The joys of Auckland, New Zealand and wonderful Waiheke Island

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND – We hear a lot about bungee jumping and hot springs in Rotorua and those oh-so wonderful pinot noir wines from Otago and the sauvignon blancs from Marlborough.

But even a travel guy who should know better finds himself in this wonderful country and gets surprised at the sheer variety of the place. Auckland, for example, gets vastly overshadowed by the “usual” tourist spots in New Zealand, not to mention the attention that gets showered on cities such as Sydney by visitors such as Oprah Winfrey.

It doesn’t have an opera house to rival Sydney or a series of streets like Toronto’s Queen West or, at least as far as I can see, a Yorkville or a Greenwich  Village. But it’s a city blessed with positively amazing geography.

It’s built on and around a series of (I think) mostly dormant volcanoes, although they say Rangitoto, which sits right across the harbour from downtown, erupted 600 years ago and that’s only a second or two ago if you’re talking in terms of the history of the place.

IMG_4351 You get outstanding views of Rangitoto from Mount Victoria, another old volcano where they built military installations many years ago to try to fend off a Russian invasion that I was told never arrived, having been met somewhere along the way by an equally determined Japanese force. You also get great views of downtown (see photo) and of the hugely expansive Hauraki gulf from downtown from Mount Victoria, which sits high above the supremely pleasant suburb of Devonport, with its old-time shops and B and B’s and fine, wooden houses.

Even better is a trip up Mt. Eden, just north of downtown. From there you can stare down into a miniature, dormant crater and also gaze on a 360 view that takes in the sparkling waterways and the islands that surround Auckland and help make this what’s called “The City of Sails.”

The downtown has too busy a harbour – with giant cruise ships and a massive container port – to be called lovely, although the Viaduct (at right and below) has wonderful restaurants and a fine harbour filled with sparkling boats. But there are some nice pockets, including Vulcan St. and the Chancery, and also plenty of nice neighborhoods, such as Parnell with its stunning flower shops and coffee places and, they tell me, fine Thai restaurants. IMG_4297

The Domain is a large park that includes a wonderful museum and fine walking grounds and a winter garden, not that anyone in Auckland really knows what winter feels like.

I’d highly advise anyone who has a day to spend in Auckland (which, by the way, includes about one-third of the entire population of New Zealand), to take a tour by Time Unlimited.

They’re smart and funny and they’ll tailor a tour to include just about anything their group demands. Owners Neil and Ceillhe Sperath are remarkably patient and hospitable and will do anything from Maori tours (she’s part Maori and part Irish, a delightful combination) to kayak/fishing trips and even take you out on a kite-fishing expedition, which involves fishing lines dangling from kites that fly high over the ocean and sounds extremely cool.

They try to do their tours in an environmentally sustainable way, and they have great tour vehicles and great snacks to keep patrons fed and watered. If you ask for an ice cream, or just mention the words “ice” and “cream” in the same sentence, Ceillhe will probably pull her car over faster than you can say Rotorua.

All in all, a pretty good town with a ton of activities all around. You can even bungee jump off Auckland’s Harbour Bridge if you’re so inclined.


Talk about your embarrassment of riches.

It’s not bad enough they live in a climate where a cold day in winter is maybe 12 degrees and the hottest it gets in summer is maybe 30, with an average closer to 23 or something. No, folks down here get to live a 40-minute ferry ride away from Waiheke Island, which has wines to rival the Napa Valley on IMG_4689 a good day but scenery that puts California wine country to shame.

More on that. Connie Festa and Rob Meredith run Peacock Sky, high on a hill above most of the other wineries. She’s from Montreal and he’s from England and they met in Toronto (more on that later in Star Travel) and now they run a delicious winery and B and B. They advertise peacocks in the hills nearby, but on Tuesday Rob and I nearly went out in the dark to chase down some escaped llamas from a nearby farm. Lucky for us, Connie was about finished with dinner and we opted to let someone more professional chase down the critters. Or we thought, until I woke up at 6 a.m. in the drizzle (first rain in four days here) and found three white llamas and a black one nibbling on the grass. Cute as hell, but I didn’t think Connie would like them chewing on her flowers so I shooed them away.

Anyway, it’s a ridiculously beautiful island with high hills, secluded coves with deserted beaches, lovely water, fresh syrah and pinot gris and chardonnay and merlot and cabernet sauvignon and more, not to mention award-winning olive groves, fun restaurants and art galleries. There’s an outdoor sculptureIMG_4570  display going on now high on a bluff overlooking one of the main harbours, and it’s got some wonderful stuff.

The wine is just as good as Hawke’s Bay, which gets a lot more ink overseas (and more bottles at the LCBO). Obsidian makes some wonderful reds, as does Kennedy Point, which has a great location overlooking a gorgeous, small bay.

I had a bit more time to wander about Auckland some more and found some fun shops around Chancery and High Street and also had a second to check out the Hotel De Brett, a boutique spot that looks on the outside like something out of South Beach. The downtown here isn’t beautiful but they’re working on Quay St. and there are some very nice, old buildings. If they can do a bit more to make Queen St. a bit more unified and not so much looking our Yonge St., they’ll be in great shape. Either way, though, there are plenty of nice spots and some lovely parks, not to mention the waterfront down at the Viaduct.

A couple of weird thoughts about New Zealand. I went for a coffee and it was $5 for a large, flat white (like a latte). Much like Australia, you don’t see places that offer what we would call drip coffee. Which means you pretty much have to order an espresso for $3 or more, or spend $4 to $5 for a flat white or a cappuccino, which gets quite expensive at the end of a day for a traveller. Maybe they have some spots like Tim Hortons but I didn’t see them, aside from a Dunkin Donuts shop at the airport.

Unlike Sydney, I did see a couple of Starbucks in Auckland. But I didn’t stop in to see if they had more affordable alternatives.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I love the service folks on Air New Zealand. Like everyone in this smiling country, they’re all friendly and polite as all get out. I also liked the trivia contest they had on the TV screens yesterday on my way to Queenstown, and the tiny bag of bbq crisps were pretty decent.

BUT…no soft drinks? On a two-hour flight, you only get a choice of coffee, tea or water. That’s not very good. And the space? OMG. The person in front of me yesterday put their seat back and I felt like I was being crushed. I barely managed to open my laptop and contort myself into a position where I could type out a few notes from the trip.

Flights have been mostly on time, however, and I’ve landed safely, so that’s the most important thing. And it’s a great, great country. More in the coming days from stunning Queenstown on the South Island.



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