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.


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.

Amazing Race Season 3, episode 4: New Zealand where kiwis are hard to stomp with bare feet

After Phil recapped that La Paz, at nearly 13,000 feet is the highest capital in the world, and that the feud between Starr & Nick and Christy & Kelly is still a plot twist, the teams headed for Auckland, New Zealand for the 4th episode of The Amazing Race.

Heading to Auckland from La Paz was a slam dunk. Everyone, including Dallas who said, “I don’t even know where New Zealand is,” was on the same flight after they searched out their options via the Internet at the La Paz airport.

After arrival, once they dashed out into the dark of night to find their specially marked cars, the pack dispersed between those who did not get lost and those who did. This was the first time the teams relied on their own driving except for the trip to the airport in Los Angeles.

All remembered to drive on the left side of the road, except for the few moments when one team or another had to double check.

Travel Tips from episode 4:

  • Use an Internet cafe at the airport if one is available to search for flight options.
  • If you need to use the Internet when at an airport but you don’t have a laptop, ask someone if you can borrow his or hers.
  • If you have a flat tire on a highway, there’s nothing wrong with waving down cars until one stops.
  • Use careful, methodical observation to find what you need for a successful journey.
  • Head flashlights make for handy gear.

Recaps and Cultural Observations:

If one is going to drive on the opposite side of the road from which one is used to, the middle of the night seems to be a good time to try it. As soon as the teams jumped into their cars, driving wasn’t the hard part, although Ty and Aja had a flat tire. I swear. Every season of The Amazing Race, one team ends up with a flat. I’m a bit suspicious.

Neither Ty or Aja knew how to change a tire. Aja did the sensible thing. Eventually, if you jump up and down, shouting and waving your arms enough, someone is bound to stop. A burly New Zealander came to the rescue changing the tire lickety split, and this duo, who are definitely NOT having the time of their lives–Ty thinks he should have a T-shirt made that says, “I’m with Fidel”–were on their way once more.

Where were they all teams heading, some with more luck than others? To Gulf Harbor where they were to untangle a Gordian Knot, a big ball of intricately wound rope that looked like a large cat toy. Inside the knot was a clue to the next destination. Those who did not get lost arrived at the dock in the dark. This is one place where head lamps came in handy.

Tina & Ken, on the ball and still working on keeping their own marriage knot tied, untied the knot ball quickly, thus were able to take advantage of the Fast Forward to Auckland’s Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Here their task was to don sky diving like attire and head up to the very, very, very top. The last part of the feat involved scaling up the building’s radio tower in order to retrieve a Travelocity gnome. Tina, afraid of heights, stilled her nerves by using common sense. There’s no way that the ropes and harness would let her down, she figured. She knew that she wouldn’t fall.

Of course not, that would make for very bad TV. The climb was not easy due to the winds that swayed the tower back and forth. What a rush, though.

As Ken & Tina are playing dare devils on the tower, everyone else either struggled to find the dock or finished the Gordian knot task to head to their next stop at the summit of Mount Eden, the highest point in Auckland and a dormant volcano. This time the teams could drive.

At the top were a slew of Maori warriors doing their warrior routines. The task was to match a drawing of ancestral markings of a Maori warrior’s facial tattoos with the markings of an actual Maori. Because Maori facial tattoos are like fingerprints, no two are alike, this highlighted one aspect of New Zealand culture.

Another task where head lamps came in handy for the teams that arrived here in the dark. Unfortunately, cultural sensitivity headed a bit south with a couple of players. Dallas said he hoped the warriors didn’t eat his mother and one of the divorcees, (they still look a like to me) said, “I’m going to have nightmare about these guys. They’re really scary.”

I wanted to rap each of them upside the head. Dallas’s mother, however, said, “You’re beautiful,” to her warrior and Terrence had the common sense to ignore Sarah when she yelled out, “kiss him, kiss him” after he made his match.

One of the funniest parts of this episode was when Christy & Kelly parked their car at the bottom of the Mt. Eden and ran up. As Andrew & Dan were driving up on the road, they saw the women running up the side and yelled out from their car, “Whey are you walking? It said to drive.” The women insisted they wanted to run. Whatever.

Poor Marisa & Brooke, who are as sweet as can be, had the hardest time getting ahead from the get go. These two have no eye for detail. They got lost out of the airport. At the dock, they ran right past the knot even though they arrived there in the daylight. At Mt. Aden, they had better luck which earned a hug from the Maori.

Next after Mt. eden came a trip to the top of City Life Hotel where they were to look for Travelocity gnomes through binoculars. Once the gnomes were located, they had to retrieve it from either their high or low places and head to the Road Block at the town of Te Puke.

In Te Puke, at Kiwi 360, a landmark that celebrates the kiwi, they could either head to the orchard to climb into a huge vat of kiwis, and in their bare feet, stomp enough of them to make 12 quarts of juice and drink a glass each or head to Blokart Heaven to assemble a blokart and drive it around the track three times.

A blokart is similar to a go-cart but uses a sail instead of an engine to propel it. (This photo is from the Blokart Heaven in Tauranga. There are blokart associations in New Zealand.

Kiwi stomping is hard work and unpleasant. According to each of the team members who tried, the vats were lined with sharp rocks and the kiwis were rough. Toni evoked images of the hilarious I Love Lucy episode when Lucy and Ethel stomped grapes.

Sensitive feet did Ty and Aja in so they headed to Blowkart Heaven to try that. So did Dallas & Toni. Neither of those teams checked to make sure the spout was plugged first before switching tasks. Terrence and Sarah, who figured out that detail first headed quickly to the Pit Stop.

By this time, long after Ken & Kim made it to the Pit Stop at a homestay sheep farm and golf course called Summerhill via helicopter, and Starr may have broken her arm when her blokart overturned for the second time, Marisa & Brooke and Ty & Aja struggled to finish their day in the dark. Even though Andrew & Dan had a heck of a time putting their cart together, they were shocked and over the top delighted to find out that they came in sixth just a little after Kelly & Christy.

As sheep parted at the end of the episode, there came Aja and Ty, exhausted and unsmiling.

“Thank the Lord,” said Aja raising her hands when they found out they were 7th. I was happy for them, but felt bad for Marisa & Brooke. I was rooting for these two during this whole episode because, of all the teams, they seem to have enjoyed themselves and each other the most.

Even when they were stomping kiwis in the dark, one of them said to the other, “I’m so proud of you.” No matter where they were, they seemed to relish the interactions with the local people.

At the Pit Stop, when they found out they were last team in, they teared up prompting Phil’s dad who was waiting with Phil to wrap his arms around them in a big, comforting hug.

Marisa & Brooke’s travel words of wisdom: Travel is a chance to find out more about each other and no one else in their lives has shared these travel experiences with them.

“No one can take that away. Brooke and I will be best friends forever,” said Marisa.

What Ken & Tina won: A 7-day trip to Rio de Janerio.