Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand – the place where the urban and pastoral meet in a head on collision of green and steel. Countless come here to sail the seas. Others arrive to watch games of rugby or soak in the café culture of the downtown core. I’d come for none of that. I’d come to Auckland to stand in a darkened suburban nightclub and listen to music. I’d come to immerse myself into the ebb and flow of a great concert – a musical experience that I’d foreshadowed in my own mind to be the high water mark of musical expectation. I’d arrived with a singular experience in mind, but by the time I left, I’d discovered so much more.
I was here for a concert, but I was also early. I had two days to explore the city before the show, I was up for anything. I wanted to experience the best that this city had to offer, I wanted the full Auckland experience – and that’s just what I got.
I arrived into Auckland Airport – the bustling and modern terminal is the gateway for the majority of new arrivals into New Zealand. It was a warm summer day and after I grabbed by bag from the luggage carousal I hopped on the bus and headed into the city. The city of Auckland is an amalgamation of several smaller municipalities that combine to form the city at large. I was keen to get amongst the action so I stayed on the bus until it dropped me off right in central Auckland.
Stepping off the public transport near the Viaduct Harbor felt like I had transported myself right into the heart of the action. This centerpiece of Auckland was the home of the America’s Cup Regatta when it was held here a few years back. What was once a scruffy and dated harbor has been reinvented as a trendy and lively cultural epicenter. Hip cocktail bars and restaurants of the moment dot the curving walkway. Fashion forward urbanites slink amongst the anchored yachts and move with authority to their intended destinations. Oversized sunglasses, overpriced watches and tailored attire are the uniform de rigueur. I stop for a coffee and take in the decidedly urban landscape. New Zealand is supposed to be a land of sheep, forest and wilderness – but not here, not now.
The best way to take in the whole scene is to gain some altitude – The Sky Tower just a few blocks away is the best view in town. Ascending the elevator to the glassed in viewing platform sends butterflies to my stomach. As I approach the glass and the views explode in front of me it’s as if the air has been sucked from the room – my jaw drops in awe at the aesthetic masterpiece that lies before. Below me I can see the city in miniature with cars, busses and pedestrians flowing through the streets like blood in a vein. The Hauraki Gulf, the body of water that Auckland sits beside, stands enormous beside the city. The City of Sails truly lives up to its name with seemingly countless sailboats gliding silently along the water. The faint outlines of near shore islands emerge from the mist and look almost primeval.
Before Auckland was there, the Volcanoes that shaped the North Island of New Zealand created the landscape. Extinct volcanoes leave behind craters and cones, islands and harbors. In the ancient past this was a violent and volatile place. The earth shook with the rumble of eruption, forming the land. For millennia it sat vacant until the Maori arrived. They made Auckland home, building homes amongst the craters and fortified the hills. Eventually Europeans arrived and after some initial frictions the cultures created a harmonious coexistence.
That climate of cultural understanding has extended to today. Not only is it European New Zealanders and Maori that call Auckland home. Auckland is the largest Polynesian city in the world. Fijians, Tongans, Cook Islanders and Samoans have become an integral part of the city make up. This infusion of island culture has created a climate of relaxed attitudes, easy smiles and pulsating drum rhythms. It’s not just the relatively near neighbors that have made Auckland home. Over the past two decades the Asian population has blossomed into a significant number. The result is decent dim-sum to be found and Chinese New Year celebrations that will definitely get the year off to a good start.
Descending from the Sky Tower it was time for a change of pace. The frenetic pace of central Auckland isn’t indicative of this city at large – much less this country. At the harbor I jump on a ferry for the short sail to Waiheke Island. Waiheke is a small island in the Huraki Gulf, about 35min by ferry from the Viaduct.
The smell of salt air and the warm wind keeps me company on the top deck of the ferry. It isn’t busy, all it took was a few steps to get away from the hustle and bustle and I was surrounded by quiet, peace and solitude. The ferry docks on Waiheke Island and I start walking towards the settlement of Oneroa, 2km down the road. Some of my fellow passengers are renting scooters and cars to get them around – but the day is so pleasant, why ruin it by speeding up the journey?
The contrast from the busy Auckland streets to the near deserted roads of Waiheke is an auditory pleasure. Arriving into town the quiet streets are home to tiny café’s, rustic galleries and seaside shops. Delving into the neighborhood junk-shop I find a million and one artifacts that I wish my daypack had room for. I find a café overlooking the sea, order up some classic fish and chips and dig in. The moist fish and salty chips are the perfect summer treat – the only thing missing is a drink. Time to go straight to the source.
After an enjoyable 15minute walk I find myself at the summit of the hilly island. Amongst the swaying grass and uninterrupted views is the Cable Bay vineyard. I swagger up to the cellar door and sample the local drop. The chilled Chardonnay glistens with the light undertone of walnuts and the memories of oak. The nose wafts of a label worth far more then the affordable price tag. I invest in a couple of bottles for the cellar back home – if only I can resist until then.
It’s time to leave the island – shadows are growing long and I don’t want to miss the ferry. Sitting on the top deck as the boat speeds towards Auckland the skyline is silhouetted in the setting sun. The warm early evening air embraces me as I return to the urban environment.
For dinner I head to the ultra-trendy suburb of Ponsonby. It’s the place to see and be seen in Auckland. Ponsonby Road is a strip of hip café’s, popular bars and some of the best restaurants in the region. Meandering down the road I finally come upon my dining choice de-jour, SPQR, is an Auckland institution not to be missed. The Italian influenced menu is delightful and is even better washed down with some classic Kiwi made wine.
I finish the night with a visit to the Gypsy Tea Room one of the local bars. I sip a quiet drink and chat to the locals, as the hour grows late the music increases in volume and there is talk of hitting a dance club. I decide to call it a night – tomorrow is set to be a big day.
Waking early I head to the beach. Heading west I make my way to the king of Auckland beaches – Piha. This rugged west coast beach is the defacto choice for Aucklanders looking to get their fix of sand and surf. With native bush spilling onto the sand it’s no wonder this beach has stared in countless photos. The surf is strong this day with pounding sets of waves raking up the shore. Protective mothers keep their children from venturing too far into the sea. Tanned sun lovers lay out on their towels soaking up the morning rays of sunshine as kids pass a rugby ball on the beach. I had wanted to go surfing, but the closeout waves are too much for me, so I keep myself content settling into my book and taking in the views.
After a day at the beach it’s time to get back to town – the concert that brought me to Auckland is tonight. Music luminaries from the bands Crowded House, Radiohead, Wilco and the Smiths are sharing the stage. It’s a charity gig where they’ll trade off songs and treat the crowd to a once in a lifetime event. The concert is in the suburb of Mt. Eden – the centerpiece of the area is the mountain that shares its name. The extinct volcano is a grassy lookout over the whole city.
Before I head into the show I take the time to walk up Mt. Eden. The views of Auckland in the fading light are spectacular. In the distance I can see Waiheke Island, The Hauraki Gulf and the skyline silhouetted in the setting sun. Soon enough it’s time to head down the hill and go to the show.
The concert goes beyond my expectations – but that’s become the theme for my stay in Auckland. This city is more then a collection of buildings – it’s a cultural meeting point. It’s the place where the rural heritage of New Zealand hits head on with the urban future of the Pacific Rim. It’s a city where you can get amongst the rural landscape only minutes from the downtown core. It’s a place where you’ll find metro-hipsters sipping cocktails next to a character carved out from a bygone era, talking rugby. You’ll eat amazing Asian food on a street named after an Englishman, served by a waiter who grew up in Samoa washed down with wine grown within a few miles of your table.
Auckland is a city of contrast. The old mixes with the new, the foreign with the domestic, the urban with the rural. This isn’t a contrast to cringe at, this multicultural mosaic all adds up to a city that is far more then the sum of its parts.