Posts in the “Auckland” 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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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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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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