Bright Lights, Quite Small City: Auckland

by Continental Club on April 30, 2009

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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