Auckland is something very unusual by New Zealand standards. The country is known for big scenery rather than big cities – and most Kiwi urbanity comes in deliberately small, warm, manageable doses.
Auckland is the outlier, with a population of about 1.4 million people, and a vast area that takes in big-city energy and low-key nature within its boundaries. It’s also a genuine regional hub, home to by far the largest Polynesian population of any city on Earth, plus a strong showing from across Asia.
For the visitor, it’s almost always the first port of call in New Zealand’s North Island – and this will become even more the case when Emirates launches a direct route from Auckland on March 1. Unusually for such a gateway city, however, it has a nice line in offering little teasers of what’s to come elsewhere on the island.
The Maori culture
In the city: Auckland has the largest numbers of New Zealand’s indigenous people, mostly living in the southern suburbs. But it also has a great place for getting to grips with the culture. The Auckland Museum (www.aucklandmuseum.com) features war canoes, a traditional meeting house and displays looking at the lore stories of how the Maori people arrived in New Zealand.
Farther afield: The most accessible Maori experiences are found around Rotorua, 229 kilometres south-east of Auckland. The Tamaki Maori Village (www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz) offers evening experiences that include traditional greeting ceremonies, haka war dances, visits to the tribal meeting house and a “hangi” feast cooked in an earth oven.
In the city: The Waitakere Ranges are within Auckland’s boundaries, but feel a world away from the downtown area. This ancient rainforest – some of the trees here were standing before human beings arrived in New Zealand – has some tremendous walking tracks, waterfalls and gorgeous lookouts. Bush and Beach (www.bushandbeach.co.nz) runs half-day tours.
Farther afield: The Waikato region south of Auckland is less forested, but full of bucolic rolling hills. Under those hills, however, is where the natural wonders can be found. The Waitomo Caves (www.waitomo.com) are the classic example here – boat tours head along the underground river, then lights go off and the cave roofs are lit up by thousands of tiny glow-worms. Waitomo also offers the more adventurous option of abseiling down into the caves, whizzing through them on a zip wire, then floating along through the glow-worm-lit tunnels in rubber tubes.
In the city: New Zealand is notorious for its high-octane activities. And Auckland doesn’t like to miss out. Its main centre of terrifying thrills is the Sky Tower, which is the tallest man-made structure in the southern hemisphere, at 328 metres. But the nerve-shredding stuff takes place 192 metres up, courtesy of the SkyWalk and SkyJump (www.skywalk.co.nz). The first involves walking around and leaning over a ledge, clinging to a rope. The latter involves throwing yourself off the edge, and hoping the mechanism designed to slow you down at the bottom kicks in.
Farther afield: Rotorua is the North Island’s real adventure centre, though. An absurd range of activities – including jet boating, bungee jumps and a weird pedal-powered monorail-esque oddity called the Shweeb – can be found at Agroventures (www.agroventures.co.nz). It’s also a fantastic base for white-water rafting – Kaitiaki Adventures (www.kaitiaki.co.nz) takes willing guinea pigs down the Kaituna River, going through 14 sets of rapids and three waterfalls. The biggest of them – the seven-metre Tutea Falls – is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world.
In the city: At the western fringe of the Waitakere Ranges are some steep roads descending down to the coast, and once there, the beaches are extraordinary. Not in the conventional sense, however – don’t expect any golden sand and palm trees at the likes of Piha and Karekare. The beauty comes from the moodiness of the black sand, and the windswept end-of-the-world look.
Farther afield: Head south along the east coast to reach Raglan, which is firmly established as New Zealand’s surfing capital. The Raglan Surfing School (www.raglansurfingschool.co.nz) offers lessons for beginners. Keep going round the coast, and the little-travelled Mangatoa Road connects a series of even more majestic black beaches. At Pukearuhe, the Whitecliffs Walkway does as its name suggests, giving a remarkable contrast of chalky white cliffs and sparkling black sand.
In the city: All this black sand comes from the volcanoes that dot the North Island. There are several volcanic cones in Auckland itself – popular lookouts One Tree Hill and Mount Eden among them. The latter offers cracking views out over Auckland’s two huge harbours.
Farther afield: Auckland’s volcanoes don’t quite put on the show that White Island does, however. In the Bay of Plenty, to the north-east of Rotorua, the island is New Zealand’s most active volcano. Aside from the dramatic hissing steam vents and generally unnerving volcanic activity, it also has the novelty of being a volcano you can fly into. Frontier Helicopters (www.whiteislandvolcano.co.nz) runs helicopter trips, which land by the crater, from Whakatane.
The big walks
In the city: It’s possible to walk across New Zealand in a day, and all without leaving the largest city. That is, admittedly, a benefit of being situated on an isthmus, but the 16km coast to coast walkway is an excellent way of working up a small sense of achievement while linking together many of Auckland’s highlights. The route from Manukau Harbour to Waitemata Harbour takes in the likes of One Tree Hill, Mount Eden and the Auckland Museum.
Farther afield: In the centre of the North Island, the Singapore-sized Lake Taupo has a tremendous backdrop of volcanoes behind it. And the day hike through that backdrop is arguably New Zealand at its most stunning. The 19.4km Tongariro Alpine Crossing heads up volcano slopes, through giant craters and past eerily bright blue and green lakes. This takes place in the shadow of Mount Ngauruhoe, which is better known at Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings films. Adrift (www.adriftnz.co.nz) is among the companies offering guided walks, but shuttle services are available for those wanting to go for the DIY approach.
In the city: Auckland’s newest volcano is Rangitoto Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from Waitemata Harbour with Fullers (www.fullers.co.nz). It shot out of the sea during an eruption about 600 years ago, and is now an oddly fascinating world of harsh, blackened scoria slopes and lava caves. Rangitoto isn’t the only island in the Hauraki Gulf that’s a short ferry ride away from the city centre – Waiheke is the place to live the good life, and it has an increasingly strong reputation for great restaurants.
Farther afield: Head up New Zealand’s northern finger from Auckland, and you’ll arrive at the Bay of Islands, which is renowned as a sunny rest-and-relaxation spot. It’s the islands – about 150 of them in proximity to each other – that make it special, though. Fullers runs boat trips out to them from Paihia, but it’s arguably more fun to paddle around them. Coastal Kayakers (www.coastalkayakers.co.nz) runs kayaking tours, but also offers kayak hire for those who prefer to nose around at their own pace or pull up at one of the islands that tours and boats don’t visit, essentially commandeering it for themselves.
Source: art & life