Auckland is one of my favourite world cities. I like the vibe and I love the views. This pretty city wraps around and between its two harbours and there’s also an abundance of parks and leafy suburbs. You can see the blue of the ocean or greenery from just about every point.
New Zealand’s largest city has 1.3 million people – the same number as the Glasgow area. New Zealand is roughly the same size as the UK but there are only 4.5 million people in the whole country, compared to our 64 million. So Auckland does stand out as the metropolis!
As soon as you arrive at Auckland’s airport you’ll realise that this is a friendly and relaxed nation. The border and customs staff actually smile and they’re chatty. And when you’re out of the airport, you can experience the biggest grumble of Aucklanders’ – the traffic. It’s nowhere near as bad as many European or US cities but getting into town by rental car is complicated, taxis are expensive because there’s no direct route and public transport can be a pain because there’s no tube or airport rail link.
The best way to the Central Business District – that’s what they call the city centre – is on the Skybus, which takes around 45 minutes and is not cheap, at NZ$16 or £8 one way. Alternatively, the Supershuttle minibus will drop you off at your hotel but costs around NZ$30 per person. Because you’re sharing the bus with others, it can take over an hour, depending on where it’s stopping.
Now I’m warning you – your first sight of the CBD might make you glum. There are quite a few ugly 1970s and 1980s concrete towers dwarfing the Victorian buildings – just like you’d find in most UK provincial cities. But you need to go beyond that, because Auckland is all about the shoreline and suburbs. A drive across the Harbour Bridge will give you a feel for the way in which the city has developed around coves and bays. You’ll see hundreds of yachts below you. That’s why they call it The City of Sails. We’ll get out on the water later.
First I chose to orientate myself with Auckland by foot, on a free city walking tour. Suzanne Levesque started the walks two years ago with her son. They were impressed with a walking tour they’d taken in Berlin and the Auckland walks have proved popular. 4,000 people have taken the three-hour tours. A group of four guides offer walkers a daily insight into the city’s culture and history as well as recent news events that have shaped the nation.
Today twelve people were walking. We met guide Craig Neilson outside the grand Edwardian Ferry terminal and headed into the city’s transport centre, the Britomart. The area is filled with what look like old warehouses, transformed into trendy bars and cafes. They’ve really tried to make the best of the open spaces between these historic buildings and I loved the giant leather beanbags that people can sit on. And they do. There’s also outdoor table tennis, which was being used by city workers every time I passed.
Auckland has carefully considered its urban regeneration. Another area worth visiting is the Wynyard Quarter – an area of waterfront bars has popped up on reclaimed dockside industrial land.
We walked for five minutes to Vulcan Lane. This is where you’ll find the oldest pubs. The Queen’s Ferry was a notorious drinking den during the Victorian period and Craig told us that they used to put drunken sailors in cages here, so they wouldn’t miss their morning sailings. “Imagine waking up in a cage on a boat, with the world’s worst hangover,” he said. The regulars were unruly and after a shooting, some of the lawyers who drank there felt it was inappropriate, fraternising with these people. So the legal profession set up its own bar, the Occidental, right next door! Today it is a Belgian beer café.
As we passed city centre statues and memorials Craig explained the role that each person, immortalised in bronze, played. We reached the fountain in Khartoum Square, which commemorates the suffragette movement. New Zealand was the first place in the world to give women the vote, back in 1893. That brought a cheer from some of our party.
Everyone stayed quiet when Craig described the state-sponsored act of terrorism by France in 1985, when on of their spies illegally sank a Greenpeace boat in Auckland Harbour because it was being used to protest against French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. There were no French people in our party but I wondered how French tourists would react to this part of the walk.
As we wandered around the leafy lanes and across parks, or domains as they’re know, Craig covered key aspects of Maori history too, and at the end of the session he burst into song. Craig is proud of the first settlers’ history and told the group that one of his great grandparents was Maori.
The free city walk also shows you some of the beautiful historic buildings around the University that you might not otherwise see if you were driving. There’s some stunning modern architecture too. The Art Gallery was extended last decade with a 15 metre high ceiling of reclaimed, golden-coloured Kauri tree wood.
There was a chance to ask questions about life in New Zealand before we returned to the ferry terminal where we started. Then the slightly awkward moment. There’s no set fee for the walk – you make a donation, or koha, to use the Maori word. It was like waiting for someone to be the first one at the buffet. I wanted to see what everyone else was giving so I didn’t underpay and cause offense. The free tours don’t operate in Auckland’s winter, that’s our British summer. When they start up again Suzanne says there’ll be new tours including a walk around Auckland’s pubs, a chance to view the glow-worms in one of the city parks and strolls around the suburbs of Ponsonby and Karangahape Road. That street, thankfully shortened to ‘K Road’, is full of second hand and vintage shops. It’s part student, partially hippy and quite hip. Ponsonby is a gentrified area of trendy bars cafes and shops.
As I was at the Fullers Ferry Terminal, I decided to visit another Auckland suburb, and my favourite, Devonport. It’s lovely – a beautiful shoreline hugging suburb of Edwardian and Victorian wooden homes, cafes and antique stores. It’s worth taking the 15-minute, £6 ferry over to the other side of the harbour, even if you just ride on a return trip. The journey offers spectacular views of the Auckland skyline and the Royal NZ Naval base.
Rob Thexton of the Devonport Tour Company met disembarking passengers at the Devonport ferry terminus. He was waiting with the bus, ready for the hour-long sightseeing trip. We drove around the leafy streets filled with handsome white or grey-painted wooden Victorian villas, as Rob offered an interesting running commentary… “On the left there’s the site of the only public hanging in New Zealand.”
The British built a fort on a steep volcanic hill overlooking the harbour. We drove up the North Head and then stooped down as we walked through the underground passageways and tunnels that once contained stores, munitions and even aircraft. “They were carved out by prisoners,” said Rob. It was the second time I’d heard about Auckland’s underground passages. Craig had told us about the tunnels lying beneath Auckland’s CBD when we were in Albert Park. They were dug out as air raid shelters in the war and there’s been talk of opening some up again. There’s something exciting about being led into an underground passageway. I suspect they’d soon be topping the Tripadvisor listings if they made them accessible again.
Back in Devonport’s tunnels, there were sights and sounds you wouldn’t expect 20ft under the grassy hill. “Some wag has managed to get an upright piano here,” laughed Rob. I think that the panoramic view across the harbours from the top of that hill was one of the best city views I have seen. The sight of Auckland spreading out below more than justified the $40 bus tour ticket.
You can see similar small round hills all over the city. Most of Auckland is built on a volcanic field and slightly worryingly, Rangitoto, one of the islands just offshore only popped up during Shakespeare’s time!
In the distance there’s the 600ft high volcanic cone immortalised in the U2 song, One Tree Hill. You can drive up and down it on a helter skelter-like road twisting around the hill. It’s set in 180 hectares of open space, next to the rolling fields of Cornwall Park, which also hosts the Stardome Observatory. It’s open until 11pm and worth a visit.
I’d recommend taking the ferry back to Auckland at night. The view of the city lights and the iconic Skytower is breathtaking. It’s the tallest structure in the Southern hemisphere and at 420 feet higher than London’s BT tower, looks like a giant hypodermic. The tower changes shade at night – it goes green. That’s probably the same shade that my face turned watching the bungee jumpers from the ground. Yes, people pay good money to jump off the side of the tower attached to just an elastic band!
You don’t need to travel far to find the scenery that New Zealand is famous for. In Auckland you’re under an hour from unspoiled landscapes perfect for surfing, hiking, biking, walking or climbing. Choose from white sandy beaches or the distinctive black sands of Piha beach. It’s really outdoorsy.
Getting To Auckland
It’s a shame it’s such a long trek getting to Auckland from Europe. You’ll be in transit for almost 24 hours and you’ll have to change planes at least once. A common option is to break the journey for a day or two in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok or Dubai depending on the airline you’re flying with. Or you can take the route the other way round, changing in Los Angeles with Air New Zealand. The cheapest return we found was £535 from London but that meant making the long journey straight through.
The warmest months of the year are from December to February. Temperatures are lovely and UK tourists tend to visit then to escape the dreary winter weather in Britain. But accommodation costs more at that time too, as NZ schools have their summer holidays. If you can delay your trip to March or April it’ll be cheaper but the weather can be like Britain’s autumn. Book Auckland accommodation ahead. If there’s a function in the city you can find all rooms taken, especially at the weekend in the peak season.
If you’re confused about New Zealand’s weather, imagine the UK upside down. The bottom of the South Island is comparable to the top of Scotland. As you go north the climate warms. Locals claim that the top of the North Island is ‘winterless.’ Auckland is on a similar latitude to Malaga but the city is cooler in summer because of the moderating effects of the surrounding Pacific Ocean.
Next, I’ll continue touring this incredible city and discover more about an Auckland obsession – good food.