Coming back to Auckland after a break gives me a fresh perspective and fresh eyes. Some things have changed, and Auckland is growing, in population, and up as a city. Here are a few of my favourite things about Auckland. So many people pass through Auckland on to the more glamorous South Island but she’s got a lot to offer.
Rangitoto and her volcanic sisters
Auckland is built on an extinct volcanic plain and none more evident than Rangitoto in the harbour. The most symmetrical, iconic of the volcanoes. Most of the hills around Auckland are volcanic cones (50 in all). Several were Maori Pas (forts) for good reason with visibility from all angles. As the European settlers arrived the land was turned to farming, then residential and several are now parks. Most obvious are One Tree Hill and Mount Eden but one of our favourites is Mount Mangere, under utilised, with two craters and views across the Manukau Harbour the rim walk is a fun morning out. Even more obscure is the smallest volcanic crater at one of our favourite parks Otuatua Stonefields, a remote and serene place.
Rangitoto itself is a special place to my family. One of the controversial baches remains in my family, my grandmothers cousin is the caretaker. It is little more than a two bedroom house with a long-drop (outside toilet). A generator and recently got electric lights. These baches were built in the 1930’s, ours so that when the Aucklanders were visiting by boat the ladies could sleep on land while the men slept on the boat. Wouldn’t want anything unseemly happening.
Climbing Rangitoto is a great day trip. A ferry across the harbour and up through the black scoria. Lava tubes and caves to explore and a glorious city view from the top.
2. The harbour islands
You can’t ignore the beauty of the Waitemata Harbour and her islands. It turns out that most of the small islands are protected and not accessible apart from conservation purposes. However, there are many beautiful islands to explore, each with her own personality.
Rangitoto – a young volcano cone, still covered in black scoria with pohutakawa trees claiming a stake. A day climb is worth the effort for the views. Also walking the perimeter and viewing the historic baches and various bays and jetty’s. A walk across to Motutapu Island, connected by a small land bridge is a good walk. Motatapu couldn’t be more different to Rangitoto. A pastoral and largely undefined island but still a lovely walk.
Waiheke Island – a 30 minute ferry ride to a Mediterranean style vineyard and restaurant island. Some of Auckland’s best restaurants and New Zealand’s best winery’s. A wedding destination and a girls weekend retreat.
Tiritiri Matangi – a conservation island and native bird sanctuary. Can only be visited during the day. My grandmother imbued a love of birds and admiration for the work on this island. I still have vivid memories of visiting as a child. A wonderful educational place with some of New Zealand’s most endangered animals. I haven’t been for years but always love it.
Great Barrier Island – The fourth biggest Island in New Zealand and as it’s name says is the outer most island for the Hauraki Gulf. Protecting the harbour and from the east coast beaches the next stop is Chile! This is a special place for our family. Our family bach (holiday home) is here and we spend at least three family holidays a year here. My husband and I have been visiting for at least the last 15 years and our kids from the tender age of 7 weeks.
It’s elemental, wild, temperamental and remote. There are very few people, no mains water or electricity and very little to spend your money on. We simply love stopping, changing our routine and spending our time gathering kai moana (food from the sea) like mussels, crayfish, paua, tua tua and fishing. And exploring the nature, including natural hot pools.
Recently Great Barrier Island was awarded the Dark Sky Sanctuary (only one of four in the world). Put simply this means it’s a protected sanctuary for low light pollution. One of the best places to see the night sky in all its glory. That on a deserted, clean white sand beach surely is everyone’s dream holiday?
3. Wild West Coast Beaches
A true ‘Westie’ born and bred I hark to the wild, black sand beaches of Piha, Karekare and Whatipu. All of these beaches are dramatic, demanding and a quick reminder of the vastness of the sea.
They are about an hour from Auckland city and feel like much further away.
Piha – the epitome of surf beaches with the baches clustering around the hills over-looking the beach, split in two by a river and Lion Rock. The waves thunder on to shore. On a sunny day it’s a fun walk and clamber part way up Lion Rock. On a wild winters day it turns to a completely different elemental experience.
Piha has featured heavily through my growing up. Many teenage weekends, uni escapes have been spent out there. Memories of cranky dairy owners, scorching my feet on the black, black sand and greasy fish and chips chased down with cola.
Karekare – less popular, yet far more dramatic this beach was made famous in 1993 by the epic Jane Campion film The Piano. This is a more remote black sand beach with only a smattering of private baches. The walk through the pohutakawa grove and across the dunes to the beach itself is dramatic with cliffs rising around. There is a sensational day track along the ridge line the Zion Hill Track. However, due to the devastating Kauri die back disease most tracks (including this one) have been closed to try and stop the deaths of one of our most treasured National trees.
Karekare is a special place for my husband and I as it was where we chose to have our wedding photos, and our first glimpse of each other on our wedding day. Forever etching it on our lives. We continue to return for its majesty. Not a swimming beach but definitely one to explore.
Whatipu – at the mouth of the Manukau Harbour is the desolate Whatipu Beach. Early in Auckland’s history the Manukau Harbour was thought to be where the city would be located. It was soon apparent that the west coast is a wild place and the small harbour entrance a treacherous place. Many shipwrecks occurred and the city was relocated to the more sheltered Waitemata.
There are awesome dunes to slide down, and still evidence of the massive kauri felling industry along the rocks with train tracks and a cave once used as a ball room. Very hard to imagine this was a possibility when you drive out the windy gravel roads.
When looking across the harbour mouth to the Awhitu lighthouse it appears so close but driving is nearly four hours away.
Worth a mention is the Anawhata and Whites beaches, very small and private beaches but totally worth a visit.
Most of these wild beaches are beautiful to visit and worth packing lunch and exploring. But be aware these are fierce seas and swimming can be dangerous. Piha is the only patrolled beach, Karekare only a short time during summer. Piha is also the only one with a cafe and shop. There are no petrol stations! Fill in Henderson or Titirangi.
4. Food, food, food…
Auckland might be small on the world scale but she punches hard on the food front. This remembering that sushi arrived when I was a teenager and Chinese food when I was growing up was chow mein, sweet & sour pork and giant spring rolls. Trust me the memory is better than the fact.
New Zealand, a young country with British roots was a meat and three veg place. Certainly what I was brought up with. With a little North American influence from my mother.
Over the last fifteen or so years the Auckland food scene has grown and developed. Below are a few of our favourites.
Barilla Dumplings on Dominion Road has long been a favourite. We’re often there on the weekend for lunch with the kids. Two plates of steamed or fried dumplings. Gotta be beef with coriander and pork with fennel. Our kids have grown up here, accidentally dipping their fingers in the awesome chilli sauce ‘spicy!’ Less central, in New Lynn are Mr Zhou’s dumplings. Also great dumplings in a less designed surrounds. Simply good food if you’re in the area.
Other Asian food favourites include Xi’an Food Bar for excellent spicy pulled pork handmade noodles. Shaolin Kung Foo Noodles for their awesome soup dumplings. Then let’s not forget yum cha at the institution that is Grand Harbour.
On the more innovative New Zealand cuisine we’ve come home to a front runner in Amano. And we’ve always enjoyed stalwart SPQR for a long lunch of rose, platter and pizza. There are many more new and outstanding restaurants we’d love to try but kids, time and cash slow us down.
Auckland has a number of fabulous art galleries we love. And are free to Aucklanders. As well as the Auckland Museum and it’s grand position over-looking the city.
Auckland Museum – is a fabulous place to spend a rainy afternoon. The building itself is positioned above the CBD and surrounded by impressive grounds. The winter gardens are a regular visit for us. The museum itself is user friendly and we recently attended a Night at the Museum which was great fun and done very creatively. Gone are the days of the silent visit and stuffy environment. These days it’s interactive and dynamic.
Auckland Art Gallery – a number of years ago this underwent a gorgeous renovation to extend on the historic building. This was very successful and the gallery is light, airy, modern and welcoming. Recently visitors to Auckland have been required to pay. But as an Aucklander it is a quick visit. There are always new exhibits and a fun children’s interactive display.
Other galleries we love are Pah Homestead for its gorgeous old home and the sculpture garden surrounding the cafe. A lovely stop and space for the kids to be.
My own Titirangi village is home to the lovely historic Lopdell House and a recent addition of the Te Uru Gallery. Got to be one of the best views from a gallery. It’s a lovely space and literally across the road from the kids school. Rainy winter days just invite a visit.
Overall, Auckland is a beautiful city nestled on two harbours with islands, beaches, bush, sailing, culture and bursting with food, wine and so many opportunities for free entertainment. She’s gorgeous, not over populated and mostly a welcoming place to visit. Admittedly most of what I’ve suggested requires a little work to find or get to. The public transport is growing but doesn’t quite reach the outer regions. And this is a locals list. Scratch below the surface and any city has so much more to offer!
What’s you’re favourite place in Auckland? Or your secret place in your town?