two world-class harbors. Beyond, a procession of volcanic cones broke the horizon; islands dotted the waters.
New Zealand’s largest city gets short shrift. It doesn’t enjoy the sexy reputation of Sydney or the cosmopolitan vibe of Melbourne, Australia’s two biggest cities. But its under-the-radar status is about to change. Ho-hum Auckland will take front and center on the world stage this fall, when it hosts Rugby World Cup 2011, the third largest sporting event in the universe (only the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games are bigger).
The tournament has been the catalyst for major improvements citywide, including a $240 million upgrade to the Eden Park stadium, public transport upgrades, and new developments along the city’s waterfront. New hotels, shops, and restaurants have been fast-tracked to be completed in time. (Auckland will host 15 games, one every weekend beginning Sept. 9 and culminating with the finals on Oct. 23.)
Aucklanders are excited, and a little nervous, about the eyes of the world - some 85,000 new visitors and a global television audience of 4 billion - turning their way.
“Auckland’s opportunity from RWC 2011 is not just bricks and mortar or the $267 million of direct economic benefits,’’ says Rachael Dacy, chairwoman of Auckland’s RWC 2011 Co-ordination Group. “We’re looking forward to telling the world Auckland’s story.’’
So, how exciting is that story? Recently, instead of catching a quick connection, we decided to stick around and explore the City of Sails.
You can’t beat the scenery and location. On New Zealand’s North Island, Auckland sits on a narrow isthmus, surrounded by two picturesque harbors, offering two distinct landscapes. To the north and east, Waitemata Harbor, with its white-sand coastline and calm waters, flows into the Hauraki Gulf, connecting the city’s bustling waterfront and major port to the Pacific Ocean. To the south and west, shallower Manukau Harbor, with its roily surf, black-sand beaches, and waterfalls, opens to the Tasman Sea. More than 50 extinct volcanic cones poke out across the surrounding landscape, providing a dramatic backdrop. No wonder the Maoris who sailed their canoes from Polynesia settled here, where they had access to two coasts and could use the soaring volcanic formations as lookouts. Today, Auckland has one of the largest Polynesian populations (mostly Maori) in the world.
We started at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, overlooking Waitemata Harbor, for a cultural and historical perspective and overview of the area. Housed in a three-floor, 1929 building reminiscent of Greco-Roman temples, the museum features the largest and most significant collection of Maori treasures in the world, including carvings, buildings, and canoes.
Next up was a stroll down Karangahape Road, K Road for short. The main, east-west street was once Auckland’s down-and-out, red light district. Though it’s becoming more gentrified, remnants of its past remain. High-fashion boutiques sit next to gritty department stores; trendy salons mix with eclectic, ethnic eateries, cheap take-out counters, and edgy, 24-hour nightclubs. There are upscale galleries and drag cabarets tucked between op shops (thrift-resale shops) and bars. It’s full of character - and characters - and remains one of Auckland’s lively, alternative night spots. We returned one night to soak up the colorful atmosphere (think: hipsters and drag queens), stopping at such popular hangouts as D.O.C. and 4:20 Lounge, both friendly locales known for live entertainment.
The spiffed-up Ponsonby - locals call it Ponsnobby - is a chic little neighborhood just west of the city center, and it’s where we went next. The once run-down area is now home to cutting-edge fashion boutiques, art galleries, cool shops, and some of the city’s finest (and priciest) restaurants and cafes.
We visited White Space, a contemporary art gallery showcasing 32 local artists, including a large selection of Maori and South Pacific artists. The nearby nonprofit Object Space gallery, housed in a former bank, featured work from emerging local artists. We couldn’t resist picking up a couple of flirty, bright-colored dresses at the Miss Crabb boutique and even bought the hubbies back home T-shirts at the trendy Marvel designer shop. After long black coffees (a double shot of expresso over hot water) at Santos, we grabbed a table at Ella Café and Lounge, one of the top cafes in Ponsonby, for a late lunch of parmesan crumbed sardines and a shared platter of their famous braised pork belly.
Hailing a cab (we found the city bus service sorely inadequate, but city officials pledge it will be upgraded and expanded in time for the tournament), we headed to the Viaduct, Auckland’s revamped waterfront neighborhood along sparkling Waitemata Harbor. It’s a tourist magnet and a great place to hang out, with clusters of cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Until now, we were thinking Auckland should be dubbed the City of Volcanoes, but City of Sails fits. New Zealand has twice won the America’s Cup, and the busy harbor was full of sailboats (Auckland lays claim to having more sailboats per capita than any other city in the world), along with fishing vessels, super yachts, fancy speedboats, and island ferries.
We returned to the Viaduct several times during our visit, fond of the lively waterfront atmosphere and nearby restaurants. Two of our favorites: Degree Gastrobar, an upscale bistro that created long-term cravings for stone-grilled green mussels, and Soul, where we feasted on whitebait fritters and flapping-fresh John Dory fillets.
But to really appreciate Auckland, we had to leave the city center. We booked a full-day excursion to Auckland’s “wild’’ West Coast beaches and rain forests (only 30 to 40 minutes from downtown) with the Bush and Beach tour company. The day was filled with views of the Tasman Sea to the Pacific Ocean, walks through dense rain forests filled with waterfalls and giant Kauri trees, and a stroll along the black sands of Piha Beach, in the shadows of the Waitakere Mountain Range.
Another day we took the ferry to Waiheke Island, known for its boutique wineries and picturesque olive groves. At one time, the island was filled with run-down shacks and workingman’s cottages. Today, it’s a slice of paradise, just 12 miles and a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown.
Our first stop on the island was the Rangihoua Estate, set on a hillside planted with more than 1,000 olive trees. We watched as workers hand-picked the olives, using small rakes to comb them off the trees; in the small visitors center, we tasted (and purchased) four of the estate’s award-winning olive oils. At nearby Stonyridge Vineyard, set in a sheltered valley, we tasted the nationally-acclaimed Larose, considered one of the finest red wines in New Zealand. We arrived at the Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard just in time for lunch. Overlooking rows of grapevines snaking across a vast hillside, we ate locally-caught snapper and olive-crusted Waiheke Island lamb, paired with Mudbrick wines, of course.
In the afternoon, we visited three more vineyards, including the elegant Te Whau estate, perched on a steep hill overlooking the Hauraki Gulf, with 360-degree views. “This is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet,’’ said owner Tony Forsyth. He heard no argument from us; we walked along the edge of the hillside, snapping photos.
On our final day, we did what plenty of adventurous tourists and locals do in Auckland. “You can’t really get into the spirit of Auckland without trying it,’’ our friend and local resident Jo Mackie told us. So, we walked across the Auckland Harbour Bridge, strapped on a bungy harness, inched our way to the edge of the platform, and jumped. (We both declined the optional “water touch.’’)
It seems Auckland is a jumping off place after all, but there’s nothing ho-hum about it.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.