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Trip Report Surprising Auckland: A Songdoc Trip Report -- with a bit of Wellington, too

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May 16th through June 1st, 2010

Auckland needs a good publicist. This was my third business trip to NZ and we typically add vacation time – so we’ve seen a great deal of the country. Seems the conventional wisdom re: Auckland is that you land there and leave; that it’s a pleasant enough city—but nothing special—so use it as a starting place to explore Northland (Bay of Islands), Rotorua, etc., then fly to the South Island …. That’s what I did in the past.

This time I needed to spend nine days in Auckland because of business commitments—but I’d have several days off in which I could explore. A business associate who lives in Auckland offered to play tour guide and promised she’d show us the best parts of Auckland—that most tourists are unaware of—and that it involved getting out of the CBD.

So … we drove approximately 40 minutes to Pihu on the west coast. It was unseasonably warm and our stroll along the beach was beautiful. An enormous rock towers over the beach providing a focal point for photos—and a hiking opportunity for those who are more adventurous and limber than me. Lunch was tasty paninis and coffee at an outdoor ocean view café.

Our next stop was the visitor’s center overlooking Waitakere Range Regional Park for breathtaking rainforest views and lovely, easy walking trails. The vistas over the forest with the city in the distance were "WOW." I was amazed at how beautiful the area is only thirty or forty minutes outside the city center.

On our next day off we drove to Devonport—a charming beach town lined with galleries, restaurants, and shops. We strolled along another lovely beach before driving to the top of Mt. Victoria—a former fortification with a massive old cannon and decorated Maori sites. The views were stunning. (Don’t take my word for it. I’ve attached a link to my photos at the end of this report.)

Our next stop was for a walk on the beach at beautiful Orewa followed by a lunch of “Mumble Jumble” and salad at a cafe overlooking the beach. Mumble Jumble is a multi-layered vegetable pie that was so good it should be illegal. (If I can find the name of the café I’ll add it because it was terrific.)

Shakespear Park (they left off the “e”) at Army Bay provided yet another beautiful coastal walk along striated cliffs that looked like works of art.

We’re not “foodies” or wine drinkers (yes, life is still worth living), so meals in Auckland were mostly inexpensive stops on Queen Street. The highlights were fantastic kebabs from Istanbul Kebabs & Pizza and outrageously good noodle soup with dumplings, huge prawns, and tender roast pork at Kiwi Country on Durham just off Queen Street. Meat pies at Pie Mania (36 Wellesley—just off Albert) were excellent, as well. Our fanciest meal was at Sawadee in Ponsonby—about a ten minute drive from the CBD. They served some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had—in a very attractive setting, with exceptional service.

On two nights we visited the top rated food court in Ponsonby so that DP, my friend, and I could each enjoy the kind of food that appealed to us. It seemed every imaginable ethnic food was available—Malaysian, Laotian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Japanese … and we all loved our choices. We also enjoyed a stroll window shopping in Ponsonby. FYI, there are some restaurants in this area that looked very impressive.

We made porridge with fruit every morning at the apartment—but a fresh-from-the-oven “pinwheel scone” (stuffed with bits of onion, ham, and herbs) or a ham or vegetarian muffin from the Hollywood Bakery a couple of doors down at the corner of Albert and Wyndham Streets was always the best part of the meal. I could become seriously addicted.

Restaurant prices seemed high to me—but the sticker shock lessened when I reminded myself that tax was included; tips were small (compared to the 20% I add in the U.S.)—and the NZ dollar was only costing me around seventy cents.

FYI, our accommodations were at the Chifley Suites on Albert—a block off bustling Queen Street. At $100/nt. (NZD = $70 US) this one-bedroom serviced apartment was perfectly located and ideal for us. The down side was the noise—but with ear plugs, we were able to sleep soundly. $30/night for Internet access felt like a rip-off. So instead of paying $270 to check emails during my nine night stay I went down the block and spent two dollars for thirty minutes at one of the Internet cafes that are on every block of the CBD.

After four or five days of glorious sunny weather Mother Nature rained on our parade putting a damper on our planned trip to TiriTiri Matonga island and all further outdoor explorations. The rain continued for THIRTEEN consecutive days. AGGHH. Most of those were work days for me anyway—but I sure am glad this wasn’t the trip of a lifetime. The rain covered the entire country and there was some serious flooding. FYI, this was my third annual trip to NZ and my visits are always mid-May through early June. For the two previous trips I had mostly great weather.

We enjoyed a few indoor activities: a concert at the beautiful old Town Hall, browsing at the beautiful old arcade near the waterfront, and strolling through the massive casino at the Sky Center. In summation, we thoroughly enjoyed the shopping, the ethnic foods and cafes, and the proximity to cultural venues and the waterfront that downtown Auckland offered. But the best parts of Auckland are beyond the CBD—and for those who are not trying to cram in only the most dramatic NZ highlights, Auckland (and surrounding areas) deserves two or three days—with a rental car.

Wellington:

I love Wellington; strolling along the waterfront, the Saturday morning market, and shopping and eating my through vibrant Cuba Street with its funky and trendy shops, cafes, and street entertainers. Last year I also enjoyed the rugged beauty of the nearby Kapiti Coast. But Wellington was almost all work this time—not that it would have mattered much because it was windy, cold, and mostly rainy until the last day.

I had several hours off before flying out and was utterly determined to see something pretty now that it had finally stopped raining. We checked out of our apartment hotel, left the bags, and headed to Zealandia—a nature preserve and bird sanctuary a 10 or 15 minute drive from the CBD. It was amazing that there was so much natural beauty so close to the city. It was a great way to enjoy a beautiful walk and get a taste of some exceptional scenery without venturing beyond the city. The birds were amazing, too.

Here’s a link to the photos:
http://www.kodakgallery.com/gallery/creativeapps/slideShow/Main.jsp?albumId=534240564506&ownerId=51951334106

We love NZ and hopefully next time we’ll have better luck with the weather. The good news is that our next stop was Australia—where we had almost three weeks of gorgeous sunshine. But that’s another trip report … ;-)

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