New Zealand is famous for being the adventure capital of the world – skydiving, bungy jumping, heli skiiing, white water rafting – and it’s one of the most physically stunning countries on the planet.
Lord of the Rings and the America’s Cup yacht race have also helped put it on the map, not to mention its reputation for good wine and fresh produce.
Auckland is the main hub in the north island and since undergoing a major ‘overhaul’ ahead of hosting the America’s Cup in 2000 I’ve been wanting to duck over the ditch and spend a long weekend there.
Our chance finally came just before Christmas 2015 when we spent 5 days exploring the city and its surrounds.
Auckland is a relatively small city – population of 1.4 million – that surrounds Waitemata Harbour and and it’s an impressive backdrop.
Here are our top 6 things to do in Auckland with some recommendations for good food, wine and coffee.
First up head to the Skytower for a panoramic view of the city from a height of 328 metres. It’s touristy but it always helps to get your bearings and gives you a good overview and perspective of the city. Like most of the these places it’s not cheap – $NZD28 per adult – but it’s really worth it. If you’re young and crazy (or old and stupid) you can bungy jump from the top. Wanna think about that for a second … um, no thanks!
2. Rangitoto island
Put your walking shoes on and catch a ferry across to the volcanic Rangitoto island. It’s a 25 minute boat ride to this rugged, uninhabited island which has fabulous views back to Auckland city. It’s a relatively easy walk to the summit (there were plenty of families making the trip) and takes a bit over an hour. If you haven’t walked on a volcano before the landscape is largely made up of black volcanic rock which is very sharp to the touch, so no good for sitting down for a quick rest!
We arrived at the Islington Bay Wharf as it was quite windy so after heading to the summit we did a loop, walking down to Rangitoto Wharf which is the usual drop off point, and back along Islington Bay Road. If you get tired you can always try and hail the road train.
There’s absolutely nothing on the island so you have to take plenty of food and water. Plus you’ll need sunscreen and a hat as it’s pretty hot and very exposed.
3. Ferry ride to Devonport
On the way back from Rangitoto we jumped off at Devonport, which is an upmarket town on Auckland’s north shore. It’s one of the city’s oldest suburbs and it has a beautiful main road of cafes, shops and galleries. There are some pretty speccy houses along the waterfront too (King Edward Parade).
We walked up the steep hill to the top of the volcanic Mount Victoria for a fabulous view of the harbour and timed our trip to have dinner at one of the hip restaurants on the main drag (see Bette’s in Where to eat). If you prefer to ride around there is bike hire at Devonport Wharf.
4. Bike ride to St Helier’s Beach and Achilles Point
Swap your walking boots for two wheels and ride around the Auckland harbour foreshore all the way to St Helier’s Beach. It’s a a flat ride on a dedicated pathway until you get to the steep road climbing up to Achilles Point. The views are stunning all the way along Tamaki Drive. It’s a pretty affluent area and there are plenty of cafes and restaurants on the way.
We hired our bikes at the bike store on Quay St which is right on the harbour.
5. Ferry trip to Waiheke Island – taste the wines, admire the art
We thought we’d take bikes across on the ferry to Waiheke island so that we could ride around the island and see more. Dumb idea … and thank goodness we didn’t! The island is so hilly we would have been totally miserable! So, take our advice and hire a car – you’ll be able to get away from the main road and won’t end up walking to the wineries that everyone else goes to because they’re easily accessible on foot.
There’s a thriving creative/artistic community on the island and we visited a few galleries and drove out to meet artist Gabriella Lewenz in her studio at Church Bay. Talk about a stunning, inspirational backdrop. It was just gorgeous. Gabriella moved here from New York City in the late 1990s and loves it. How could you not?
New Zealand is well-known for producing great wines and Waiheke Island is largely promoted as the ‘island of wine’. There are plenty of wineries to choose from and we were lucky enough to lunch at Casita Miro located on the north side of the island near Onetangi beach (also worth visiting to chill out). The Spanish cuisine and local wines were delicious and the whole place was so lively and convivial. There were big tables of families and friends enjoying a long lazy lunch.
We loved Waiheke Island and drove the whole way around. One of the best discoveries was Man O’ War bay which is a peaceful, sleepy bay on the eastern side of the island with a beautiful winery and gorgeous little beach.
The island is a relatively expensive 40 minute boat ride from Auckland – $36pp round trip. We would probably overnight here if we come back.
6. Albert Park and the Auckland Art Gallery
We wandered up through Albert Park and down to the Auckland Art Gallery which is a beautiful space with soaring kauri columns and ceiling, designed to make you feel part of the landscape. We opted to do a free guided tour which takes you through a mix of modern and old Maori and New Zealand art. Our guide was terrific – informative, entertaining, passionate – and if you are at all interested in art, we would definitely recommend a gallery visit.
Where to get good coffee in Auckland
Shaky Isles cafe – the coffee is so good we went here a couple of times for breakfast. We loved the organic granola too. The cafe is close to the city and harbourfront.
The Store at Britomart has a bakery on one side and cafe on the other which opens out onto the courtyard of the trendy, stylish Britomart. Great breakfast and excellent coffee close to the city heart.
Cafe Melba in trendy Vulcan Lane also does a very good breakfast and coffee. Service is incredibly fast and the cafe has a very buzzy vibe.
Where to eat in Auckland
The food in and around Auckland was absolutely fantastic, with incredibly fresh and diverse produce and of course, delicious local wines. We highly recommend the following places for lunch or dinner:
Depot Eatery and Oyster Bar – awesome food, super busy and very close to Skytower in Federal Lane. We put our names on the waitlist and headed up Skytower while we waited. Our favourite restaurant in Auckland.
Almost next door is the Federal Delicatessen, which is like a New York diner. Don’t be put off by the fast food feel; we had a great chicken sandwich and schnitzel washed down with some good local wines. Dessert looked very enticing but we were too full.
Ortolana is close to the Store and the food is delicious. It’s connected to the Milse dessert parlour down a tiny laneway next door so you wander in and select your totally scrumptious, exquisitely crafted desserts.
Bette’s Bar and Eatery in Devonport – the food was fantastic with an interesting menu and flavours. It wasn’t the busiest restaurant in the Devonport strip but it was a great find.
Where to stay in Auckland
We stayed at the Stamford Plaza but there are plenty of other hotels nearby that are close to the harbour and the Hilton is pretty spectacular right out on the edge of the harbour.