In the Corner of the World: In & Around Auckland

With a population of around 1.5 million people, Auckland is no bustling metropolis. Heck, it’s not even the capital of New Zealand (go ahead, look it up – I’ll wait). It is, however, the country’s largest city and the hub for most international flights coming into the country. For Americans flying from Los Angeles and San Francisco, it is their first taste of Kiwi culture (though not kiwi birds). While it’s a small city, there is plenty to do in and around Auckland if you know where to look. I recently made my second trip to City of Sails and was reminded of how quirky it can be and amazed at the natural beauty that exists just outside the the city limits.

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If you’re staying in a hotel in Auckland, odds are you will be in the Central Business District (CBD). While this is convenient for catching buses to destinations far and wide, it’s not exactly an interesting part of town. You’ll want to venture out a bit to see many of city’s best offerings. Though, there is one downtown landmark that you won’t be able to miss.

SkyTower - Towering over the limited Auckland skyline is the SkyTower. It is part of the SkyCity complex of hotels, casinos and restaurants and will be your point of reference when navigating Auckland. While the tower is not exactly the apex of architectural design (it looks pretty much like Toronto’s CN Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle), it is the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere and its observation deck provides the best views of Auckland and the surrounding area. The SkyWalk and SkyJump will give you a boost of adrenaline as you dangle or jump off of the 192m high platform. Be forewarned, though, that these activities (as well as the simple trip up to the observation deck) are expensive and some – like me – may even call them overpriced.

K’ Road –
While Kiwis do a decent job of preserving Maori culture and language, when you name a street Karangahape Road, you have to assume it’s going to get abbreviated eventually. K’ Road is a bohemian boulevard 10 minutes from the CBD that is home to cafes, boutiques, restaurants and a thriving adult entertainment industry. While you’ll probably be solicited by a transvestite prostitute during your walk down K’ Road, you’ll also find some great thrift stores, cheap eats and fantastic people watching. And when a girlie boy tells me that I have a nice smile, I just accept the compliment.

Ponsonby – Thrift stores and trannies not your thing? Walk 20 minutes west of the CBD and you’ll find yourself in Ponsonby, an upper-middle class “suburb” within Auckland’s city limits. The boutiques, restaurants and nightlife in Ponsonby cater to a wealthier clientele than K’ Road but won’t break your budget. On Friday and Saturday nights, 20- and 30-somethings in their pointy shoes and tight jeans are out and about drinking and carousing. Many of them in outfits they purchased in the neighborhood earlier that day.

Waitakere Ranges & Piha – West of Auckland is a landscape that appears to be a world away from urban life. The Waitakere Ranges provide gorgeous hiking trails along streams, waterfalls and more tree species than I could ever hope to list. Meanwhile, Piha boasts black sand beaches and jagged coastlines cloaked ominously in ocean mists. Surfers flock here for some of the region’s best waves. If you’re without a car or eager to have an expert give you a lay of the land, Bush and Beach Tours takes small groups to the ranges and Piha for the same price as a SkyWalk. Definitely a better use of your money. And for you nerds, scenes from Xena: Warrior Princess were filmed there.

Waiheke Island – A mere 35 minute ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke corners the market in quaint. It has no traffic lights. Only 8,000 people are permanent residents. And yet is has nearly 30 vineyards. While Waiheke is small, the vineyards are spread out (as is the nature of vineyards). Ananda Tours will gladly take you to several of the island’s wineries, art galleries or shops and set up tastings along the way. If you want to have a self-directed experience, I’d recommend renting a car and bringing it over on the ferry. But who wants to be the designated driver during a day of wine tasting?

Are you heading to New Zealand just to hang out in Auckland? Probably not. But odds are you will begin and end your trip to New Zealand in its largest city and it’s worth a 48 hour stay to explore, shop and get over jet lag. It has a wonderful mix of urban conveniences and natural beauty. Just don’t stick around long enough to become a Jafa.

Mike Barish traveled to New Zealand on a trip sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Mike was free to report openly on his experiences. He never spit out the wine and managed not to cry during any of the death-defying activities that Kiwis love. At least not in public. Read more of Gadling’s In the Corner of the World series here.