An Insider’s Guide to Exploring Auckland

Ahhh Auckland, never has a city been subject to such polarized opinions! On one hand New Zealand’s city of sails is systematically voted in the top 10 most liveable cities in the world, but on the other hand you’d be forgiven for thinking it must be a horrible place to live when you hear many kiwis continually complaining about ridiculously long commuting times and increasingly unaffordable housing.

If you truly are looking to see wild and rugged parts of New Zealand then consider visiting some more off the beaten track destinations but if you want to see what urban life is like in Aotearoa then read on to find out the best things to see and do in Auckland.

Auckland vs. The Nation

There’s an age old saying that New Zealand “stops at the Bombays”, the Bombays are an otherwise insignificant range of hills that separate Auckland and Northland from the rest of New Zealand. Born and bred Aucklanders like to think that everything south of the Bombay hills is rather rural and unsophisticated and kiwis from everywhere else generally view the big smoke as being a self-centred sprawling metropolis that is not really a reflection of true New Zealand. The irony of all of this is that love it or hate it many of us end up moving to the big smoke to further our career prospects or find work in our chosen field and as a result more than a third of our population now calls Auckland home.

Calling Auckland Home

As someone who was born in Napier on the east coast of the North Island, who grew up and went to University in the South Island but who recently lived in Auckland for over 3 years I like to think I have seen both sides of the story and formed a balanced opinion of Tamaki Makarau, as the city is known in Maori. I have experienced first-hand what it is like to sit in crawling traffic during rush hour on state highway 1 and to try and afford life once almost half my income goes to just paying my rent. But I’ve also had the opportunity to experience and appreciate the great things that multicultural Auckland has to offer, firstly as a slightly nervous newcomer and later as a seasoned local.

So if you’re looking to visit Auckland what should you put on your to do list? What are the unmissable places you absolutely must include in your itinerary? And finally what are the hidden gems that mostly only locals have heard of? Here’s an insiders pick of the best of the best that Auckland has to offer:

Attractions

The Sky Tower allows great views over the city and standing on the reinforced glass windows staring down at the pavement certainly gets the heart pumping hundreds of meters below but if you’re looking to avoid paying for city views you may like to consider climbing one of the volcanoes instead. The Auckland War Memorial Museum is worth a visit, particularly the bottom floor which has some interesting displays about the region’s history. Kelly Tarlton’s is a decent aquarium, the revolving walkway through the shark tunnel is particularly funny (such shark stalkers!) Doing an Auckland Harbour Bridge climb or bungy jump is a fun experience if you have some extra moolah.

Volcanoes

A visit to Auckland wouldn’t be complete without a short walk up one of our many extinct volcanic cones, these are scattered across the city and thanks to their importance to local Maori they have largely been saved from unsightly development and preserved as parks and reserves for all to enjoy. I would suggest visiting just one if you’re short on time or perhaps two if you’ve got more than 2 days available and are fairly active.

Mount Eden is the closest to the city centre, just a short bus ride from downtown, it features an impressive intact crater. Vehicle access to the top is now restricted but a short walk up the mount allows great views over the Hauraki Gulf and the central business district and across the Harbour Bridge to the North Shore.

One Tree Hill (Maungakiekie) in Cornwall Park is a bit of a more strenuous walk that gives a better view of wider Auckland city including both harbours and the Southern and Eastern suburbs. The obelisk at the top is a tribute to the Maori people and several trees have recently been planted with the hope that at least one will survive the harsh growing conditions to replace the original one tree that adorned the hill.

The last option worth considering, particularly if you don’t have access to a car is taking a 5 minute ferry across to the charming north shore suburb of Devonport for a walk up North Head. This hill features a network of old bunkers and tunnels dating back to 1885 and like the others allows some great views over the city.

Islands of the Hauraki Gulf

Auckland is blessed with one of the world’s best maritime environments when it comes to recreational boating, fishing and wildlife watching. The Hauraki Gulf is sheltered from much of New Zealand’s harsher weather which largely comes from the west by the Waitakere Ranges and as such it harbours a range of marine life including whales and dolphins, its islands enjoy mild micro climates and its relatively calm waters are often ideal for sailing.

Rangitoto is without a doubt the most easily recognisable island with its distinct volcanic shape. It is the most recent volcano on the now dormant Auckland volcanic field to have erupted with the latest series of eruptions ending only 550 years ago. It is reached with a short ferry ride from the ferry terminals located downtown (at the end of Queen Street) and a half day walk to the top of the volcano affords beautiful views of the gulf and across to the city. I have yet to climb it myself but I’m told the hardened lava flows are impressive and it’s well worth a visit in December when the red pohutakawa trees are in full bloom.

Waiheke is another iconic island in the Gulf that boasts an impressive array of beaches, wineries and art galleries. Unlike Rangitoto it has a permanent population of over 8000 with another 3000 or so people who have holiday homes on the Island. Waiheke is one of my favourite day trips from Auckland, particularly for uncrowded beach time or a wine tour and I reckon its red varieties, especially its Syrah easily rival a Central Otago Pinot Noir any day.

Tiritiri Matangi, is an open nature sanctuary, originally stripped of almost all of its native forest extensive efforts have gone into replanting and pest eradication, the project has been so successful that there are now over 80 species of native birds on the island. It truly is a nature lover’s paradise, particularly for bird watchers but also for snorkellers in the summer. Day trips from Auckland depart at 9am and leave the island in the afternoon at 3.30pm, there are limited numbers so booking in advance is highly advised.

Places to eat and drink

City Centre

There are some nice places to eat and drink in the city centre such as Britomart, special mention goes to southern American inspired Orleans, Asian fusion Ebisu and Shaky Isles café, and Federal Street with culinary marvels such as the rotating Orbit at the top of the sky tower, as well as Depot and Federal Delicatessan with Poutine and dessert pies to die for. Down on the waterfront you have The Viaduct, though I tend to think the restaurants on the water’s edge are overrated and overpriced I do love diner style The Culpeper, and Japanese Industrie Zen has some seriously fun dishes. Then there’s the newly developed Wynyard Quarter, with its South American cuisine Miss Clawdy’s is a highlight and while a little pricey italian inspired Baduzzi do truly fantastic meatballs.

City Fringe

If you want to escape the tourists and dine out or drink with actual kiwis then you’re best to head to the suburbs on the city fringe like Parnell – the Chocolate Boutique café is destined for anyone with a sweet tooth and on a Saturday or Sunday morning La Cigale French market is just wafting with fine aromas. Mt Eden Village has a lot of great cafes including Circus circus and the Garden Shed and finally there’s Ponsonby Road. The tucked away Ponsonby Central is always buzzing, with its artisan food stores, cafes and restaurants it truly is a food lover’s paradise. I could seriously name them all but Bedford Bar has top notch craft beer, Dante’s does the best pizza in Auckland, Bird on a Wire do salads and chicken to die for, El Sizzling Chorizo have great Argentinian barbecue and Burger Burger have utterly perfected their burger game. Lastly just across the road is one of the most subtle bars in Auckland, Golden Dawn, reachable through an almost hidden entranceway in a brick wall, it has a small inside area and a larger courtyard. Their beer & wine selection is never-ending and there is almost always eclectic live music on offer.

Beaches

As a general rule in the North Island the east coast beaches are more sheltered so they’re better for swimming whereas the west coast beaches are better for surfing.

On the eastern coast there are several regional parks with great golden beaches, the best being Tawharanui Peninsula. The nearby Goat Island marine reserve is one of the best snorkelling spots in NZ and the nearby Matakana village is worth a wander around, particularly in the weekend when the village market is in full swing with lots of great food and craft stores.) The aforementioned Waiheke Island also has many lovely beaches, Oneroa Bay is within walking distance of Oneroa village but it’s worth catching a bus to the 2.5km long Onetangi Beach which is probably the best swimming and sun bathing spot the island offers.

To the west of Auckland is the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park which makes for a great day trip with its lush native forest, beautiful waterfalls and numerous black sand beaches, Piha is the most well-known and a great surfing spot with some nice cafes and food trucks in summer, Muriwai is also popular with surfies and boasts a Gannet Colony. Finally Karekare and Bethell’s Beach (Te Henga) are a little more wild and untouched.

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One of the great things about Auckland is that it is not a ‘one size fits all’ kind of place, there is something different for everyone. There is a huge a range of activities and experiences on offer whether you’re wanting shopping, sightseeing and nightlife or beach time, wine tasting and to stretch your legs in the great outdoors. So go ahead and take your pick!

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Top 5 Hidden New Zealand Destinations

I’m reluctant to write this post. Not because I have writer’s block or am feeling disinclined to use the left side of my brain today. Rather because I am scared to share these little corners of New Zealand with the big wide world of the interwebs. Part of the charm of the places on my list is that not many people know about them or choose to go there on holiday. At the same time I just can’t help but tell you all about them!

Ultimately these regions deserve to be visited and photographed and raved about just as much as your Aucklands, your Queenstowns, your Abel Tasmans and your Rotoruas! So here’s to the little guy, the underdog, those hidden corners of New Zealand just waiting to be explored.

My favourite ‘off the beaten track’ destinations in New Zealand:

The Kauri Coast

We’re starting in the North of the country. I know the Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga are old news but let me introduce you to the west coast of Northland!
This little visited coastline has so many unique spots to explore for anyone who is keen on a bit of a tiki tour. In the north there’s the Hokianga Harbour with cute villages that time forgot like Rawene and Opononi and some very impressive sand dunes. You can cross quickly from one side to the other by catching the car ferry. As you head south you reach the Waipoua Forest, home to some gigantic Kauri trees including Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest. Further south just before Dargaville are the sparkling clear Kai Iwi lakes, a favourite summer camping spot for a bunch of kiwis. A little detour off SH12 takes you to Baylys beach, with its colourful beachside cottages, it’s the gateway to the longest stretch of driveable beach in New Zealand which is 100kms long! Finally you reach the rural town of Dargaville and Matakohe whose Kauri Museum is definitely worth a visit.

Taranaki

We’re heading south now but Taranaki has long been off the traditional tourist route down the country because it’s a bit of a detour to the west. But frankly it’s a detour well worth taking!
New Plymouth, where provincial charm and urban sophistication meet, makes for such a pleasant city to hang out in. It’s arguably become the art capital of New Zealand with the shiny new Len Lye centre cementing its status. That’s not to mention the gastronomical scene spearheaded by the White Heart Hotel precinct and edgy restaurants like Social Kitchen. The humid climate of this region is perfect for some stunning gardens including Pukekura Park and the lush green hues only continue as you head out into the countryside. Between Mount Taranaki and the Tasman sea the surf highway is such a stunning drive. Lastly there are a huge range of walking tracks on offer in the Mt Egmont National park. Why do the Tongariro Crossing with hundreds of other snap happy tourists when you could tackle the Pouakai Crossing and only come across a handful of other walkers.

The Wairarapa

Your first thought might be “huh? Where is that and how is that even pronounced?!” Well let me introduce you to the “why-ra-rapper” We’re talking the south eastern corner of the North Island, over the Rimutaka ranges to the east of good old windy Wellington, and south of Napier and the Hawke’s Bay.
First off there’s some stunning beaches and coastal areas to explore like Castlepoint which is great for swimming and surfing and Cape Palliser, the southernmost point of the north island with its iconic lighthouse and a good few little fur seals. Then you have your natural marvels like the towering Pitangirua Pinnacles. And last but not least your manmade marvels- like the charming village of Martinborough in the heart of one of New Zealand’s up and coming wine making regions. Greytown home to schoc chocolates and Featherston– needless to say C’est Cheese is high on my list of cute wee shops to visit!

Golden Bay

We’ve reached the north of the South Island now. While many travellers will stop at the Abel Tasman national park without continuing over Takaka Hill I would encourage you to go the extra distance.
Golden Bay is different to any other region I’ve seen in New Zealand. It’s not quite the wet and wild West Coast but it’s also different to the sophisticated and sunny Nelson and Tasman region to the south of it. This is the place of choice for New Zealand’s hippy population and there’s so much to see, so chill man, don’t rush it!
Parts of Golden Bay are coastal, stunning and warm in summer and lined by holiday homes. Then as you head inland you reach alpine valleys and high altitude peaks, as the Southern Alps stretch out towards the North Island and the Tasman Sea. This is the domain of the Heaphy Track, one of our Great Walks. If you’re not a hiker things to include on your must-do list include a hearty meal at local watering hole the Mussel Inn, a short walk to some of the clearest freshwater springs in the world Te Waikoropupu Springs and a sunbathing sesh on the golden sands of Pohara Beach. Lastly walkers and wildlife lovers should head for a drive up to to Wharariki Beach and the northernmost point of the South Island, Cape Farewell before heading out onto the ever-growing sandbar and wildlife reserve that is Farewell Spit.

The Catlins Coast

Down at the other extremity of the South Island to the east of Invercargill is a tucked away region called the Catlins Coast. It’s one of my favourite hidden treasures in New Zealand!
One of the first places you’ll reach in the Catlins if you drive the coast from Invercargill up towards Dunedin is a windswept promontory called Slope Point. The trees have been bent to almost touch the ground by the sometimes harsh weather conditions. Contrary to popular belief this is actually the southernmost part of the South Island, just slightly south of bluff. As you head along the coast of this sleepy nostalgic region you’re progressively treated to more and more landscape eye candy. From Macleans Falls to sandy bays to rocky points and the Cathedral Caves. Lastly amongst all this natural beauty is the ever present wildlife- fur seals, sea lions, yellow eyed penguins and the odd dolphin. Porpoise Bay and Curio Bay with its petrified forest are aptly named. What more could you ask for!

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So there you have it, 5 underrated destinations to include in your plans for the weekend, put on your New Zealand itinerary, or add to your bucket list.