The Auckland landscape is dominated by dormant volcanoes, affording a convenient and inexpensive way to take in the striking views of New Zealand’s largest city and its maritime environment
For most of its visitors Auckland is little more than a springboard to the many other superb destinations that New Zealand has to offer. But, even if your stay is only one or two nights, there's still time to appreciate the visual delights to be found in and around this waterfront metropolis. The city and its southern suburbs are built on a narrow isthmus running west to east between the Tasman Sea to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the north. With sea in every direction and 100 kilometres of coastline within the city limits, it's hardly surprising that Aucklanders are reckoned to have the highest boat ownership ratio in the world or that Auckland is known as the City of Sails.
Sky Tower and the Auckland Domain
For the best views of downtown Auckland, its harbours and its islands, you need to get up high. Fortunately, there is a good range of options. The most obvious high point is the spectacular Sky Tower (Corner Victoria and Federal Streets; 09-363 6000; www.skycityauckland.co.nz/Attractions/Skytower.html). At 382 metres high, it offers panoramic views up to a distance of 80 kilometres from its three viewing platforms, the highest of which is 220 metres above street level. If you are aiming this high, the cost is NZ$28, or you can pay $3 less for the main observation deck, slightly lower. For those who yearn for a stronger adrenaline surge, there's the option of the Sky Jump from 192 metres (NZ$195) – a controlled descent at about 85 km/h attached to a wire. The rush is unbeatable, they say, but we chickened out and descended by the lift.
Within walking distance of the city centre is the Auckland Domain, an extensive area of parkland, sports fields and formal gardens, with the Auckland Museum (09-309 0443; www.aucklandmuseum.com) at its highest point. For those without the time or inclination to walk, the Link bus (every 10-15 minutes on a central loop route) will drop you off a few minutes away on Parnell Road. Alternatively, the museum is on the Auckland Explorer Bus (www.explorerbus.co.nz) circuit; a one-day pass (hop on, hop off) costs NZ$35. Tip: for better value, buy an Auckland Discovery Pass ($14.50 per day) if you intend to make more than a couple of journeys by ferry, bus or train.
Auckland’s volcanic hills
Auckland is in the middle of a volcanic field, with no less than 48 dormant volcanoes within a 20-kilometre radius of the city centre. All of Auckland’s rounded, grassy hills started life as active volcanoes. The last one to erupt was Rangitoto Island - 600 years ago, we were relieved to learn. Apart from the Domain, two of the nearest to the city are Mount Eden and One Tree Hill. If you are without your own transport, it’s advisable to take a bus (#274 or #277 from Customs Street East) to Mount Eden, to avoid a long tedious walk through the suburbs. There’s a track from the bus stop on Mount Eden Road to the top – at 196 metres the city’s highest volcano. Rest your legs here and give your eyes a feast. To the north are downtown Auckland and Waitemata Harbour, with the North Shore beyond. The eastern seascape is dominated by the symmetrical cone of Rangitoto, its slopes covered in native forest.
Predominant to the south is One Tree Hill, named after the solitary totara tree that was planted in the 17th century and replaced several times over the years. Now a stone obelisk, completed in 1940, marks the highest point. Several bus routes run from the city centre to Cornwall Park, leaving a walk of twenty minutes or so to the 183-metre summit. This volcano was the site of a Maori pa (fortified village), and the extensive terracing of the hill is still very obvious. Foreground views over parkland, Mount Eden and the city suburbs give way to a glorious panorama of Auckland’s maritime surroundings.
On another day you could take a Fullers ferry (NZ$10 return; included in the Auckland Discovery Pass) across the harbour to Devonport, a charming village with a range of art galleries, shops and cafés. Here you have a choice of two more dormant volcanoes, Mount Victoria and North Head, both less than 100 metres in height and within easy walking distance from the ferry terminal. To reach Mount Victoria you walk, rather predictably, up Victoria Road. The hike is not demanding, and takes less than half an hour. For North Head, return down Victoria Road, turn left opposite the ferry terminal and follow the waterfront for ten minutes or so. Signs point the way along a cul-de-sac to the foot of North Head, and an easy path circles round the hillside to the top. If the weather is good, you will be rewarded with great views across to Auckland to the south, the Harbour Bridge to the west, and Hauraki Gulf and the gulf islands to the north east. Both hills have histories as defensive sites; North Head’s tunnels and gun emplacements remain as fascinating attractions for visitors of all ages.
Where to stay and eat
On our two visits to Auckland, we stayed at the Sebel Suites (85-89 Customs Street West). As well as the great location, overlooking Viaduct Basin, this apartment hotel offers the convenience of rooms with in-suite laundry and fully equipped kitchen areas. That said, we invariably breakfasted at the adjacent Mecca Café (85-87 Customs Street West; 09-358 1093; www.meccacafe.com/viaduct.htm). For the perfect reviving recipe after a long-haul arrival the previous evening, it would be hard to beat those huge bowls of fresh fruit, muesli and yoghurt. Their evening meals and wines were excellent, too. Within the vibrant Viaduct Basin development, there are restaurants to satisfy all cosmopolitan tastes.
Another of our favourites was the Harbourside Seafood Restaurant, on the first floor of the Ferry Building (99 Quay Street; 09-307 0486; www.harboursiderestaurant.co.nz). Try for a balcony table, overlooking the waterside.
Or, to fit in with this guide’s theme, where better to dine than Orbit (09-363 6000), the revolving restaurant at the top of Sky Tower? Enjoy the view.