Part two of a three part series on New Zealand’s North Island
In terms of size, it’s something of an unfair comparison. With a metropolitan area of more than two million (about half the national population), sprawling Auckland is New Zealand’s commercial and financial capital. It’s highrise towers, capped by the futuristic 1,075-foot Sky Tower, give it a big city skyline. With a population of 300,000, Wellington, the nation’s capital, is a Honolulu-sized city, with a downtown mix of high-rise and government buildings. Like Auckland, it faces a great bay with access to the open ocean, but surrounding mountains work to maintain the city’s expansion, a plus in the eyes of Wellingtonians. AUCKLAND
Situated on the shores of the Hauraki Gulf, which almost bisects North Island, metropolitan Auckland sprawls over coastal flatlands and dozens of volcanic hills, extending its reach to bedroom communities on islands that dot the gulf and are reached by ferry.
At 1,075-feet, futuristic Sky Tower is the tallest building in the southern hemisphere.
( It’s not only the city’s defining landmark, it is also a key attraction, both for the panoramic views it affords of the city and its surroundings, and as a jumping platform for the surprisingly varied mix of people forking over about $125US to be harnessed in for a guide-wired plunge to a waiting attendant on the small wooden platform at street level, where they land. If a free-fall adrenalin rush isn’t your thing, you
can don a space-age moonsuit and catwalk the tower’s exterior summit for about $100. The pursuit of vertiginous thrills in this land where bungee jumping began remains a Kiwi passion.
Downtown Auckland has a somewhat generic 21st century urban feel, glass-sheathed and highrise, with an occasional building of historic interest that survived the growth of the past 20 years. Beyond downtown, the city is a patchwork of neighborhoods, some of which were independent, encompassed by the city as it grew. Several retain a Victorian feel, with Ponsonby and Parnell Village a reminder of old Auckland, with galleries and boutiques to browse and eateries to enjoy, making them daytime or evening locales. Newmarket offers a mix of high-end retailers, many with internationally known brands, as well as upscale restaurants. All three attract a mix of locals and visitors. My most impressive Auckland “find” was the island of Waiheke, a scenic 45-minute ferry ride to the east of downtown.
Departing the historic ferry terminal, the cityscape rises from the waterfront, fading to a sharp-edged
silhouette as the ferry passes Rangitoto Island, a nature preserve (also accessible by ferry) with
hiking trails that lead to a conical summit that’s an obvious clue to its volcanic origin a mere 600 -800 years ago, a time frame that reveals Auckland’s potential vulnerability to Pele’s power. The grassy pu`u that are part of the cityscape are further evidence of a not-too-distant volcanic past.
Nothing so apocalyptic comes to mind on Waiheke Island, a casually sophisticated retreat of vineyards and roses, beaches and tropic-hued waters 45 scenic minutes from downtown Auckland, visible in silhouette on the western horizon. bed-and-breakfast options that make it worth considering as an overnight option.
Closer at hand…a mere 10 minutes from downtown, Devonport preserves a village feel, making it nice for an afternoon visit and dinner, with an evening ferry ride back to downtown, the night-lit skyline reflecting the gulf’s dark waters.
A still-widening network of suburbs surround the city, accommodating a population that now includes immigrants from Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Thailand, Taiwan and China, as well as a large population of foreign students from these and other countries.
It’s a mix that adds a cosmopolitan feel to the city, where many restaurants and businesses are run by this new generation of immigrants. DINING & ACCOMMODATIONS Check out www.beeflambnz.co.nz/index.pl?page=restaurant_directory&m=232 for a take on Auckland (and other North Island) restaurants worth considering. I stayed with friends and ate in most nights, but their recommends for Auckland were Vinnie’s in Herne Bay and Iguacu in Parnell. As for hotels, the Langham and the Stamford Plaza are good in-town choices—classy and well established. The Devonport Hotel is a comfortable alternative within a 10-minute ferry ride (or a 20-minute drive) from downtown Auckland. There are also mostly pricey bed-and breakfast options on Waiheke Island, which has something of a Marin County feel. GETTING AROUND There is an excellent bus system that makes center city easily accessible, with well-priced day passes. Time Frame for a Visit: Two or three days if you make a day of it on both Rangitoto and Waiheke islands. WELLINGTON
Like Auckland, Wellington faces a great bay that provides it with direct access to the open ocean. Unlike Auckland, Wellington is surrounded by steep mountains that provide a natural limit to its growth, with 164,000 people within city limits and another 300,000 in the region.
Scenically situated on North Island’s southernmost coast, a mere 20-30 miles across the Cook Strait from South Island, which is linked to Wellington by ferry service across sometimes choppy seas. Air New Zealand offers inter-island service to Christchurch, South Island’s largest city.
A tram links downtown to the hillside summit of the Wellington Botanical Garden, providing another scenic perspective of the city and its surroundings. Meandering pathways provide a long-but-beautiful descent back to the city. Free shuttle service links the
summit garden with Zealandia, a 400+-acre nature preserve that is home to a variety of rare native birds. Feeding plaforms and a forest wired for birdsong, attract the native mountain parrot and other rare species that make sightings likely. An informative museum takes aim at New Zealand’s botanical past. As in Hawaii, human settlement, habitat destruction (about 80% of North Island’s native forest was destroyed and converted to pasture between 1840 and 1900), and the introduction of non-native predators have decimated native bird populations. Kiwi, the flightless bird that is an iconic symbol of the country and which once number in the millions are now reduced to an estimated 50,000, their survival aided by a number of hatching facilities that save vulnerable chicks from predators like cats and dogs.
Nearby, ferries depart for islands in the Wellington Bay, with Days Bay, with beaches and small-town charm, a popular day trip that includes enroute-scenic views of Wellington’s hillside setting.
Time Frame: Two days for the city proper, three or four if you use Wellington as a base and set out for Wairaparapa’s wine country or an ATV adventures in the surrounding hills, or a day trip to Days Bay. . GETTING AROUND
It’s an easy city to circumnavigate on foot, passing through the central business district and returning along the harbor-side promenade. Convenient bus service includes day passes that make it easy to get around either downtown or surrounding neighborhoods.
Tours are offered to the vineyards of the Wairaparapa district centered on the town of Martinborough, about 90 scenic minutes from Wellington by car.
Boutique wineries line a grid of roads just outside of town, which is a relaxed place to wander and take a break for lunch. The same is true of Greytown, about 20 minutes away, where antiques are the temptation.
DINING & ACCOMMODATIONS I stayed at the Museum Art Hotel and found it a recommend for size, facilities, service, and location, with the larger InterContinental an alternative closer to government offices. The trendy restaurants in the vicinity of Courtney Place include Monsoon Poon, a justifiably popular Asia-fusion restaurant with a delicious range of appetizers and entrees. Best meal of my visit: Hippopotamus at the Museum Art Hotel, a five-star experience in terms of setting, service, presentation and taste. This is contemporary cuisine at its best.
Auckland or Wellington, New Zealanders are genuinely warm and helpful to visitors.
USEFUL CONTACTS Guide Book recommend: Lonely Planet: New Zealand’s North Island. Tourism New Zealand: www.newzealand.com Positively Wellington: www.WellingtonNZ.com
Car Rentals: Best deal is GO rentals. Round trip between Auckland and Wellington is about 1,000- $1400 miles, depending on the route selected and side trips made. Roads are well maintained, but usually two lanes wide with occasional passing lanes added. Traffic moves quickly, with 100 km (65 miles) the general, rarely posted, rule. www.gorentals.co.nz>