Overview

Auckland is New Zealand's largest, most culturally diverse and cosmopolitan city. Its European, Pacific and Asian influences make it a destination unlike any other. But its urban credentials—a flourishing cultural life and abundant commerce—are often upstaged by its breathtaking geography. Sprawled across an isthmus, the city envelops more than 40 extinct volcanoes, several of which stand in green, pastoral parks overlooking a broad harbor, gulf islands and a seemingly endless shoreline.

Auckland's residents appreciate the city's two-sided personality: They view nature as one of life's privileges rather than a barrier to development, and the city's population is dispersed into neighborhoods of manageable size. All in all, Auckland is a gateway to nature and outdoor adventure, with fine dining and culture there for the asking, too.

Geography

Auckland is on New Zealand's North Island. The city spreads across an isthmus between two harbors and two very different coastlines. The east coast, along the Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf, is lined with golden sand and has translucent blue, calm waters. Manukau Harbour flows into the Tasman Sea on the west coast, beyond the forest-covered Waitakere Ranges, and is characterized by deep-blue water with unrelenting swells pounding stretches of black sand. Numerous dormant volcanoes dot the landscape and offer wonderful vistas.

The greater city of Auckland is really a sprawling set of neighborhoods and suburbs and was previously split into four cities: Manukau City (south), Waitakere City (west), North Shore City (north) and Auckland City (center). Until recently, each city had its own mayor and local council, and the mayor of Auckland City represented Auckland as a whole. However, in 2010, Auckland became one supercity with one council and one mayor but with regional representation.

The downtown area stretches uphill from the cruise-ship terminal area, which includes the Viaduct Basin, Princes Wharf, Queens Wharf (where the ferry terminal is located) and Wynyard Wharf. Queen Street is the main street in the CBD (Central Business District). Karangahape Road, called K' Road, connects Upper Queen Street to Ponsonby Road, the main street through Ponsonby, the neighborhood just west of the city center.

The east side is dominated by the Auckland Domain, a vast park, and the upscale neighborhoods of Parnell, just east of the park, and Remuera, still farther east. Two other inner-city neighborhoods are Newmarket (south of Parnell) and Newton-Kingsland (south of Ponsonby). The northern part of the metro area, the North Shore, is across the Harbour Bridge and includes the suburbs of Takapuna, Devonport and the northern suburbs called "the Bays."

The Mission Bay, Kohimarama and St. Heliers Bay waterfront is a popular place for tourists and locals alike. Visitors also gather at the North Shore beaches and in historic Devonport township.

History

The Maori, a Polynesian people, are recognized as being the first inhabitants of New Zealand. Evidence suggests that they arrived by canoe during the 13th century in a period when Polynesians did a lot of ocean voyaging. They began establishing strong communities on the North and South islands.

Easy access to the resources of the ocean and rich volcanic soil made the Auckland region highly desirable, which in turn made it the prize of conflict and war. Different Maori groups built fortified strongholds (pa) on the area's volcanoes: Mount Eden, Mount Victoria, One Tree Hill and Bastion Point.

In the early 1800s, the first British settlers began to arrive. Initially, they began establishing communities along the coastline through trading agreements with the Maori and then finally, in the 1860s, through armed conflict. The first governor general, William Hobson, "negotiated" the acquisition of 7,400 acres/3,000 hectares of land around the tallest volcano, Mount Eden. He declared Auckland the capital city in 1841 and set about making it the country's main trading port.

In 1865, Auckland lost its status as capital to Wellington. Nevertheless, greater Auckland became the largest city in New Zealand and home to a large population of Polynesian (mainly from Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tonga) and, more recently, Asian immigrants. The city remains one of the three main ports of call for cargo, visitors and information.

Sightseeing

Auckland's must-see sights invariably turn into must-do activities. The reason: The city's most striking landmarks are its natural monuments. Once you see them, you'll soon want to hike, bike, kayak or sail them. The main park, the Auckland Domain, is home to several interesting plant exhibits in the Wintergardens, as well as the magnificent Auckland Museum—and it's a great place simply to take a walk. Dormant volcanoes such as Mount Eden, One Tree Hill, Mount Victoria and North Head provide not only beautiful recreational parkland, but also panoramic views of the city, the harbor and the Hauraki Gulf.

The best man-made vantage point in Auckland is the Sky Tower. It dominates the skyline and anchors the downtown entertainment complex called SkyCity. Guided walks across the Harbour Bridge also offer exhilarating views. For a more accessible vantage point, view the inner city from the external balcony of the Events Centre in the Wynyard Quarter.

The city center has plenty of cultural attractions, including the remodeled and expanded Auckland Art Gallery housing the country's largest collection of New Zealand and international art. Aotea Square, dominated by performing-arts and entertainment venue The Edge, sits midway up Queen Street (across from the historic town hall), and there is a diverse array of cafes and boutiques along Queen Street and adjacent High Street. West of the Ferry Building on Quay Street is Princes Wharf, the Viaduct Basin and Wynyard Quarter. Trendy Britomart's (east of the Ferry Building) train station is a bustling hub of city transportation, which makes the area surrounding a good spot for dining, shopping or leisurely watching the world go by.

New Zealand's sailing heritage is also documented in the Viaduct Basin at the Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum.

For eclectic and multicultural sights, wander K' Road between Queen Street and Ponsonby Road. For the upmarket, take a short bus ride to Parnell, a revamped colonial village with designer boutiques, several art galleries and the beautiful Rose Gardens with the tiny historic St. Stephens church and pioneer cemetery. The suburb of Ponsonby is the heart of Auckland's cafe, bar and restaurant scene.

Take a 10-minute ferry ride across the harbor to historic Devonport, the first Auckland settlement and home of the New Zealand Navy. See navy ships at their berths when coming across the harbor on the ferry, swim at the safe sheltered beach at Cheltenham, and walk up Mount Victoria or North Head for 360-degree views of the city and environs.

One of the biggest attractions is just outside the city center toward the eastern beaches on Tamaki Drive. At Kelly Tarlton's Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, you can see a colony of penguins and walk through an underwater passage with stingrays and sharks swimming overhead. The scenery along Tamaki Drive is worthwhile in itself, and you can continue along the coast to such vibrant areas as Mission Bay and St. Heliers lined with restaurants and cafes.

Nightlife

Karangahape Road (K' Road to the locals) has an edgy nightlife scene for the twentysomething crowd. The downtown waterfront area around Britomart, Princes Wharf, the Viaduct Basin and Wynyard Wharf are also popular. The revamped Victoria Park Market offers a variety of venues to suit tastes across the board.

Other popular areas for bars and clubs include High Street, O'Connell Street, Vulcan Lane, Ponsonby Road and Parnell Road. Nuffield Street in Newmarket and Kingsland are also interesting locales. Clubs are generally open Thursday-Sunday. Most start getting lively around 11 pm or midnight, with closing times around 2 or 3 am.

Dining

Dining out in Auckland is a passion fueled by fresh produce and culinary innovation. No one style can describe New Zealand's cuisine—it's a fusion of Pacific, Asian and European influences. Be sure to try locally caught fish, as well as New Zealand lamb. Kiwis are very proud of their wine industry, so you'll find lots of excellent local vintages to sample. There is also growing popularity in the Central American and Latin-style cuisines developing in the area.

The hot spots for good food and wine in Auckland include the downtown waterfront area. It's the place to head any night of the week for dinner or a late-night drink. Ponsonby Road's restaurants cater to every taste, and Parnell Road has its fair share of upscale places to eat (mixed in with expensive boutiques and galleries). Karangahape Road has some interesting ethnic-style eateries. Mission Bay, Remuera, Newmarket, Mount Eden, Herne Bay, Kingsland, Devonport and Takapuna on the North Shore also have a variety of restaurants.

Dining times are generally 7:30-11 am for breakfast, noon-2:30 pm for lunch and 6-10 pm for dinner. Sunday brunch is also an Auckland tradition: Cafes along Ponsonby and Jervois roads, in Parnell, Mission Bay and around the city waterfront are busy 9 am-3 pm.

Some restaurants or eateries, mainly in suburban areas, are not licensed and display a BYO sign (Bring Your Own wine or beer). Even some licensed restaurants will let you take your own bottle. They will charge a corkage fee, usually NZ$5-$10 a bottle or NZ$4-$5 per person.

Note that New Zealand law no longer allows smoking in public indoor working environments, which includes all cafes, restaurants and bars.

Almost all establishments have EFTPOS/direct debit card facilities and will accept at least one of the major credit cards, Visa or MasterCard being favored over American Express or Diners Club cards.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner without tip or drinks: $ = less than NZ$30; $$ = NZ$30-$60; $$$ = NZ$61-$100; $$$$ = more than NZ$100.

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