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Auckland is a spectacular mash-up of urban sophistication, Maori culture, mountains, sea, wineries and heart-thumping adventure. It's also one of the friendliest places on the planet. Known as the City of Sails thanks to a boat-loving population, it's no surprise that Auckland's waterfronts, bays, islands and harbors are deeply integrated into everyday life. Many of the most popular activities take place in and around the water.
Highly multicultural, Auckland offers a rich experience for visitors with its excellent ethnic restaurants and cultural institutions, most notably stellar Auckland War Memorial Museum where artifact-packed galleries are dedicated to Maori and Pacific Island cultures.
Tapping into the thrilling heart of high-stakes sailing, participants in America’s Cup Sailing adventures channel Team New Zealand in former America’s Cup racing yachts. Sailors and wannabes can help by hoisting sails or working the grinders, but it’s also okay to just sit back, hold on and enjoy the excitement.
The name Auckland War Memorial Museum is a bit misleading. Yes, the top floor has excellent galleries dedicated “to those who served,” but the museum’s focus is far broader. Among its most compelling collections and galleries are those telling the stories of Maori and other Pacific people. Not to be missed: daily Maori cultural performances.
Just 35 minutes from downtown by high-speed ferry, Waiheke Island offers enough for several visits. Within its 36-square-miles, there’s wine tasting, zip-lining, biking, art galleries, beaches, a brewery, archery, kayaking and excellent restaurants. There are also mesmerizing views of Auckland’s skyline. Best bet for panoramic photo op: Cable Bay Vineyards.
Hundreds of beaches hug Auckland’s shorelines. Close to downtown, Mission Bay Beach draws crowds with its wide swath of tawny sand and popular take-out fish-and-chips. Piha Beach and Karekare Beach are revered for their black sand, volcanic rock formations and surfing waves. They feel wild and isolated though they’re just an hour west of downtown. Karekare, within verdant Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, starred in Jane Campion’s The Piano, while Piha Rescue is a long-running reality TV series about the lifeguards who brave Piha’s deadly rip currents to save swimmers.
Many cruise day-trippers take advantage of horseback riding in New Zealand and Auckland’s nearby Waiheke island is the place to do it. Waiheke HorseWorx is a new operator that tours the beaches and bush tracks, taking in traditional Maori culture and Waiheke’s famous wineries.
Hiking on Bethells Beach is another good option for active travelers. The half-mile (8-kilometer) coastal walk from Bethells Beach to Muriwai takes in breathtaking views of the coast west of Auckland.
West of city center, Ponsonby is a thriving, fashion-centric neighborhood anchored by Ponsonby Road, along which many of the city’s hip boutiques and top ethnic restaurants sit. This is the place to discover trendy fashions by New Zealand designers as well as upmarket boutiques showcasing imported labels. People watching is superb.
Quirkier Karangahape Road, aka K Road, is lined with intriguing shops selling everything from retro and vintage clothing to contemporary art. Like Ponsonby, it’s a popular spot for ethnic eateries and nightlife—with added grit. The red city LINK buses give passengers access to K Road from the cruise dock area.
Like other city-center neighborhoods, Britomart has undergone transformation. Once derelict and light-years off the tourism radar, Britomart has a revved up bar and music scene in addition to shopping and cafes. Multilevel 1885 is a warehouse-chic bar with live music that ranges from jazz to blues and funk. Guests can move freely between 1885 and Britomart Country Club, a courtyard bar just across the lane. Racket, evoking early Havana with its antique furniture and an authentic 19th century humidor, draws late-night crowds to sip cocktails and listen to live bands or DJs.
At Fort Lane, near the intersection of Customs and Queen streets, nightlife centers around Roxy, a bar, lounge and restaurant with a Hollywood vibe, and Everybody’s, offering varied spaces for drinking and dining. Both are within the smartly restored 19th century Imperial Building.
Ponsonby is one of the city’s favorite spots for nightlife, where options include utterly unconventional Golden Dawn with its surprisingly sophisticated global wine list and a nice selection of craft brews. If nothing else, enjoy reading the well-penned descriptions of available cocktails—all three pages.
Located near Mission Bay Beach, Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquariumis home to the world’s largest Antarctic penguin colony exhibit and cool underwater viewing tunnels through which to see them. Sharks, jellies, stingrays and a replica of the hut used by the Scott expedition in Antarctica a century ago provide entertainment and education. For families not faint-of-heart, the shark cage experience beckons.
Go ahead. Hurl yourself off Sky Tower and fall a stomach-churning 630 feet straight down. That's the thrill of Sky Jump. Of course, willing daredevils are attached by wire to the tower so they’ll live another day to do it again. Those who don’t want to leap can harness up and take the (slightly) less harrowing Sky Walk on the crazily narrow platform circling the top of the tower.
Lively, diverse Viaduct Harbor is a city-center hub where locals and visitors gather for good food, drink, endless activities and spectacular sunsets. In addition to setting the scene for more than 30 restaurants and bars, Viaduct is the launch point for many of Auckland’s water-based tours and home to the engaging Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum, where New Zealand’s enduring relationship with the ocean is explored.
February is the month with all the best attributes — warm temps, more sun, less rain, fewer crowds because school is back in session. November to mid-December is typically less crowded but the weather more unsettled. March and April can be great if a little cooler.
Cruise ships dock at Queens Wharf or Princes Wharf, both walking distance to restaurants, shops, Viaduct Harbour and popular tours and sights.
LINK buses are easy to navigate. The red (city center) buses run up and down Queen Street and on K Road, starting at Wynyard Quarter. Taxis are generally available at the wharfs and hotels (the Hilton is right next to Princes Wharf). Ferries to Waiheke Island depart from the terminal on Quay Street by Queens Wharf and next to the strikingly ornate historic Ferry Building.
The city of Auckland offers free wi-fi, 30 minutes per day per device, throughout the city including Queen Street, Queen's Wharf, Viaduct Harbour and Wynyard Harbour. Cafes with free wi-fi (and excellent coffee) include:
Documents: A valid passport is required for U.S. and Canadian citizens but no visa.
Store hours: Typical hours are 9 am-5:30 or 6 pm; some stores stay open late Thursdays and Saturdays. Stores were not traditionally open Sundays but that is changing, with closing typically at 4 pm.
Tipping: Tipping is not customary in New Zealand as wages are higher than in the U.S. for comparable service jobs. Some Auckland restaurants keep a jar where patrons can put small change. If service is really exceptional, it's OK to leave a little something but it's not expected. It is common to round up taxi fares, but taxi drivers are just as likely to round them down. What a country!
Currency: New Zealand dollar
Safety: Auckland is considered a safe city, especially in the central business district and tourist areas. Like any big city, however, it's not without crime, especially late at night. Always be aware of your surroundings, use ATMs during daylight hours or when you're with companions and if you're leaving bars and clubs late in the evening, take the same precautions you would in any city.
Have you visited Auckland? What was the highlight for you? Have any tips for newcomers? Would love to see your photos and hear about your experience.
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