Auckland: Introducing Aotearoa

Auckland was my introduction to the incredible country of New Zealand.  Fortuitously, right before I took off from the Brisbane Airport, a friend of mine in Atlanta Facebook-messaged me and introduced me (via Facebook) to some friends of his, a Kiwi/American couple, who live in Auckland.  They provided me with a ride from the airport to my hotel (Abaco on Jervois), a home cooked meal of delicious lamb, kumara (sweet potato) and New Zealand wine, and local perspective on Auckland city sights and general New Zealand travel advice.

Public transportation is not really the best in Auckland and it won’t take you to some of the more scenic places that are on the outskirts of town, so you are best off renting a car if you are able to.  I was fortunate enough to obtain rides from my new friends for most of my visit.

Here are some of the main things I did while in my few days in Auckland:

I started out my first full day of exploring with a visit to One Tree Hill, one of the many and probably the most iconic of the volcanic peaks in the Auckland area.  I describe it in more detail here.

Some of Auckland’s most amazing scenery lies just outside of the city.  A winding drive to the west through forested mountains leads to the spectacular black sand beaches: Piha Beach and Karekare Beach.  Piha Beach has towering, jagged rock features surrounding the beach.

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The beach offers some of the best surfing in New Zealand, but the waters are quite treacherous with dangerous rip currents.  We proceeded on to Karekare Beach, which was used in the filming of the movie The Piano and also the spot where Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam almost drowned trying to swim.  You can’t access the beach directly from the road, but a short hike from a carpark will get you there.  Coming up to the beach is a surreal experience.  You see black sand as far as the eye can see.  You can hear the sound of the ocean’s waves, but you can’t see it right away.  Eventually, a thin blue line forms on the horizon revealing the ocean.

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There is also a rock outcropping surrounded by intense waves.  I also visited nearby Karekare Falls, a short hike from the carpark as well, to which you can take a picnic lunch or go for a swim.

On the way back into Auckland, we stopped by the Arataki Visitor Centre, which has information on the local Maori culture and the natural history of the region.  The centre is known for its totem pole with warriors showing off their “spears.”

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Returning to Auckland, we had lunch at Viaduct Harbour at Degree Gastrobar, where I had a not-so-healthy lunch of fried squid with Szechuan pepper with fries with lime and coriander aioli.  The harbor is a nice area to stroll in, shop, or take a ferry boat to the surrounding islands.

For the remainder of the afternoon, we drove out to the east of Auckland along the pohutukawa-lined Tamaki Drive, full of views of the ocean, the Auckland skyline, and volcanic Rangitoto Island, one of 50 volcanic peaks in the Auckland area.  Some highlights of the drive are Ohaku Bay, art-deco architecture in Mission Bay, Kohimarama Beach, St. Heliers Beach, and Achilles Point.

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On the way back we stopped at Bastion Point – which is a clifftop garden mausoleum for Michael Joseph Savage, hero of New Zealand’s Labour Party.

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The following day, I walked down Ponsonby Road, a trendy street full of shops and cafes, for breakfast.  It is somewhat daunting realizing how much a simple breakfast of a bagel and coffee costs here in New Zealand.  I spent $12 on lunch, a flat white and bagel with cream cheese, tomato and avocado at Café Cezanne.

I took the bus into the city which dropped me off relatively close to the Auckland Museum.  The Auckland Museum is probably a good 25 minute walk from the Central Business District and there is no bus service that comes right to it, other than a tour bus that charges an exorbitant amount of money.  The city bus, which cost $2 and involved a bit of a walk from the nearest station was definitely the better option.

The Auckland Museum has some fine displays, especially concerning Maori culture.  I attended a Maori performance there, including the haka dance.  I was really impressed with the museum, but after visiting Wellington later on in my tour, I kind of wish I had skipped it and saved the money because Wellington’s Te Papa has very some similar exhibits about New Zealand, Maori culture, etc and better yet it’s free of charge.  Nevertheless, the Auckland Museum is worth the admission price and certainly a good activity for a rainy day.

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After visiting the museum, I followed a self-guided walking tour of the Central Business District in my Lonely Planet guide.  I started the walk at St. Kevin’s Arcade, which is certainly not like the gorgeous arcades in Melbourne.  It was full of second hand shops and looks downright shabby.  I walked down the steps to the replica of Michaelangelo’s Moses, only to find it defaced somewhat.  I continued through Myers Park, flanked on either side by boxy highrises.  Most of these buildings appear to have been built in the 1960s and 1970s.  The walk continued up Queen Street which had some nice examples of architecture including the Auckland Town Hall and the Civic Theatre.

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I continued my walk through Khartoum Square, which is a memorial to women’s suffrage, and the Auckland Art Gallery.  I made my way through Albert Park, which is a pleasant floral venue with the skyline in the background.

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I walked inside the University Clock Tower building which is a fine example of architecture.  Nearby stands a row of Victorian merchants houses, which resemble homes in New Orleans’ Garden District.  I continued the walk  around the Government House, through the Chancery Precinct through High Street and Vulcan Lane back to Queen Street to the Britomart Train Station.

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Auckland made a very good first impression.  It’s a pleasant city full of friendly people and some stunning natural beauty not too far away from town.  I highly recommend renting a car there if you’re able to do so because the public transportation system isn’t great and you won’t be able to get to the Western Beaches without one unless you can find an organized tour to take you out there.  Auckland’s downtown has its interesting points, but I would definitely consider it missing it in favor of exploring the outskirts of town, the beaches, etc.

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