“Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart.”Rudyard Kipling.
Australians are the great adventurers of the world. It takes us so long to get to most places that we almost always go big, then go home.
But despite living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I would wager more people are planning a trip to Paris or New York this year than the Great Barrier Reef, Broome or Uluru. I think maybe we’re so complacent about what’s great around us that we overlook it in favour of a journey through somewhere perceived to be far flung and exciting.
Maybe we just look around us and think, “oh yes but I’ll get to it some day.”
I’m going to include New Zealand in the list of places we overlook because after all, they’re our closest neighbours and it’s quicker for those of us in Melbourne or Sydney to fly there than to Perth. New Zealand has always just kind of been ‘there’ and while we accept it’s probably inevitable we’ll visit at some stage, that day never seems to come.
I didn’t go to New Zealand until I was 34 years old and by that time I’d already been to Europe, North America and Asia.
Don’t be like me.
There’s so much to love about New Zealand! It’s visually stunning, easy to travel around, they make some of the best wine and beer in the world, and the people are friendly as long as we’re not playing each other in the rugby. It’s also reasonably cheap and so close that even just going for a long weekend is worthwhile.
Which is exactly what I did with Auckland. I snared a cheap flight over there and back and headed off on a three-day trip to check out the capital. I’d already been on a driving loop of the south island but this would be my first time in the north. It was a really easy and relaxing couple of days (despite having the cold from hell) and I got to just wander around the city and surrounding areas with little to no demands on my time. I went to great cafes, did some awesome hikes, checked out some cute local shops. And best of all – for us, anyway – no jetlag and only a couple of hours in the air.
Auckland feels more like a big country town than a true city so you don’t need a heap of time to get the feel of the place. Depending on what your interests are, there’s enough in the city and surrounding areas to fill a couple of days without having to rush from spot to spot. Auckland is really somewhere to take it easy and just chill.
New Zealand has become an increasingly popular destination for people all over the world and it’s easy to understand why, even for the stunning landscape alone. So instead of ignoring what’s essentially in our own backyard and thinking that we’ll get there some day, next time you’re looking for something cool and different to do – even just for a long weekend – then put Auckland on the agenda. It’s choice, bro.
Where to stay.
Because Auckland is such a compact city in a lot of ways, it makes sense to stay in the CBD area so you can easily walk around to shops, restaurants and other attractions. Queen Street is the main thoroughfare so if you stay anywhere reasonably close to there, from the waterfront end to the Wellesley Street end then you will be fine. The CBD is hilly in spots though so depending on where you land, you might have a bit of an uphill trek! I also felt really safe walking around the city at night in this area.
I stayed at the CityLife Hotel Auckland on Queen Street and it set me back about AUD$160 per night – accomodation isn’t especially cheap in the city I found, so this was probably at the low to mid end of the scale. That said, it was modern enough inside and the rooms were fairly large. Parking is also ridicuously expensive at NZ$45 per day for valet parking, though there’s nearby parking garages offering somewhat cheaper rates if you’re only getting your car out once a day then parking overnight.
Where to eat.
Something that surprised and delighted me was the fantastic cafe culture in Auckland. I did a little bit of research before I headed over there and there were so many delicious places to go – just narrowing down my choices was tough. I love a good breakfast and because I caught a red eye flight that arrived in the city about 6am, I got three in during my trip. The first was at Pollen on Shortland Street in the CBD, which I chose for the incredible looking doughnuts I saw online that they had. It’s a really open, Scandi style interior with a small but good menu, and doesn’t get too packed. I had a lemon curd doughnut that was incredible. My second breakfast was at Dear Jervois in Herne Bay, set on a street packed with other great cafes and really cool local boutiques. I went on a Saturday morning and it was packed, so best to head on in early if you can. That said, there is quite a few other places in the immediate area so if you can’t get in then you’ll have options. Dear Jervois had a great beachside kind of vibe and they were also stocked with really delicious baked goods (I’m sensing a trend here, Auckland…). My final venue was the excellently named Winona Forever, a cafe and bakery in Parnell. This place had a smaller and quirkier menu but a really lovely spot that filled up quickly as the morning wore on. And again, awesome sweet treats to take with you.
Because I was in Auckland solo, I picked some pretty casual places for lunches and dinners. The Federal Delicatessen in the CBD was my favourite – it’s their take on an old-school New York Jewish delicatessen and the interior looks like a really cool old diner (that’s it, two photos above). They have booths or you can just pull up a stool at the bar, plus they serve food until really late. It’s all very much in the comfort food style and I had the best poutine I’ve eaten outside of Canada – you’re gonna want to throw any kind of diet out the window here. I also had a great burger and chips at the Shakespeare Hotel, which is a good choice if you’re looking for a pub meal. If you’re around Ponsonby Central then Bird on a Wire does insanely delicious rotisserie chicken rolls, or if you’re down at Britomart and looking for something quick and easy, I really enjoyed Better Burgers.
What to see and do.
One of the great things about Auckland is that even though there’s a heap of fun things to in the city itself, there’s also a lot in the surrounding areas to take advantage of. And because it won’t take you too long to get anywhere, you really get both a city and country escape all in one.
I spent my first day exploring the CBD and started with the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It’s actually a couple of museums in one; as well as floors that explore New Zealand’s military past, there’s also great natural history exhibits, including a simulation of a volcano erupting and the impact it would have on Auckland. The museum itself is a stunning piece of architecture set in a massive green park, so it’s worth it just for the photo opportunity alone.
The area along Queen Street is great for a stroll in the city and you can spend some time ducking in an out of all the shops there. I ended up walking right down to the Britomart, which is the waterfront area of Auckland and has a bit of a village feel. There’s some more upscale shops there along with plenty of restaurants and bars. Ponsonby Central is another great area packed with shops, bars and restaurants – it’s a little way out of the CBD and has a market feel in a lot of ways, with stall food outlets in a big hall etc.
While you’re in Auckland you can’t possibly not go up the famous Sky Tower and there’s two options for your visit – the one for people who are scaredy cats like me when it comes to heights, or the one for people with a surfeit of courage and a desire to do crazy things. I just went up and had a look around the observation deck – which has glass floors that were frightening enough for me, thanks – but I got the shock of my life when a person hurtled past me. You can actually choose to bungee jump off the tower or do a sky walk around the outside. Just the idea makes me want to vomit so it was a hard pass for me, but the views over the city are magnificent and well worth the trip up there.
If you’re heading out of the city – and I highly recommend you do – there are heaps of great options for hikes, beaches, and just generally getting out and loving nature. I did the Te Henga Walkway hike, which starts about 40 minutes out of the Auckland CBD. The full hike is an 8km round trip that has easy and intermediate parts, however it’s easy to break it up into sections and just do a little. I only did the first part because I got too slow and distracted taking photographs of the amazing views then went down to check out the stunning beaches, such as Bethells Beach. All up I reckon I spent 2-3 hours there but you could easily make a full day of it. The track is super easy to locate and you won’t need more than a pair of runners to do the hike. If you’re after more information then this website is really handy.
No visit to New Zealand’s north island would be complete without a trip to Middle Earth aka Hobbiton. Doesn’t matter if you are a Tolkien fan or not, I absolutely recommend a visit if you’re heading to Auckland. Hobbiton is the set that was used for Bag End, the village where Frodo and Bilbo are from in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. It is an utterly beautiful, typical Kiwi setting and everything has been so well preserved. Before I went I’d read all the books and seen the movies, but wouldn’t necessarily have considered myself to be any kind of obsessive. However it’s such a fun day and the tours are exceptionally well run with really interested and interesting guides who know their stuff.
Hobbiton is (at least) just under two hours drive from Auckland and will cost you NZ$84 for the standard fully guided walking tour. It’s worth noting that to enter, you have to do a tour and you’re not able to just walk around yourself at your own pace. This tour includes a beverage in the dining hall, and you can also buy decent food there. I bought my ticket only a few days in advance but given the popularity of the tours, it would be worth booking online as early as possible so you don’t miss out – the place was packed when I was there. There are also tour options with banquet meals and I have some friends who did this and loved it. For those who are right into their Tolkein then there’s also a great souvenir shop with everything you could want. I really enjoyed visiting Hobbiton and highly recommend a visit to anyone visiting the area. Givent the distance from Auckland it really is a full day trip, so grab a good brunch then drive on down and you can be back in Auckland in good time to head out for dinner.
Because I was sick when I was in Auckland, I didn’t really push myself to hard and just took it easy. I’d planned on going to the Auckland Art Gallery on my first day but an afternoon nap ended up being a touch more appealing; I also missed out on heading up to Mount Eden to check out the views over the city. These are the two things I’d do if I went back. A lot of people also recommended Waiheke Island, which you can catch the ferry (or car ferry) across to from Auckland. The island has some great wineries and restaurants, as well as nature hikes and other outdoor activities. Had I not gone to Te Henga then I would have spent the day here.
Where to shop.
For those coming over from Australia, New Zeand has a lot of the same retail chains as us (Witchery, Seed, Country Road, etc) – Ruby is a local chain that has quite similar style to those and is worth checking out. For something a level above, then local designers such as Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester have boutiques and stockists in town.
If you’re in the CBD, then Queen Street and Britomart are the places to find chain stores and boutiques, while Ponsonby Central has a good mix of chain stores and boutique retailers. Jervois Road in Herne Bay has plenty of smaller stores with great mixtures of fashion and homewares, and is the perfect place for a wander after lunch.
While you’re in Auckland, I highly recommend trying as many local wines and beers as possible – they really do have some of the world’s best alcohol. Also no trip to New Zealand would be complete without loading up on Whittaker’s chocolate. You can get some of the main range fairly easily in Australia these days, but their Destination line is only available in New Zealand. I died over the Indian Cardamom and Italian Apricot flavour. It is just seriously so good.
Auckland: a snapshot.
How long should I stay: I spent three full days there and with the exception of a couple of missed things due to being ill and not wanting to push myself too hard, thought that was probably the right amount of time. It’s worth noting I spent the majority of two of those days out of the city, so you really only need one day to cover the Auckland CBD and immediate area. With four days I would have also gone to Waiheke Island, but I don’t think you need more than that.
Getting around: I hired a car. It was super cheap and meant I could easily get to and from the airport, out to Te Henga and Hobbiton, and any of the suburban parts of the city I wanted to see. I can’t speak for public transport there but I would absolutely recommend hiring a vehicle for your stay as driving is really easy and straighforward, without too much traffic.
When to go: Auckland is fairly mild in winter compared to the south island cities, so you can head there all year round without too much fuss. The city sits roughly parallel to Melbourne so temperatures are reasonably comparable for winter, though summer is far cooler there. I went in August and it was chilly but fine, so year round it’s a good option. If you were heading elsewhere in New Zealand as well, then spring or summer would be your best choices (unless you were there to ski).
Key places for first timers: Sky Tower, Auckland War Memorial Museum and Britomart in Auckland itself, but I highly recommend Hobbiton and getting to at least one national park or beach area outside the city.
Underrated gem: I loved walking along Jervois Road in Herne Bay, it had a relaxed, beachy feel with a lot of great shops and cafes.
If you could only eat at one place: The Federal Delicatessen was definitely my favourite, such a great menu and I missed out on dessert because I was too full!
Best photo opportunities: Sky Tower and the War Memorial Museum while you’re in Auckland, then Te Henga (particularly around Bethells Beach) and Hobbiton out of it. And you absolutely have to get a photo peeking out of a hobbit hole.