Folks pay good money to climb to the top of the Sky Tower in downtown Auckland, New Zealand, to enjoy the commanding view of the city and Waitemata Harbor.
But the best vantage point from which to enjoy the breadth and beauty of "the city of sails" is just outside the city, on the way to the Waitakere Ranges, where city and bay are nearly framed by the dense bush of ferns and trees that clothe this region in its ever-present coat of green.
Mark Twain, on a visit to New Zealand, remarked on the shades of green, saying they could be deep or "other times delicate and lovely," the kind no camera can capture. He likened the fronds on fern trees to a "graceful chalice."
An apt description: Maoris, New Zealand's indigenous ethnic group, revere the bush, as was evident during a morning walk through the Waitakere, about a half-hour drive from Auckland. My group was accompanied by experts in "Maoritanga" -- things that relate to Maori values and concepts -- from Navigator Tours.
"We use that expertise to provide authentic and sustainable visitor experiences in cultural tourism," said John Panoho, the company's marketing director.
Respect for nature
After starting the morning's jaunt with the traditional Maori greeting of speech-making, singing and the hongi, or pressing of noses and foreheads, forest ranger Riki Bennett began the bush trek with a prayer to a kauri tree that was a sapling a couple of centuries before William Shakespeare was born.
There's little in the bush the Maoris don't acknowledge with a prayer, story or ingenious way to use. Through the centuries, they learned to derive food, clothing and spiritual fulfillment from the land, and their beliefs continue to influence modern New Zealand culture.
About 15% of the total Kiwi, or New Zealander, population claim they're Maori, and the common native greeting of kia ora is heard or seen everywhere, even in downtown Auckland.
The city, however, is a melting pot of New Zealanders, Asian students and travelers from all over the world, who throng to the waterside for beers, boats and bistros.
Auckland has lost a bit of the charm I felt when I first visited there some 20 years ago. But the Kiwis have not. It's a city now infiltrated by Starbucks, but with a barista who remembers your name and favorite drink after one visit.
The city's main artery, Queen Street, pulses with the ebb and flow of human traffic throughout the day past the usual urban haunts. But near the top of the thoroughfare are places such as the Real Groovy music store, where you can smell real record vinyl as you pass through the door, and where the staff will help with such odd requests as top pop hits from the South Pacific in the 1980s.
Not too far from there is the Sky Tower, rising about 1,076 feet from the street, supposedly the tallest man-made structure in the South Pacific and now the most dominant element of the Auckland cityscape.
At the top, you can strap up and tiptoe around a tower walkway, do a pseudo-bungie jump or just take in the view of the city or the Waitakere Ranges.
For more on Auckland and New Zealand, visit www.tourismnewzealand.com. For Navigator Tours, visit www.navigatortours.co.nz.