By Simon Woodhouse
In recent years, New Zealand’s profile as a holiday destination has definitely gone up a couple of notches. But when people think of NZ they usually picture mountain ranges, beautiful rolling countryside, and large swathes of unspoilt greenness. There certainly is that down here, and lots of it too, but there’s also a modern metropolis in the form of Auckland.
Contemporary cityscapes might not have the grandiose atmosphere of places like London, Paris, and Rome, but nonetheless there is something appealing about a modern skyline. Auckland has this, but it also has something else breaking up the horizon – volcanic cones. These make excellent vantage points from which to view the city. Some of them, like One Tree Hill (name checked on U2’s Joshua Tree album) and Mountain Eden are tourist attractions in their own right. For an even more spectacular view of Auckland and its surroundings, there’s the observation deck on the Sky Tower. At three hundred and twenty eight metres, it’s the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere and offers views of up to eighty kilometres in all directions. It’s also good for bungy jumping (if you like that sort of thing).
Water plays a large part in the layout of Auckland, built as it is around the Waitemata Harbour. This deep-water port leads out to the Hauraki Gulf and another of Auckland’s well-known landmarks. Rangitoto Island is the vent of a dormant volcano that only blew its top about six hundred years ago. Now covered by pohutukawa trees, the cone still has a very distinct volcanic shape and makes a really good photo opportunity at sunrise.
Beaches form a large part of life in Auckland, and there are twenty-eight dotted around the city. Mission Bay in the eastern suburbs is one of the most well known, from where you can look back over the harbour and watch the sun setting behind the distant Waitakere Ranges. Also on the eastern side of the city is the Auckland Domain, a large, well-tended park that houses the city’s museum.
On the other side of the harbour, the North Shore offers a different perspective on the city. More volcanic cones dot the landscape here, and the one at North Head makes for a good spot to take in the harbour with the city skyline as a backdrop. The Harbour Bridge connects north and south (more bungy jumping here), but the water can also be crossed by ferry. Devonport, Takapuna, Brown’s Bay, and Long Bay are just a few of the beaches on the North Shore. They’re all gently sloping, sandy, and not a bad place to be at anytime of day.
Eating out in Auckland is nearly always an informal thing. The Viaduct Basin on the waterfront, and the suburb of Ponsonby further back inland, both have lots of street side cafes and restaurants. Going out for breakfast is a popular pastime in Auckland, and nearly all of the eateries cater for this time of day, as well as lunch and dinner. If shopping is important to you (can’t see the appeal myself), then Queen Street in the city centre, or the district of Newmarket should keep you happy. But on the odd occasion when I feel inclined toward that sort of thing, I go to Victoria Park Market. Located in the shadow of the Sky Tower, but easy to spot by the forty-metre chimney that reaches up above it, the market is housed within what used to be a garbage-fuelled power station (don’t worry, it stopped doing anything like that in 1981). Small knick-knack shops are the order of the day here, and it’s a really good place to pick up souvenirs a lot cheaper than they are in Queen Street.
If you feel like getting out of the city, heading west is a good way to go. The Waitakere Ranges are a national park about thirty minutes drive from the Central Business District. The visitors centre here sits on a ridge that offers a view right the way back to the Sky Tower and Rangitoto. Relatively unspoilt, the ranges are covered by thick forest that leads all the way to the coast of the Tasman Sea. Surfing is big here. KareKare and Piha beaches provide big waves and spectacular scenery. The steep cliffs, big surf, and bracing wind make the west coast particularly appealing in the winter.
In a country known primarily for its natural scenery, it’s easy to see Auckland as just an airport. Of course I might be a bit biased, after all I do live here, but I think the city has plenty to offer as a holiday destination in its own right, or failing that, it makes a great base from which to recover from a long haul flight, or prepare yourself for the trip home.