Exploring Auckland and Waiheke Island

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This is part 13 in a series about my November 2016 trip to New Zealand, booked off a $215 mistake fare.

As the largest city in New Zealand, it seems like Auckland would be great place to visit on a trip to New Zealand.  So I was surprised that a lot of folks told me to skip it entirely.  But as someone who likes exploring cities, I figured it was worth at least a short stay.  I allowed for about a day and a half with two nights, which ended up being the right amount of time – though if you want to explore the areas around the city a bit, you certainly can spend 4 days or more in the general area.  To be honest, though, my entire time in Auckland was filled with a bit of a post-election/end of vacation malaise.

Arriving in Auckland

By the time I got settled into my hotel and took a nap, it was already getting duskish on a Thursday night, so I walked over to the Sky Tower, an observation tower a few blocks from my hotel that stands out in the Auckland skyline.  I hadn’t realized it was part of the larger Sky City casino and hotel complex, and it was pretty schlocky. There are some activities you can do on the tower, including a bungee jump and a “skywalk” outdoors on a glass platform.  I kept it boring and just went to the observation deck itself, which was both expensive and crowded – 29 NZD just to go up, about 20 USD. The main observation deck is on the 51st floor, and then you can ride further up to the Skydeck on floor 60.  There’s also a café on the 50th floor, and fancier dining options on floors 52 and 53.  One thing that was not great is that the windows added a weird bluish hue to the view, as you’ll see in these pictures.  But you definitely could see the whole city.

Auckland Sky Tower

Scenes from the Sky Tower

After my view, it was time for dinner, so I headed to Depot, a restaurant across the street that everyone had raved about.  The wait to sit inside was 45 minutes inside, or I could just take a table outside.  It wasn’t warm out, but fine with my light jacket, so I went with that.  It’s a restaurant that’s probably best with a group as they have a lot of small plates, but my skirt steak was perfectly good.

Dinner at Depot

I thought about going out that night, as Auckland is really the only gay “scene” in New Zealand, but I was pretty tired from a long day up from Queenstown, and still was experiencing some pretty heavy election depression, so after a wander down Queen Street, the main retail/commercial thoroughfare of downtown Auckland, I headed back to the Crowne Plaza and went to bed.

I didn’t really have a great plan for my full day in Auckland.  I slept in a bit and then headed back down Queen Street, which starts out with a lot of low-end Chinese-owned souvenir shops, before becoming more mass market retail, and ending with some very high-end shops close to the harbor.  For breakfast, I went to Imperial Lane, a coffee shop on a little alley that had been recommended to me.  It was a bit of a mess, though, as my food came but my coffee never did, and neither were particularly good for the price.  But there were a lot of business people there, combined with artists and laptop users, adding to the San Francisco drive. Auckland seemed like a fine place to/live, but rather boring to sightsee, which is what id heard.  the Commercial Business District reminded me of San Francisco, particularly the Financial District and waterfront areas, with lots of tall office buildings and some retail, with hipster cafes and boutiques throughout, particularly down alleys.

I wandered around a bit, exploring things that sounded interesting on foot.  Usually, I can get a good feel for a city walking around, but there wasn’t a ton of character.  I headed from Imperial Lane, by the harbor, back up towards the University and Albert Park, which were kinda blah on an overcast day. My initial plan was to keep going to the Auckland Domain (a huge city park) and the Auckland War Memorial Museum, but I changed my mind after realizing it wasn’t in walking distance, and decided I would head the opposite direction, retracing my steps, and head to the ferry to Waiheke Island.

Wandering Auckland on a grey day

Waiheke Island is a huge tourist draw in Auckland, and the Crowne Plaza concierge had even encouraged me to visit when I asked him about the Skytower the previous day.  The island is about 35 square miles, only 13 miles from downtown Auckland in Hauraki Gulf.  About 9000 people live on the island year round, in addition to a lot of Aucklanders with summer homes.  It’s kind of like Cape Cod, with several different communities, each with their own beaches and some with small towns.  There are a few different ferries from the North Island, taking between 40 and 50 minutes.

Auckland from the Waiheke ferry

A ferry was just getting ready to pull out as I arrived at the ferry terminal, and they held it for me. The roundtrip ticket I bought included a bus pass for the day on the island itself for a total of 45 NZD ($32). The ferry was new and the ride fairly short and pleasant, with a snack bar if so inclined.  The passenger load was a mix of Waiheke residents and tourists.

There are many companies that operate tours of Waiheke, hitting a variety of sights. For most travelers, that probably is the best bet. The two biggest draws, though, are the beaches and the wineries.  It was definitely not beach weather, so wineries it was.  Two different bus routes meet the incoming ferries, but I hadn’t really made a plan yet, so I just got on one, the #2.  (Probably should have done  the #1.) 

Scenes from Waiheke

The ride itself was picturesque, and you got to see the mix of hippie and just rich people development on the island. One of the wineries in Lonely Planet, Wild On, sounded interesting, as it had archery, skeet shooting, and other activities beyond the standard tasting.  It was *kind of* on the bus route I took, but I ended up walking along the side of the road for a few minutes to get there.  On the plus side I got to see some cute llamas hanging out.

Beyond the gimmick of vineyard archery, Wild On was pretty disappointing. It was a small winery, though pretty.  I had a table outside and ordered tastings of three wines and a Caesar salad.  The wines were less than delicious.  It was a windy day, and one of the wines actually knocked over before I could taste it.  When I alerted the waitress to it, she basically said “That sucks.”

Wild On Winery

So I didn’t stay very long, and hopped on the #1 bus, which stops right outside the winery.  I took it to the town of Oneroa, which is one of the larger towns on the island.  There still wasn’t much there, but a few boutiques and galleries, a wine shop, and restaurants. In one of the shops I got to overhear some women in their 70s speaking about the election. Actual dialogue, “Well, it’s not the first time the Americans have had a bad president.” “Actually, it’s more like Hitler.”  A theme of my last several days in New Zealand was that New Zealanders of various ages and social status hate Trump and have a mix of pity/mockery of Americans right now.


Oneroa Beach

From Oneroa, I walked about 20 minutes on some small roads, uphill, to Cable Bay Vineyards, one of the better wineries on the island, and one known for breathtaking views from its perch upon the hill.  Unfortunately, a private group from a conference or something had rented out the bar area with the view – something quite common apparently.  So only the full-service restaurant was open, as well as the tasting room.  I did the tasting, alongside what first struck me as  4 peroxide blond loud American women and their gay best friend, which turned out to be part of the United crew from the SFO-AKL flight.  They were annoying.  But the wine was good- much better than Wild On. Both of the women working in the tasting room were American, and they said it is easy to get a work visa in NZ if you have a sommelier certification.  Good to know! 🙂  Cable Bay has vineyards in both Waiheke and Marlborough, and I ended up taking home a Viognier and a Rose.  If you buy two bottles, the $10 tasting fee is refunded, and the bottles came to under $20 each.  I’d recommend this winery and hopefully being able to take a glass outside and enjoy the view.

Cable Bay Vineyards

It was a very pretty walk downhill back to the ferry landings.  The ferry boarding area was a bit of a mess, as there was one ferry that had been chartered just to take a conference group back, and they were boarding both at the same time.  But the trip back was uneventful.

Departing Waiheke

Auckland Ferry Terminal

After my nap, I headed out, and Friday night was busy.  There was a festival on Federal Street near my hotel, and I went down to the Britomart district, which is a newly hipsterfied, formerly more-industrial area on the waterfront.  There were tons of bars and restaurants pouring onto the streets, with lots of young people – definitely the most interesting nightlife scene in New Zealand, and the only real concentration of people between 25 and 40 I saw in the country outside ziplining.  A lot of bars and restaurants were fully booked, but I was able to get a table at Ostro, a “New Zealand take on Mediterranean,” with a menu “designed by” a Michelin-star winning chef, Josh Emmet.   The restaurant looks out at the water, and they set up a weird table of one just for me, and I as soooo glad.  It was my best meal of the trip, with an okay salad but an incredibly delicious duck pappardelle – not a ragu, but roast duck with crispy skin and fresh pasta.  It came to 54 NZD for the salad, main, and a glass of wine.  Not cheap but, for a high-quality restaurant, $42 isn’t bad for that.

Dinner at Ostro

Britomart at night

I had planned to finish packing and go out and check out Auckland’s gay night scene, saving my sleep for the plane(s) the next day. But I was too tired, and just went to bed at 10pm with my alarm set to go off at 4:30am.

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