Auckland, New Zealand's biggest city, is a common starting and ending point for Australia/New Zealand cruise itineraries. Perched near the upper end of the North Island, it has an ideal location for cruise lines looking to schedule calls in other North Island ports (Wellington, Napier, Picton) and South Island towns (Dunedin and Christ Church) in between here and Sydney.
Auckland is, no doubt about it, the most bustling and cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. But what surprised me when I first arrived, after nearly 26 hours spent traveling from the U.S. East Coast, was that it didn't feel at all as exotic as I expected -- at least at first glance.
As far as architecture is concerned, downtown Auckland has experienced a building boom in the past 30 years or so. Unfortunately, that means that there's little historic charm; indeed, the concrete and glass Sky Tower, a massive "needle" type attraction built in 1996, is the city's most iconic landmark. With the overuse of concrete, even buildings currently under construction look like they've stepped right out of the 1970s, rather than appearing dynamic and modern. There are a few signs of the city's past -- the revitalized Ferry Building by the waterfront, which houses a couple of restaurants and a gelato bar, is a good example -- but downtown's growth by and large has been marked more by knocking down old buildings than by renovating them.
What makes Auckland a truly unique destination is its fabulous proximity to the water. Lining the Waitemata Harbor -- which leads to the Gulf of Hauraki and the Bay of Islands -- the city's waterfront bustles with ferry traffic. From downtown it's an easy hop to Waiheke Island, a one-time hippie hangout that's now earning recognition for its beautiful vistas and thriving winemaking culture. There's Devonport, on the north shore, a charming coastal town (with a great view of Auckland across the harbor); it's replete with cafes, parks and shops. Beyond the more urban waterways you can travel to other scenic spots -- from the gentle Seabird Coast to the south to the rugged Pacific-fringed Northland in the opposite direction. Both are easy daytripping options.
Another geographic highlight of Auckland, which sits on an isthmus, is its 46 volcanic hills that are scattered around the city. They're easily identifiable, rising suddenly and steeply and featuring flat tops. On some, such as Mt. Eden, the craters are mossy and furry with grass. You can drive or walk to the top. The views, stretching past the harbors of Waitemata and Manukau and bordered by mountain ranges, are almost as good as those from Auckland's famous Sky Tower.
What will also impress you is the friendliness of the folks who live and work there. The sense we got, over and over again, is that Aucklanders really do revel in the city's relatively newfound popularity amongst tourists -- whether from the South Island, Australia (a three-hour flight away and the closest major land mass) or from Asia, Europe and the U.S. The people we've met after three days here are quick to display a strong sense of pride in their city and take it upon themselves to make sure you've enjoyed your visit.
Nearly everyone working in the hospitality arena -- hotels, shops, restaurants, taxis -- is superbly gracious and efficient (and, interestingly, it's not the anticipation of a gratuity that spurs them -- tipping, outside of restaurants, is not really encouraged here). The friendliness is intrinsic, starting with the city buses operated by Stagecoach Auckland; those not carrying passengers offer signs saying "sorry" before they move into "out of service."
There were numerous other examples of excellence, like the cab driver who got lost -- and said "my fault, let's start that meter over." At our hotels, all requests -- a quick turnaround on our dry cleaning, an American-friendly electric plug, extra furniture for the balcony and even a quick jump start when our rental car's battery went dead -- were met with smiles and quick follow-through.
The only place where we encountered big-city brusqueness was, ironically, in the Viaduct, a place basically designed to attract tourists (locals, too). Lining the Viaduct Basin, it's one of the few old structures that has been restored and is chock-a-block with cafes, pubs and bistros. One night, we slid into Pat O'Hagan's, an almost eerily quiet Irish pub. The girls behind the bar were so consumed with wiping plastic-covered menus that they were too busy to wait on a lone table of two walk-ins. After spending an awkward 15 minutes being ignored, we walked out, only stopping to ask: "What do you have to do to get service here?" One of the barkeeps smirked and said, "You come to the bar." She couldn't have been an Aucklander -- or even a New Zealander, come to think of it. Her manners were too poor.