Some visitors seem to see Auckland as the boring bit of New Zealand in between the airport and all those extreme sports opportunities, but it is a great holiday destination in its own right
I have spent a total of four months in Auckland on visits to relatives, and I reckon I know the place quite well now. In this guide I will concentrate on things to do that I haven't seen mentioned in other guides.
Auckland is now a popular stop for cruise ships, and as a result the shops at the lower end of Queen Street are increasingly geared to people who need to buy a lot of souvenirs in a hurry. Walk further up Queen Street and then start turning down side streets. The shops and cafes are often more unusual off the main road.
The Art Gallery in Wellesley Street has a large and interesting collection of work by NZ artists both contemporary and historical. I particularly like the 19th century paintings which illustrate the life of the early European settlers and the traditional Maori communities. Overseas art is also represented, though you shouldn't expect a lot of Old Masters. You can see some of the paintings at www.aucklandartgallery.govt.nz.
The War Memorial Museum is located in a large park called the Domain, a fair walk up hill from Queen Street but also reachable by bus (see below). The National Museum is in Wellington but personally I find the Auckland Museum (www.aucklandmuseum.com) more interesting. The displays to concentrate on if you are short of time are those of artefacts from the traditional cultures of Polynesia and the Pacific, because you will not see such high quality examples in the museums of the northern hemisphere. There is a resident Maori cultural group, so try to time your visit to catch one of their performances. I had a go at the dance where the women whirl those white balls (poi-poi) around, and it's a lot harder than it looks.
Auckland never tires of reminding visitors that it is the City of Sails, so a visit to the Maritime Museum (www.maritimemuseum.co.nz) may help you bluff your way through a conversation on sailing. It is located in the Viaduct Harbour at the corner of Quay and Hobson Streets and has a collection of all kinds of sea-going craft from the earliest Polynesian canoes to the yacht that won the Americas Cup.
The Stardome Observatory is a fantastic way of reminding yourself that you really are in the southern hemisphere, which you may be in danger of forgetting in the shopping malls. There are talks, guided tours of the sky and a chance to look through a telescope. You can learn how to find due south using the stars of the Southern Cross, and marvel at seeing Orion upside-down. Okay, I know there's really no such thing as an upside-down constellation - it's just that the figures we've been taught to see in the stars only make sense in the northern hemisphere. The Observatory is located in a park called One Tree Hill Domain, with the entrance at 670 Manukau Road. Book a visit at www.stardome.org.nz.
Places to eat
One of the things I like most about the city is the range of East Asian cuisine which flourishes there. There are Asian restaurants and takeaways all over the city. For lunch in Downtown, I really like the Asian Food Court at the bottom of Albert Street which has around a dozen stands each serving a different regional cuisine. The man on the Malaysian stand refused to serve me salt fish, saying that Europeans always hate it and it's just a waste. Maybe you can prove him wrong!
Sushi is available cheaply in every food court, even in suburban malls. At Sushi Train, at 85 Custom St West in the Viaduct Harbour, you can watch the chefs prepare the food in the middle of the room and then grab what you fancy from a conveyor belt as it goes past your table. Children especially seem to love this.
Another good place for children is a burger chain called Burger Fuel. The most central branch is at 291 Queen Street. This chain is a NZ company and their burgers are a lot better than those of the multi-national chains. A Kiwi speciality is putting beetroot in burgers. Well, I like it.
For dessert, buy an ice cream from Gelati in the Ferry Building and eat it while watching the boats.
Auckland is a good holiday destination for the coeliac or wheat intolerant. The wide availability of rice based cuisine makes life simple. Burger Fuel is the only burger chain in the world that offers a gluten-free bun. NZ cafes are much more likely than those in the UK to offer gluten-free cakes and toast.
For a truly memorable dining experience go to Orbit Restaurant in the Sky Tower. The Sky Tower is that really tall pointy building that you keep seeing on the skyline from all over the place. The entrance is on the corner of Federal Street and Victoria Street. It is apparently the tallest building in the southern hemisphere - a coded Kiwi way of saying that the Aussies don't have anything that big - and the restaurant on the top revolves slowly so that eventually you have had a 360 degree view of the whole city and harbour area. The quality of the food comes second to the experience, but it's pretty good. If you are there in the summer look for the strawberry pavlova, the traditional dessert for a Christmas meal. Book via www.skycityauckland.co.nz.
How to get around
The Downtown area is small enough to be covered on foot. Beyond that, there's no denying that Auckland is a city designed for the car, and if you can hire one it will make life easier. But you can get to a lot of places by bus from the Britomart Station at the bottom of Queen Street. The City Circuit bus is really useful and leaves every ten minutes. It runs in a loop including Britomart and several key points of the central city. You could always just go along to see the sights. Detailed journey information can be found at www.maxx.co.nz.
Where to stay
My relatives live in Titirangi, and this is where I have always stayed. It is a beautiful area of beach and bush about half an hour by car or bus from Downtown and around the same distance from the airport, and it would make a far more memorable base for your visit than a boring chain hotel in the centre. I have often walked past a couple of places which offer chalet style accommodation in this area. Although I have not actually stayed there myself, I can guarantee that their setting is idyllic. The gardens merge into natural bush and have fine sea views. French Bay, a good bathing beach popular with the locals but almost unknown by visitors, is a short walk in one direction, and in the other direction a short, if hilly, walk will bring you to Titirangi Village, which is a really nice collection of restaurants, craft shops, a bookshop and an art gallery. Fringe of Heaven Retreat is at 4 Otirori Bay Road and A Chalet in the Ferns is at 81 Park Road.