A gadabout samples Auckland's many delights

Travel Weekly editor at large Nadine Godwin recently spent two nights in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city and host to the America's Cup 2003 yachting competition. Her report follows:

he race was on here beginning in October -- meaning the race to take on Team New Zealand for the America's Cup honors in 2003. The challenger and current holder of the prize will square off on Feb. 15.

My visit came in the midst of the round-robin competitions that produce the challenger. However, it coincided with a week's hiatus in those races, which meant my connection was limited to glimpsing some of the competing vessels where they were berthed and watching a few of the entrants out on practice runs.

That also meant, fortunately, that I could turn more of my attention to the city of 1.2 million that is the yacht racing capital of the world right now. Visitors can get around by public bus, but except for one taxi ride to gain time, I hoofed it for my sightseeing in this hilly seaside metropolis.

Because my visit was so short (two nights), the following highlights are by no means exhaustive, but rather a sampler:

• The harbors and marinas. Sailing vessels of various kinds seem to be tethered everywhere. But then, Auckland is said to have the most boat owners per capita in the world.

The main observation level of Sky Tower, at 605 feet, offers 360-degree views of Auckland and its harbors. Tourists will naturally gravitate to the American Express Viaduct Harbor; it is where competing sailing yachts have been berthed, but there are plenty of other attractive vessels to admire, as well. (American Express has naming rights in the harbor because it is a "venue sponsor" for the America's Cup.)

This area shows signs of significant recent development, with stylish, low-rise apartment houses overlooking the water, with more to come. Nearby, older buildings, former warehouses and the like have been redone to house restaurants and shops.

The recently developed Princes Wharf, located a few steps beyond the inner harbor, features a collection of buildings that, viewed as a unit, are reminiscent of a large racing vessel. The Hilton Auckland, opened in 2001, occupies one corner of the complex. Cruise ships call here.

Restaurants, ranging from smart and appealing to upscale, line Princes Wharf and the inner harbor; the area is a lively place to be at night. I had two good dinners here, the first and higher priced at about $23, and the second at not quite $13.

• Auckland Museum, aka Auckland War Memorial Museum. Most of one floor of this stately building is devoted to New Zealand's war history, but I kept to the floor devoted to Pacific island memorabilia, with emphasis on the rooms devoted to New Zealand's Maori culture.

Visitors have several opportunities a day to see a short Maori song and dance performance. I had made the recommended donation of about $2.50 to enter the museum, and this applied to the $7.50 charge to see the music program.

The show, while it does not include all the elements of a show in a traditional "ancestors" house, is an excellent tasting of Maori song and dance and ideal for the client who won't have another opportunity for a Maori culture show while in New Zealand. After the show, performers mingled in the exhibit hall with the audience and other museum-goers.

• Parnell Road. This is described as the city's first suburb, but that would be a 19th century description. Today, it is a pretty, low-rise neighborhood, boasting numerous restored Victorians and a few charming 19th century churches.

But there is economic activity: It is a noted shopping street with many of those old houses converted into stores, some at the high end for fashion, in particular. The road and its neighboring streets are in walking distance of the city center.

So, I walked -- over rolling hills and through one park -- to the city's tallest structure.

• Sky Tower. At 1,066 feet, this rocket-shaped structure outreaches everything else in town and can be seen from well beyond the city's Waitemata Harbor, as well.

The main observation level, at 605 feet, offers predictable, and dramatic, 360-degree views across the city and its harbors. Almost as a dare to visitors, it juts out from the tower, and parts of the floor are glass so thick we could stand on it and look straight to the ground.

There are three eateries at varying levels in the tower and another more or less "ordinary" viewing level, the Sky Deck, at 716 feet. It costs an adult about $7.50 and $9, respectively, to visit the two viewing floors.

The highest point for viewing, aptly called Vertigo, at 878 feet, is accessible only to those willing to take a two-and-a-half-hour guided climb (for about $43) inside the ever-narrowing tower. But the most daring of all are those who take the Sky Jump (at $98), which is an aided plunge 624 feet down the side of the building to a landing station at ground level.

This is billed as the world's highest tower jump, and it somehow seems a fitting pastime in the land of extreme sports.

Maybe it is a consolation, too, for visitors who won't have time to find a bridge for bungee jumping. I wouldn't know; that was never an issue for me.

A little pasta, a little wine and view

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Visitors here have choices for half- or full-day trips to nearby islands in Hauraki Gulf or just across the Waitemata Harbor. The point is, this is an easy way to leave the city for smaller villages -- and to get a good look at Auckland from the water.

I visited Waiheke Island, 12 miles from downtown, which was once farmland and an inexpensive vacation option for blue-collar workers.

Then, it was "discovered" in the 1960s and 1970s, and that brought clusters of artists and handicrafts specialists as well as wine-growers and olive-growers. The 36-square-mile island still counts only 7,500 permanent residents, of whom about 1,200 commute to Auckland, and is accessible in 35 to 45 minutes by regular ferry service (at $12 roundtrip).Visitors can walk to the largest village, Oneroa, but then, to go farther, they use a bus, taxi, rental car or bike, or can do as I did and use a tour company.

My guide, representing Ananda Tours (www.waiheke.co.nz/anandatours.htm), took me to visit local artists who work in or near their homes. Their output varies from ceramics and modern oil paintings to poetry and collages based on fabrics.

My itinerary also included one of the few dozen small vineyards on Waiheke, where hot, dry summers and stony soils are said to produce some of the country's best reds. Local winemakers are launching what they expect to be an annual wine festival on Feb. 1 and 2.

Te Whau Vineyard sits on a peninsula of the same name, offering stunning views of the island's coastline and Auckland in the background.

It boasts a world-renowned restaurant -- selected in 2002 by Wine Spectator magazine as one of the world's best for wine-lovers -- which sits atop the working winery itself. The noted restaurant is a top reason to call at this particular vineyard; reservations are advisable.

This day, businessmen were coming from Auckland by helicopter, so I "settled" for another restaurant with its own perch over Waiheke's shoreline. It was Vino Vino, and for about $10, I had the pasta special, which was OK, plus a local red wine and the view, which were very fine. -- N.G.

Room key: Heritage Auckland Hotel and Tower
35 Hobson St., Auckland; near harbor
Phone: (011) 64-9 379-8553
Number of units: 467 (265 suites)
Renovation report: Main building converted from a department store in 1998; 204 units added with new Tower wing in 1999.
Daily rates: $145 to $285
Noteworthy: Quick access to harbor and tourist sites; good views from high floors if room faces harbor; great kitchen appliances in suites.
Not worthy: Chilly hallways.

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