Auckland to throw a six-month pre-Cup bash

LOS ANGELES -- Auckland is gearing up for the AmericaÆs Cup by planning a six-month carnival that will culminate with Team New Zealand taking on the challenger for the prize. Nicknamed the City of Sails (one in four households is said to own a boat), Auckland is taking the event seriously.

A harbor view of Auckland, New Zealand. The regatta begins with the Louis Vuitton Challenger series Oct. 18 and ends March 4 with the last of the cup races. With 12 syndicates registered to race, five of them from the U.S., it will be only the second time the event has been held in the South Pacific since it began in 1851. For the first time, the AmericaÆs Cup will have an Olympic-style village. Construction of the American Express New Zealand Cup Village, the regattaÆs focal point, was completed in December.

The village is scheduled to open in September and will cater to the public as well as the racing teams. Admission will be free, and officials are expecting about 3.3 million visitors. It will house syndicate bases (six already have moved in) and will have restaurants and bars; it will be equipped for cultural performances and will have big-screen televisions for broadcasts. In addition to berths for the racing yachts, there are 80 others built for large yachts of the rich and famous. (Sixty yachts have already signed up.) All this is happening in an area called the Viaduct Basin, a 15-minute walk from downtown.

Also in the area is the three-story Auckland 2000 Center, which opened next to the Maritime Museum last November. A joint project of Tourism Auckland and the New Zealand Tourism Board (NZTB), it houses a ground-floor visitors center and booking service, a business center and a media resource facility. The center is intended for use by the 4 million visitors and 10,000 members of the media expected in the city during what they call the Auckland 2000 period. This period begins in September when the city hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit (7,000 officials and media people are expected) and continues through the AmericaÆs Cup and millennium celebrations to the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

The AmericaÆs Cup will take place in AucklandÆs Hauraki Gulf, between the East Coast Bays and Rangitoto Island. Spectators on land and on charter boats will be able to watch the races. (ShipsÆ berths are near the village.) Silversea Cruises vessels will be based in the gulf during races. There will be two Quest for AmericaÆs Cup cruises offered aboard the 296-passenger Silver Cloud, with New Zealand and Australian port calls. Both will start from Auckland.

Cruise dates are Feb. 16 to 28 and Feb. 29 to March 13. Several wholesalers are packaging the event. New York-based Absolute Australia, for example, has a AC2000 package. It includes four nightsÆ accommodations at a downtown Auckland hotel, airport transfers, a half-day city tour, an AmericaÆs Cup souvenir pack and a race-viewing excursion by launch on one day of the plan. Prices range from $605 to $1,090 per person, double; a surcharge might be charged for the millennium period. Optional day excursions -- including attending boat parties and visiting yacht clubs and trips to vineyards -- range in price from $45 to $360. Absolute Australia Phone: (888) 285-9094

Travel Arrangements, Sonoma, Calif., is offering customized packages for FIT clients that include seats on Air New Zealand; Auckland accommodations, and spectator boat excursions. Prices depend on the travel period. Travel Arrangements Phone: (800) 392-8213

The Challenger elimination races begin with three round-robin series, which will be held Oct. 18 through most of December. Challenger semifinals begin Jan. 2, followed by finals starting Jan. 25. The AmericaÆs Cup -- the best of nine races -- will be held Feb. 19 to March 4. Team New Zealand won in 1995 in San Diego. If it wins this one, it will be the first country other than the U.S. to defend the cup successfully. In 1983, AustraliaÆs Royal Perth Yacht Club became the first challenger to take the trophy from the New York Yacht Club. The cup returned to America in 1987.

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