Posts in the “New Zealand” category...

The Westin Auckland – Now Hotel Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour

by Continental Club on May 1, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Since this article was published, the Westin Auckland Lighter Quay has been renamed Hotel Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour, and is now managed by the Accor Group.

In January 2005, the former Sheraton Hotel and Towers Auckland became the Langham Hotel and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World marketing construct. It marked the withdrawal of Starwood Hotels from the New Zealand market, the contract to operate the Sheraton Rotorua having already been relinquished some time earlier.

Two and a half years later however, in June 2007, Starwood returned with the opening of the ultra-modern, purpose-built, waterfront Westin Auckland Lighter Quay – now Hotel Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour – which is now itself playing host to the pre-opening office of the forthcoming Westin Queenstown – now Hilton Queenstown, in South Island. It would appear that something of a Starwood renaissance has begun in this corner of Asia Pacific.

Prior to our arrival, the hotel staff had already proved on-the-ball, picking up on the fact that two reservations had been made in my name, and politely checking that there hadn’t been an unintentional duplication. The General Manager of the Sheraton in Perth subsequently made contact with Auckland too, and a further pre-arrival email landed from another most helpful of Westin staff members. Indeed, by that point, a third booking had been made to accommodate the final member of our travelling troupe, who would be joining us in New Zealand, and our delightful Westin contact amended the latter booking to match the rate and amenities of the first two, organised adjacent rooms for us and booked a table for dinner in the hotel’s Q restaurant.

The only less than perfect arrangement, therefore, would be rolling up at the Hotel’s lobby in the lean, green, mean machine…..

The hotel is named after the dock basin alongside which it sits, a maritime development that failed in its aspiration to provide an efficient landing facility for cargoes brought into the Waitemata Harbour by bulk shipping, and then shuttled ashore using smaller, ‘lighter’ vessels.

It was an idea that had been successfully used in London but, in early 20th Century Auckland, it failed to gain traction with the shipping lines, who boycotted it and demanded instead that the main wharves of the harbour be dredged sufficiently to allow their increasingly large vessels to berth without requirement for trans-shipment.

Lighter Quay was therefore one of the last parts of the original harbour basin to be developed, one of the first to be abandoned and then, again, one of the last in the immediate environs to be redeveloped as part of the 2000 Americas Cup-inspired regeneration of the wider Viaduct Basin area.

The 172-bedroomed Westin is arguably the corner-stone of this mixed-use commercial, leisure and residential redevelopment and it sits well within its surroundings – a modern and light-filled building, whose boundaries merge indistinctly into the adjacent apartment complexes which share an architectural theme.

It’s superbly easy to get to from the city’s motorway but, with little public parking in the vicinity, the hotel’s valet service is the most popular choice for arriving guests. For those who may have used an airport shuttle or taxi, there is also a near-permanent presence of private hire, executive-style cars on hand for those without a car to call their own.

Entering the lobby, with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking internal courtyards with shallow, geometric, ornamental pools, the clear intention is to create an atmosphere of calm modernity, in that distinctly millennial Western interpretation of Zen.

Despite our by-now traditional crack-of-dawn arrival, and the horror of the door staff in having to valet park The Snot, the check-in staff were bright, smart and delighted to confirm that one of our rooms was ready already – and that as the others were prepared, they’d let us know.

Within minutes, they’d also summoned up a wheelchair for GCC’s use.

The Harbour View rooms continued the theme of light-filled modernity from the public spaces downstairs. Different again from the grande-luxe of a St Regis or an earthy-toned Sheraton, these rooms are high-ceilinged with vast drapes and contrasting light and dark soft furnishings.

The entrance lobby to the room plays host to a wet bar with sink and cafetiere, the rooms themselves outfitted with the Westin Heavenly Bed and large LCD TV, and the bathrooms laid out in complimentary colour-scheme with a separate shower and deep bath.

From the shallow balcony, accessed through sliding doors and, indeed, from any part of the room, the view sweeps around the Lighter Basin, over the radar domes of million-dollar motor cruisers, up to the iconic Sky Tower and out towards the North Shore of Auckland City.

When the need arises though, that view can be comprehensively obliterated by excellent black-out curtains, and the beds certainly live up to their Heavenly branding. They had to, as by this point I’d developed a riotous headache, and complete darkness and bed were both my only and essential requirements.

Four hours later, and with a cranium that felt as though it had been scrubbed out with a rock and lots of sand, but no more like red hot pokers were being driven into it, I emerged into the sunshine again. Summoning the Falcon from the embarrassed valet, I headed back to the airport to collect our next guest, inbound from Sydney on Air New Zealand (concise report: no absent emergency exit sign, but similarly unimpressive service), who’ll from hereon in be known as NeighbourContinentalclub, or NCC.

Drawing up at the lobby entrance again, the staff had clearly agreed a military-style operation to remove the Ford Snot from the forecourt with remarkable rapidity, and we were met with doors and boot being opened with the parking brake barely yet applied, and us being ushered inside with enthusiasm.

The Snot was gone in seconds.

The second room had been prepared before I left and NCC’s was ready and waiting when we arrived back from the airport. Time for a chat and coffee in her room, before we headed down to the lobby lounge to meet with other friends and family for a late afternoon drink.

The bar service, emanating from the restaurant to one side, was friendly and efficient and another member of staff appeared to offer assistance in re-arranging furniture to accommodate the burgeoning throng.

The Viaduct Harbour area of Auckland isn’t short of dining options, but it had seemed like a sensible idea to book the hotel’s own restaurant for dinner, on the basis of a) convenience, b) hotel restaurants tending to be quite spacious and therefore conducive to family gatherings and c) good reviews.

Q turned out to be far better than merely an acceptable compromise; in fact, it was quite superb – albeit with no obvious gadgets or gizmos, Bonds or baddies.

The restaurant itself is internally clad in Mexican onyx marble, which is lit from behind to stunning effect:

Individual dining areas are translucently demarked by hanging curtains of fine chainlink and those floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around the u-shaped space which itself surrounds the partially open kitchen.

The bar at the entrance to Q is rather small though, so we were quickly taken to our table, which looked out through the drawn-back doors on to the terrace outside, the marina and the Sky Tower.

Service from the French Maitre d’ and indeed all the staff, but especially a young Scottish waiter, was both friendly and professional. At first glance, the menu plays to the traditional strengths of New Zealand’s culinary stalwarts, but closer inspection and description from the knowledgeable staff reveals both creativity and imagination has been applied.

Amongst the party, the selections covered the menu fairly comprehensively and all were declared absolutely superb, which is quite a feat when playing to a multinational audience of three generations and a vegetarian.

The 2006 Syrah, from Craggy Range by the Tukituki River over on the East coast of New Zealand’s North Island, was an absolutely superb choice and was washed down well by all present. With delicious breads and amuse bouches to kick things off, and the twinkling lights of Auckland’s skyline to draw the evening to a close, it was a fine, fine place to dine together.

The Westin’s beds might have been Heavenly in their cosseting of their sated occupants overnight, but it was the devil’s own job to drag us from in the morning and prepare for yet another voyage – this time across the Hauraki Gulf by boat.

First though, Q welcomed us back for breakfast, which offered a good selection of buffet items from a presentation at that far end of the room where we had dined the previous evening, as well as an a la carte menu choice.

The restaurant, transformed from the atmospheric moodiness of the glowing marble the night before, was now light, bright and buzzing with both residents and non-residents preparing to begin their day. Indeed, tables were set up just outside the restaurant to the rear of the lobby quadrangle, such was the demand. The only less than wholly-positive observation that could be made throughout the breakfast service was that the provision of tea and coffee could have been slightly more prompt; staff were delighted to offer cappuccinos and lattes et al to order, but the express provision of heart-starter filter (which is so often craved) would be the icing on the cake.

Checking out of The Westin was the only unpleasant experience of the entire stay, and then only because it marked the end of it. The next beds upon which we would lay our heads were to be at a private rental property, the risks and uncertainties of which threw Starwood’s underlying consistency into sharp relief. Wholly different to the styles of either its Sheraton or St Regis cousins, this Auckland outpost had proved itself a slick but welcoming, stylish but comfortable haven for our first night in New Zealand.

It was a shame too that so few of the hotel’s facilities had been enjoyed; the sophisticated gym, the stylish pool and the spa all went untested given the time available on this single-night stay.

The checkout process itself was swift and the accounts accurate; the staff as smart and courteous as everyone else we’d come into contact with. The queue for the small hotel café, Toast, was out of the door as we finally pulled away from the hotel forecourt, the door staff smiling broadly as they saw the back of The Snot for the last time.

Final Verdict for the Westin Auckland: 9.0/10. A real shame that this was just a one-night stay and that there was not more time to explore the hotel’s range of facilities, including the stylish lap pool, gym and spa. However, and for all the reasons discussed – the staff, the architectural style, the fixtures, fittings, furnishings and Q Restaurant – the Westin is the perfect place in which to cool your heels after a long haul flight. For longer-term visitors to Auckland, it’s also ideally located to explore both the sights and sounds of the city, whilst being a calm retreat in which to rejuvenate between bouts of touristing.

Since this article was published, the Westin Auckland Lighter Quay has been renamed Hotel Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour, and is now managed by the Accor Group.

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Slow, Slower & Almost Stopped – Backwards to Waiheke

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

There’s a bit of an urban myth that pilots, having glided their fly-by-wire Airbii or Boeings in over Manukau City or its harbour, welcome their Crackberry-addicted and laptop-toting passengers ‘to Auckland, where the local time is 1953.’ It would be funny, were it not so true.

The thing is, New Zealand is the one of the World’s cul-de-sacs. No-one, since the dawn of Man, has yet found a plausible reason to be ‘just-passing’ New Zealand. It’s as far as you can go, the end of the line, a terminus country. It’s somewhere that quite a few folks visit, passing on their way in the steady flow of locals on their way out. It’s a country that one or two have escaped to, in search of that utopian ‘better quality of life’, but despite almost 700 years of human presence, has managed to hang on to a population only two thirds the size of London’s.

The South Island (commonly: ‘the one with the sheep and the scenery’) troubles itself with less than half the number of people than call Manchester home.

The North Island (‘the one with the Politicians’) clings on to some semblance of modernity with the capital, Wellington, and the most populous city, Auckland within its shores.

Together, they form 95% of the land area of a country that has been described as ‘beige’ by Billy Connolly and one that has just woken up to the fact that the designations North Island and South Island actually have no legal validity.

The politicians have decided, therefore, to have a contest to decide the official names of the two rocks at the end of the Earth but, apparently, the Kiwis are quite keen on maintaining the status quo. For which read: can’t be bothered to vote. So, instead, I’ll make a suggestion:

North Island: Saga

South Island: Gaga

Job done.

Anyway, if New Zealand has the air of England under Anthony Eden, then the island of Waiheke (Why-Heckie) is more Larkrise to Candleford, if not Flintstones. Traditionally a weekend retreat from the urban frenzy of Auckland (yes, really – they think that Auckland’s a frenzy), Waiheke has only relatively recently come under the control of the municipal authorities.

Never a country to trouble itself unduly with planning rules or building standards, the former lack of regulations of any kind on the island seem to have rendered a goodly part of it a cross between Soweto and Magalluf. It’s not a happy combination.


Thankfully, perhaps, drivers are unlikely to chance upon Waiheke by accident. The peculiarly Kiwi approach to road-signage (minimal, incomplete, non-existent) puts off all but the most determined of navigators who, when they finally spot the only sign which does bear the name ‘Half Moon Bay’ – the port for the island’s car ferry – will see that it points up a hill and away from it’s intended target.

There is, on the face of it, a choice to be made between two ferry companies: Sealink and Waiheke Shipping. The latter lost its maritime licence in mid 2008, only to see it reinstated a few months later without any publically-announced changes to its operation. Run by the Subritzky family, their barge puts one quietly in mind of a Pacific version of Para Handy’s Vital Spark, and the Chief Engineer also makes the teas and coffees.

That sinking feeling washing over us, we booked instead with the Sealink competition, only to find the credit card statement showed ‘Subritzky’ and the two companies’ offices on the slipway at HMB looked suspiciously close for comfort.

There is, in fairness, one quite separate alternative to the slightly suspicious Subritzky combo: Fuller’s, who sail directly from the City (and Devonport on the harbour’s North Shore), but this is a passenger-only service to Matiatia on Waiheke.

The Snot was loaded cautiously aboard and off we set for the island.

The crossing was commendably swift and thankfully supermarine, although our arrival at the vehicular wharf at Kennedy Point came at the expense of the Captain having to suspend his game of cards with the crew.

Again in true New Zealand style, the friendly, chatty arrangements to be met at the wharf by the lady from the accommodation agency through which we’d booked our temporary Castle Continentalclub came to nothing, and we sat in The Snot for half an hour looking like the lost tourists we were.

A call to the office elicited the news that said lady had quit the company the day before, and left no note of our arrival. Thankfully, the sole remaining employee hopped in her jalopy (if it’s a new car in New Zealand, it’s almost undoubtedly Hertz or Avis) and came to rescue us. Not much help for anyone else now trying to call the office, of course…..

She led us to our shed, through the streets of shanties and eventually round the back of the Retravision electrical shop’s service yard. It’s fair to say that, at this point, prayers were being offered up to anyone who would listen, but most specifically to St Regis of Starwood or any of his canonised co-brands.

One of them must have been listening because, despite the inauspicious arrival, CastleContinentalclub itself turned out to be really rather lovely – and our new angel of the accommodation agency, Joanne, absolutely fantastic (though clearly overworked).

In an ideal World, the unlovely building with the red tin roof twixt our house and the sea wouldn’t have been there, and the advertised washing machine would have been a mite more useful had it been connected to water or power, and not left standing in the middle of the garage like a lifeboat adrift at sea.


The angelic Joanne came up with a super solution however: the use of some adjacent lettings with multiple laundries, and also dropped by without delay to complete some items missing from the inventory. She then administered a swift Kiwi kick-up-the-butt to the contract cleaners, who returned to make a better job of cleaning the balcony barbecue than they’d previously managed.

Not exactly the smoothest of arrivals, but all was well in the end.

Our accommodation was located in Waiheke’s largest favela, Oneroa (on-er-oh-a), a higgledy-piggledy collection of tateramas and coffee-shops catering largely to the daily influx of grockles on the Fuller’s passenger ferry. Landed, bussed about and then washed away again at teatime, their blue-rinses are somewhat incongruous as they sip their fair-trade latte, served slowly by a tie-dyed grunger who’d rather be doing anything but feeding the capitalist machine.

Looking carefully down the alleys and passageways which wind between buildings whose very existence owes more to MDF than civil engineering, there are a few decent eateries to be found – the Skinny Sardine and Vino Vino to name but two.

The latter restaurant owes its name to Waiheke’s latest wheeze to draw in the boatloads – the race to cover the most unlikely patches of earth with grapes. Now, it’s to the island’s credit that no-one actually claims that the vines or their output wines are any good. No, they’re just there. Most of the vineyards play host to a restaurant (suggestions that planting a vineyard next to your restaurant is merely a landscaping exercise are entirely unfounded) and these provide additional opportunities for busloads to be parted with the contents of their purses and wallets, or to attract mainlanders for their nuptials.

Cable Bay, for example, is one of the latest additions to the Waiheke ‘Wedding Factory’ scene and, perhaps to help make the young loves feel at home, is built very much in the style of a provincial British primary school of the mid 70s.

Despite being open for a couple of years, it seems not to have occurred to its owners that building a drive might take precedent over a swanky sign, but there again neither have they troubled themselves to plant very many vines, either. Or perhaps the vast and patchy lawn out front is designed to allow uninterrupted views from the classroom/restaurant.


Which would be fair enough, were the view not entirely uninterrupted by anything of note for miles and miles and miles, other than a modern art installation reminiscent of an earthquake-wobbled windmill and, with the essential assistance of military-grade binoculars, Auckland city in the very far distance.


Of course, neither focused winemaker nor restaurateur might be expected to deal with such practical matters, concentrating instead on the delivery of luscious libations and delectable dinners. Cable Bay however, in at least a demonstration of remarkable consistency, declined to bother with decent food or wine either.

Little of which would appear to conspire to make Waiheke a particularly attractive destination for the World traveller. However, you’d be wrong in assuming that because, apart from the early celestial discovery of Joanne and CastleContinentalclub, Waiheke’s charms are more subtle and reward not those who swarm around the jampots, but those who explore a little further.

Actually, the first reward comes just by turning eyes away from the island for a moment. The aforementioned alley-accessed restaurants sit above Oneroa Bay, a sheltered and protected bay of warm, shallow waters ideal for sea-swimming, kayaking and watching the passing boats.

It’s far from paradisical, but it’s lovely nonetheless and, from the terrace of Castle CC or those restaurants, the sunsets over the sparkling Pacific waters are beautiful.

A little away from the main street of Oneroa, you’ll also find The Boatshed. On an island which is severely underserved by accommodation options of quality (or size), The Boatshed stands out as a beacon of stylish and luxurious comfort. Boasting uniquely individual rooms and first-class food, The Boatshed is at the pinnacle of comparable hospitality offerings – not just on the island but, arguably, in the greater Auckland area.

Just one thing though: don’t expect it to be anywhere near the sea. Any part of the hotel being used as a boatshed would require global warming on an epic scale, or a flood of biblical proportions. Located half way up the hillside, its creatively-licensed title is forgiven by its excellence, however.


And its ability to allow its guests to avoid some of the privations involved in reaching Waiheke even extends to arranging helicopter transfers from Auckland Airport – a worthwhile alternative to the car ferry.

Passing Ostend, the central lowland area of the island is home to mangrove swamp and the more commercial and prosaic of island businesses – here you’ll find the main supermarket, for example – before the landscape becomes more rural and the Waiheke Golf Club drapes the foothills. Opposite the Golf Club is one of the island’s more notable businesses – the Shearing Shed barbers. Make your way up the farm track to a converted stable and, assuming that sheep and miniature horses aren’t taking precedent, gentlemen may be relieved of their flowing locks in a slightly Wild West set up.

Next along the road, and continuing Waiheke’s seeming obsession with place names beginning with ‘O’, is Onetangi (On-euh-tang-ee), but the real treat begins with a turning to the right, just before the town is entered.

This turn marks the entrance to the ‘Bottom End’, an area of Waiheke that has gone almost untouched by the hand of restaurant developers, and unseen by the busloads of daytrippers. The initially sealed, then unsealed road makes its way through what can only be described as a pastoral eden of rolling hills clad in emerald green grass and studded with the most handsome of cattle and cloud-like sheep.

 

Every twist in the road is to enter another scene from an Anchor Butter commercial. Through densely-ferned dells and past babbling streams, the road which loops around the Bottom End finally emerges across a tiny bridge and a cattle grid to the stunningly beautiful Man o’War Bay.

Named (like so much else hereabouts) by Captain Cook, it’s a place to spend a long, lazy day with a picnic and a few decent bottles of wine (from somewhere else in New Zealand, obviously).

The more adventurous can take the walking trail up to Stony Batter, but most would prefer to do no more than watch the lapping waters and the anchoring of the odd boat in this sheltered spot.

Which is surely what an island retreat is all about, is it not?

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What Did The Romans Ever Do For New Zealand?

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

The answer, of course, being: nothing. Nor were they likely to, since they had no idea that it existed. However you’d have thought that the vast majority of those who’ve since settled Aotearoa – The Land of The Long White Cloud – would have picked up at some point that the Roman idea of building roads in straight lines, directly linking origins and destinations, was a not half bad one.

Well, they haven’t. Let’s take Auckland as an example. There are two motorways in the metropolitan area. One goes to the airport and one goes to the city. The two motorways are miles apart and separated by densely-packed suburbia. At no point has anyone apparently said: ‘look lads, this is a bit daft. If we’re going to call it ‘Auckland Airport’, shouldn’t we have a road that goes between ‘Auckland’ and the ‘Airport.’

Nope, far better to ram the traffic down a maze of side streets and clear off to London to make your fortune.

When, through accident or design, a straight-line road does occur, it’s invariably far too narrow for the traffic that needs to use it. The Auckland Harbour Bridge, hardly a thing of beauty other than in the dead of a moonless night during a power-failure, links the city centre to the burgeoning North Shore. It’s the only practical means of connecting the two (other than an unsurprisingly circuitous 40km route through the hills) but, in a remarkable lack of foresight for a rapidly developing country, was built as if it might get the odd horse and cart crossing it.

The original plan was to include railway tracks in the design, but whether for cost reasons or because they just forgot, it opened with just two lanes for road traffic in either direction.

Just ten years after it opened, a Japanese company was contracted to build additional lanes to be fitted to the outboard parapets of the bridge, and the nickname ‘Nippon Clip-ons’ was promptly applied. The increased width doesn’t even begin to deal with the levels of traffic now trying to use the crossing, and rush-hour jams regularly begin at 5.30am and extend for miles in each direction. And, as if drivers’ nerves aren’t frayed enough by the time they finally manage to get onto the bridge, they’re unlikely to be comforted by the 2007 press publication of a report which concluded that the Clipons are at risk of sudden and catastrophic failure in certain circumstances. Which would, presumably, be quite messy.

Things are arguably worse once the city limits are finally reached. For here, showing remarkable courage in the face of blinding common sense, recent New Zealand governments have presided over the closure of almost all of the country’s rail network. Accordingly, the bulk freight which used to amble from forest, farm and factory to port and processing along the iron road, now shares the winding lanes which twist and turn through every ditch and dip that the landscape possesses, cheek by jowl with the swarms of aged (non-rental) Kiwi cars. Although, in fairness, it still used to share the roads, even when it was on the rails….

Yes, rest assured that if there’s a way to get from A to B that goes via C, D, E, F and G, then the good road builders of New Zealand will have found it. Meanwhile, the signpost erectors will have given up before they’ve even started and just assumed that if you’ve got that far, you must know where you’re going.

So it’s perhaps little wonder that almost the only thing of note to have emerged from New Zealand since Hillary planted his flag on Everest is the twin-drawer dishwasher. Oh, and Hayley Westenra. Everything else is stuck in a traffic jam just outside Auckland.

Which is, in itself, an extremely round about way of saying that practical day trip options from Auckland are very few and far between. There’s one though, that given half a chance and a good alarm clock, you really should get up in time to make.

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Rotten Eggs in Rotovegas

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Rotorua is the capital of New Zealand’s principal geothermal region and, on occasion, is referred to as the country’s answer to the Nevada tourist magnet that sits astride a well-known Strip. It’s quite clear, however, that no-one who repeats the Rotovegas nick-name has ever been to the home of The Venetian, The Bellagio or The Mandalay Bay;  Manly Barrilow or Elton John. Indeed, it’s questionable whether they might have even been to a city at all. Anywhere. Of any kind.

For Rotorua is, basically, a very unremarkable sprawl of motels, petrol stations and DIY stores, with a small central business district and a couple of golf courses. Oh, and it’s by a lake. Which stinks. I don’t mean in the manner of the odd waft of something not quite discernible. I mean that it perniciously hums with the throat-catching claw of hydrogen sulphide, which bubbles, seeps and spurts through rock, soil and water at almost every opportunity.


And that, of course, is exactly why you’ve driven for three hours to get to Rotorua, and not to gamble in a vast casino or frolic in a hotel of limitless luxury. At its heart, there is the most handsome of former bath houses, a Tudor pastiche in the mould of many a British municipal park pavilion, but on a grand scale. Now a museum, it’s surrounded by the beautiful Government Gardens, around which the spa-seekers of days gone by would promenade in their fulsome skirts and stiff collars, trying not to wretch as they inhaled.

The bathhouse has been superseded by the modern and not-desperately attractive Polynesian Spa, but it’s here that visitors may ‘take the waters’ in various ways. The best option, assuming that a soaking is all that’s desired (as opposed to a varied selection of massages and rubs) is the Lake Spa Retreat package, which affords visitors comfortable changing facilities and complimentary towels, and then access to five lakeside pools whose thermal waters are cooled to varying degrees. The water is no more than knee-deep though, so this is not a place for wannabe Duncan Goodhews.

To swim in warm waters, heated geothermally but not themselves mineralised, the restored Blue Baths are the place to head, between the Polynesian Spa and the Museum.

Ideally though, these aqueous activities should be undertaken in the afternoon, for the early start from Auckland is dictated by the need to travel another 30kms beyond the town to the so-called ‘Thermal Wonderland’ at Wai-o-Tapu.

It’s here that visitors are entertained by the Lady Knox geyser which, aided and abetted by a paper bag full of washing powder, thrusts skyward daily and promptly at 10.15am.


The geyser itself lies before the main entrance and ticket office for the park, so arrival in advance is required to afford plenty of time to park, purchase tickets and then drive back a little way along the access road and down a side turn to a secondary parking area.

From here, it’s a short walk to the viewing terraces and the daily show which, despite the commercialism, is still a fairly awesome display of the forces at work beneath our feet. When Lady Knox has done her stuff, the assembled throngs make their way back to the main park entrance, however you may wish to give them a head start by retracing a route back along the access road a little further, to some frankly weird bubbling mud pools. Having considered the likely effect of falling into one of these spluttering pits of clay for a few minutes, a return to the park entrance will probably have allowed the jam of visitors to have cleared through and spread out amongst the further attractions.

The entrance building includes a café and essential taterama but, beyond its portals, the really spectacular stuff is quickly reached. Since the volcanic demise of the famed Pink & White Terraces of Mount Tarawera in 1886, Wai-o-Tapu really is the most arresting of Rotorua’s attractions, but one that seems relatively untouched by the coach-touring hordes – perhaps due to the early hour of the geyser eruption.

There are sinkholes and silica terraces, the champagne pool and more bubbling mud, sulphur lakes and rainbow falls, all interlinked by footpaths and walkways which come within inches of subterranean exhausts which would skin the unwary alive, were they to stray beyond the marked tracks.


A day-trip from Auckland would necessitate that back-track to Rotorua to take the waters, but to make the absolute best of the available time and having re-visited Rotorua, the traveller should, once again, re-pass Wai-o-Tapu and travel along the Thermal Explorer Highway towards Lake Taupo.

For here, just before the town is reached, are the Huka Falls and, just upstream of them, the preferred accommodations of visiting Royalty and celebrities – the exclusive Huka Lodge.


The falls themselves are a most impressive 20 metre wide torrent, through which the Waikato River, 100 metres across immediately above and below the cascade, is forced with thunderous velocity. The swirling waters turn from white to green to blue and back again as they tumult, and thrill-seeking visitors with a little more time to spare can take a jet boat to within touching distance of the lowest fall.

There is a free car park and small kiosk, and a bridge and walkways cross and surround the falls, providing plenty of photographic opportunities. It won’t be a lengthy pause on the return to Auckland, but a memorable and worthy one nonetheless.

The drive back to the city may afford more opportunity to pay attention to the towns passed through earlier in the day, as the road North West from Taupo soon completes a loop and rejoins the route initially taken to get to Rotorua.

Tirau offers up its somewhat bizarre Tourist Information Office and public loo, Cambridge its white clapboard church and Hamilton endless beautifully-kept floral displays along its wide grass verges. It’s a great deal to have packed into one day, but hopefully the opportunity for that restorative bathe in Rotorua will have eased the strain and arrival back in Auckland will not coincide with terminal exhaustion.

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Bright Lights, Quite Small City: Auckland

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Auckland is one of those cities which proudly trumpets its ‘liveability’. Residents enjoy the waterfront location and the opportunity for boating and fishing, the cafés, restaurants and suburban boutique shopping, the parks, museums and visiting musicians and theatre companies. There are surf beaches near at hand and the Sky Tower has brought some altitude to the skyline. There are certainly very many worse places to call home (lunatic transport-planning aside).

For the visitor however, particularly one who has travelled to the diametrically opposite side of the World at not-inconsiderable expense and possibly some discomfort (especially, if they’ve been none-too-close to the nose of the plane), then Auckland can be somewhat underwhelming. While New York might wow the tourists, but its frenetic pace prove wholly unattractive to a potential permanent resident, Auckland holds no such awe for the short-term visitor, but may equally represent his or her idea of a paradise-like long-term home. As is so often the case, it’s horses for courses.

The Westin Lighter Quay is a great base for the city visitor, though the compactness of Auckland’s centre means that few of the major accommodation options are in any way inaccessible. The likely first port of call on a tour of the downtown area will be the Sky Tower, if only to ascend to the top and acquire bearings and an overview of the city’s geography and topography. Maintaining the peculiarly Kiwi tradition of taking something and leaping off it, there’s a tethered bungee jump from just above the main observation deck, despite the partially-glazed floor being more than dizzying enough for some.

The Tower sits atop a complex which includes a casino, hotel and several bars and restaurants, but it’s all rather restrained in a very Auckland-like way. The surrounding streets are lined with a selection of department and chain stores, a few narrow shopping arcades and an abundance of fast-food emporia and gift shops, many of which are run by and with the Asian population in mind. It’s therefore not an uninteresting display of wares, but Auckland will never be described as a retail paradise.

The Domain is Auckland’s principal city park, 75 hectares of landscaped gardens and specimen trees, dominated by the Auckland War Memorial Museum and home to a Winter Garden, sports fields and areas which play host to major cultural events. Whilst attracting significant numbers of visitors each year, the Domain is again a fairly passive pleasure; a pleasant place to lose a few hours wandering, lounging or reading, but not somewhere that will provide you with iconic views for your photograph album.

If the weather is compliant (and remember, of course, that Auckland is on a narrow isthmus between the Tasman and the Pacific, so it’s prone to clashing maritime weather systems in the skies above), then a cruise across the harbour from the downtown ferry terminal, to Devonport on the North Shore, may be just the job.

Thanks to the maritime link, Devonport is actually easier to reach from the city than other, arguably similar, ‘Auckland villages’ on the Southern shore. It’s a comfortable mix of colonial architecture and contemporary lifestyle, with art galleries and craft shops, delis and bakeries, cafés and bars to suit most interests and tastes. Try Manuka on the main street or, just around the corner, the Stone Oven Bakery and Café – but get there early if you’re looking for lunch – they fill up completely.

A walk beyond the immediate seafront parks and streets can take the visitor up Mount Victoria which, for many years, was a military defence post and the gun emplacements can still be explored. From here, there’s a fine view back South to Auckland City, East to Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands and, in the far distance, the Coromandel Peninsula.

Looking North takes in Takapuna and its crater lake, and the East Coast Bays of the North Shore which march along the coast with expansive tendencies, contributing to the inexorable clogging of that woefully inadequate Harbour Bridge, which completes the 360 degree panorama as it drapes itself across the Western horizon beyond the naval base.

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New Zealand’s Most English City: Christchurch

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Wherever I’ve travelled in the World, or at least whenever I’ve done so with at least one other person, I’ve become distracted by the propensity of travelling companions to remark on the similarities between the far-flung place just arrived in, and some part of the sceptred British Isles.

This belief/need to believe that we are actually in familiar surroundings has obviously been prevalent for quite come time; witness the British-born place names which now litter previously perfectly-well named corners of the Globe.

Now, I will reveal to you why I am so distracted by these comparisons between Wigan and West Virginia, Falkirk and Fukuoka: it is because not one of these places ever looks even vaguely like the location that the desperate-to-feel-at-home traveller convinces themselves that it does.

Nowhere, it is my avowed contention, looks more like anywhere but itself. Indeed, were the World a litany of exact facsimiles of natural landscape or built environment, then the very act of travelling would be rendered a good deal less interesting than it actually is.

So, get this: Christchurch is not an English city. Nor is it New Zealand’s most English city. It is a fairly large town (if you insist on making domestic comparisons) miles from almost anywhere, on the other side of the World, in New Zealand, that does not look like it is anything other than just that. And, if I may absolutely and irrefutably prove my point by reverse argument, it is by saying that in all my travels around England, visiting almost every city and a good many towns, not once have I heard so much as a single, solitary soul say ‘ooh, this is just like Christchurch on South Island in New Zealand.’

That being dealt with, I’m happy to report that Christchurch is also quite a nice place. True, the entire place closes down at 5.30pm each evening. Almost no-one lives in the city centre and there’s clearly a lack of money to keep businesses going or vacant plots developed. A particularly derelict shack is advertised by an enthusiastic (if not delirious) estate agent as ‘benefitting from years of deferred maintenance.’

Perhaps Christchurch is the spiritual home of the ultimate understatements. It was from here that Captain Robert Falcon Scott set off on his ill-fated quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, with his expeditionary companion Lawrence Oates uttering the immortal words ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ before heading into an Antarctic blizzard and the most honourable of suicides.

The best, though rather kitsch, way to get around ‘Chch’ (as the locals write it, but never say it) is by one of the restored trams which loop the city centre and afford the rider unlimited hop-on and hop-off travel for the price of a daily ticket.

There’s a handy commentary and warning of approaching stops and sights, but it’s no municipally-subsidised public service. It’s priced, instead, for the visitor market – so enjoy it as a tour rather than calculating the dollars per kilometre equivalent cost.

The recurring theme of Christchurch is undoubtedly parks. There are green spaces at almost every turn – some simple expanses of lawn and regimented trees; some, like the Botanic Gardens, World-class examples of their type. It’s a hard heart that fails to acknowledge just how pleasant the surroundings are, though some of the architecture runs the horticultural excellence a close race.

Regent Street is a fabulous example of the Spanish Mission style and, at the other end of the scale, the Christchurch Art Gallery is a modern palace of soaring glass and steel, encasing sinuous balconies and international-standard exhibition space.

Cathedral Square is the centre of daytime activity in the city, with market stalls and pavement cafes occupying the space between the Anglican Cathedral, some of Christchurch’s most historic buildings, a little modern sculpture and some pretty unremarkable, stumpy tower blocks. The tram and almost all bus routes converge here.


Those of a sweet-toothed disposition could do very much worse than seek out the Copenhagen Bakery on Armagh Street. Indeed, those of a savoury-toothed disposition won’t be disappointed either, at this award-winning café, patisserie and bakery with its cascading displays of freshly-crafted goodies. It’s also a particularly good choice for breakfast.

Beyond the hotel iterations, the dusk-induced closure of almost everything in central Christchurch tends to restrict the choice of restaurants for dinner. Two that stand out, however, are Cook ‘N’ With Gas on Gloucester Street (specialising in New Zealand lamb and beef) and the quirky wine bar cum Italian restaurant The Bicycle Thief on Latimer Square.

Named after a 1948 Italian film – ‘Ladri di Biciclette’ – it’s a small but popular after-work drinking spot, which merges into an atmospheric restaurant serving excellent pizza, pasta and other Italian specialities. The barman, in particular, is worthy of note as the mixer of mean cocktails and an encyclopaedic knowledge of his spirits, wines and beers.

Despite Christchurch’s exceptionally friendly daytime disposition, the lack of organised or commercial activity after dark does leave the city centre somewhat at the mercy of less salubrious residents and blow-throughs. For this reason, it’s wise to make use of one of the plentiful cabs for the ride home, which of course the restaurant will be happy to call.

Since this article was first published, the City of Christchurch has suffered two devastating earthquakes. For the latest information on what to see and do as the city is rebuilt, visit http://www.christchurch.org.nz/ or contact Continental Club.

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The Muffin At The End of The Earth: Akaroa

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Christchurch sits on the Pacific edge of the agriculturally-rich Canterbury Plain, although a little inland from the coast. Shipping is handled through nearby Lyttelton Harbour; a birds-eye view over which may be gleaned from the gondola skyride, a 15 minute drive from the city centre.

The city’s seaside resort is New Brighton, about 20 minutes drive East North East of Christchurch. It would be a hugely charitable but ultimately untrustworthy reviewer who could find much positive to reflect on the place. Bluntly, it’s a dump and a place guaranteed only to sap the life from even the most uppered of life-enthusiasts.

If you happen to have a few tens of millions to invest in a complete redevelopment of this sad and sorry relic of a probably still fairly inglorious past then do, I beg of you, head straight to New Brighton and deposit your funds with the biggest demolition company you can find. Those of more modest means would do just as well to avoid it like the plague which, judging by the general level of desolation that pervades the place, most folks do already, despite the superior shopping opportunities.

As with so much in New Zealand, just a little more effort and time rewards the investor with hugely more abundant rewards – and so it is once again for the day-tripper from Christchurch. Instead of heading East and losing all will to maintain a beating heart, the road South to Akaroa will likely make that same heart flutter and soar as breathtaking vistas open amidst mountain passes and ocean inlets.

Leaving the city to the West initially, and then South towards Lake Ellesmere, the scenery is largely flat with cattle and sheep pasture, and the odd vineyard and soft fruit orchard lining the road until the lakeshore is reached. Skirting the banks for a few miles, the road then turns East and heads higher and away from the water again, towards the spine of the Banks Peninsula. The views in the rear view mirror are tantalising as the road twists and turns uphill, before it plunges downhill again towards the Pacific.

It can only be assumed that the awesome scenery somehow exhausted the creativity of whoever named the hamlet of Hilltop, but it’s here that the main road downhill should be temporarily abandoned, and the similarly lamely-named Summit Road taken instead. A more apt title might have been ‘Hairy Wobbler Road’, for the combination of stunning views, hairpin bends and sheer drops from this sheep-track-with-a-crust-of-tarmac do not necessarily make for the most leisurely of traverses. It’s a simply superb route though, before ultimately the altitude must be lost once again to reach journey’s end, the former French whaling station of Akaroa.

Again, with the exception of a whale-watching boat trip, there’s not a great deal to do here, but what a sublime spot to do not very much.

The village is a delightful collection of colonial cottages and commercial premises, many of which have been converted into the cosiest of self-catering accommodations.

The harbour front is lined with interesting shops, restaurants and cafés, park benches and lawns and, from one of those cafés – By Jo’ve – the most amazing warm Raspberry and White Chocolate muffins.

Believe me, they’re almost worth flying Economy to get there for.

 

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Holiday Inn Christchurch on Avon

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009  |  Leave a comment

Since this article was first published, the City of Christchurch has suffered two devastating earthquakes. The Holiday Inn on Avon is indefinitely closed. For the latest information on what to see and do as the city is rebuilt, visit http://www.christchurch.org.nz/ or contact Continental Club.

There’s always a danger, when planning a trip, of automatically assuming that the most highly-rated, best-reviewed or sumptuously-specified accommodations will necessarily best suit your needs. On a trip like this one, choosing a suburban Holiday Inn so soon after a St Regis may appear akin to following the sublime with the ridiculous but, somehow, it seemed to promise delivery of everything that we would need from a Christchurch base – especially since we were furnished with a hire car and the city centre was not reportedly a particularly attractive place after dark.

The fact that the hotel rates offered stunning value for money sealed the deal.

 

The Holiday Inn Christchurch on Avon is some way from the city centre, though easily walkable in around 20 minutes, initially along the tree-lined banks of the Avon River. Car parking is plentiful and free of charge and the whole hotel lives up to those curiously reliable characteristics of Holiday Inns the World over – about 20 years out of date, spacious and spotlessly clean.

 

The hotel was, really, very difficult to fault. The rooms were large, the beds comfortable and the bathrooms fully-featured.

Service was, without exception, friendly and helpful – from Reception through Housekeeping and to the Restaurant.

 

Indeed, the restaurant proved to be something of a particular surprise, especially as the head waiter was very concerned that the presence of a coach party dining at the same time might delay our meal. Somehow any delay, if there was one, seemed to go unnoticed as we enjoyed a spacious table and the opportunity to chat and just enjoy not being in a hurry. That the food was also huge in portion and excellent in quality was a further delight and we spent an immensely enjoyable evening there – with the concerned head waiter going out of his way to quietly thank me ‘for bringing your family to eat with us tonight.’ Just great, I thought; really lovely.

 

The super-sized dinner might have prompted an early morning visit to the hotel’s gym and indoor swimming pool facility, although a post check-in exploration had revealed that these were not the property’s flagship amenities. Indeed, had the combined fitness features been much more compact, then it is likely that the exercise bike would have had to have been submerged in the shallow end of the pool. Aquavelo – I can see it now. Best then not to worry about that and remember the comfy bed, super service and incredible rates.

 

Final Verdict for the Holiday Inn Christchurch on Avon: 7.0/10. No one would ever suggest that this was cutting-edge hospitality with every possible service catered for, but the Holiday Inn was a friendly, welcoming and comfortable hotel that delivered everything that was required from it with confidence and reliability. I’d return without hesitation and, when next it benefits from the cyclical renovations that come the way of all chain properties, then I’m sure that it could add at least a point to this score.

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