The highest natural point in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city with a population of 1.2 million, is the top of Mount Eden, or Maungawhau. A clear day at this lofty vantage point reveals in Technicolor panorama what makes this city so appealing—the shimmering aspect of the downtown cityscape melts straight into two separate and even more brightly sparkling seascapes in two different seas.
Central Auckland drapes over a narrow isthmus surrounded by the Waitemata Harbor in the Pacific Ocean on the northeast and the Manukau Harbor in the Tasman Sea on the southwest, with enough variations of blue to challenge an artist's pallet. With over 50 islands scattered throughout the region, many of them easily accessible by ferry or sailboat, Auckland is uniquely comprised of both urban and marine environs.
The vineyards of Waiheke, the protected wildlife of Tiritiri Matangi, and the 600-year-old volcano on Rangitoto overlooking the Hauraki Gulf are just a few of the attractions beckoning offshore. Although the 360-degree views from the Sky Tower (the tallest building in the southern hemisphere), the summer markets of Silo Park, and the chic harborfront cafes of Viaduct Harbor are enough to keep anyone entertained right in central Auckland, the city's real draw lies in the spectacular natural wonders that encompass its borders.
Sally and Gerry, your gracious hosts at The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel on Ponsonby Terrace will help you to transition into your weekend in Auckland with ease. They've been running this bed and breakfast in one of Auckland's most historic and highly sought after neighborhoods for almost 20 years, and much of the Balinese, Fijian, and Samoan artwork hanging in the hallways and foyer have been collected along their travels together. The 11 rooms, suites, and villas encapsulate a sunny central garden, and the heady aroma of the abundant jasmine will not only greet you, but also follow you to your room. Sally and Gerry have worked together to turn a 118-year-old wooden villa into a model of efficiency and sustainability, collaborating with the Tourism Industry Association New Zealand and Qualmark to create sustainability parameters for New Zealand accommodations.
The walls are insulated with wool to conserve warmth, the fertilizer from the worm garden is used to grow fresh herbs and feijoas (fleshy indigenous fruit comparable to guava) for guests' breakfasts, and the Great Ponsonby was the first hotel in New Zealand to employ eco-friendly, biodegradable shampoo, conditioner, and cleaning products. When asked about her commitment to sustainability Sally is deferential—"It's just the way we were raised in New Zealand."
For dinner head to Hectors, sheltered by a canopy of palms in a seven-storey atrium at The Heritage Hotel on Hobson Street. Chef Jinu Abraham sources his produce within a 50-kilometer radius, and he has recently launched an entire plant-based menu at his restaurant to promote healthy, sustainable cuisine.
Try the charred eggplant with chili, mint and tahini to start, and the mushroom tartlet with parsnip puree, black garlic and hazelnut salad for a main course. Omnivores are catered to as well with tastily prepared free range meats and fresh local seafood; the Ora King salmon with garlic lemon butter and the Harmony free-range pork belly with mint jus are both great choices and pair well with a thoughtfully chosen list of local wines.
If you're in the mood for a nightcap, The Kings Arms Tavern located downtown on France Street or the Grand Central back on Ponsonby Road close to the hotel both offer live music most nights and a fun atmosphere.
Start your morning in the sunlit breakfast room overlooking the terrace of The Great Ponsonby with a Greek omelette (free-range, organic, and local) with feta and lemon zest, freshly baked bread with house-made feijoa jam, and a French press free trade coffee.
Head to the ferry terminal on Quay Street to catch a boat to Waiheke Island (departing every 30 minutes, sailing time approximately 40 minutes); we suggest leaving your car at the hotel and renting bikes on the island.
Bike rentals are available at 124 Oceanview Road from Onya Bikes Waiheke (local branch of eCyclesNZ) and, providing you pace yourself with the vino, are a beautiful way to explore the world-class vineyards spread throughout the island. Run by a couple from Belgium, the rentals are available both in "non e-assist" (regular mountain bikes) or "e-Velo" (electric assist bikes).
Cable Bay Vineyards is an alluring spot both for its scenic locale and the quality of its harvests, particularly its Syrahs and Malbecs. Kennedy Point Vineyard is the only certified organic vineyard on the island and makes an ambient stop for lunch, sheltered by towering Pohutukawa trees and with expansive views over the gulf. Wine, olive oil and honey tastings are available.
The whole Hauraki Gulf has been a marine reserve since 2008 and its waters are filled with an abundance of marine wildlife, so keep an eye out as you explore Waiheke for dolphins, whales and seabirds.
Back on the mainland, try Thai House Restaurant at 25 Ponsonby Road with creative and delicious veggie options like taro and black bean cakes with crushed peanuts and tamarind sauce and a chili paste vegetable dish with roasted cashews.
Janken on Jervois Road is another cool place for dinner, with local, organic and artfully prepared Japanese cuisine including organic sake and macrobiotic desserts.
A cocktail at Mea Culpa or One 2 One with some jazz accompaniment is a good way to wrap up the evening before heading back to your hotel; both are in walking distance.
The breakfast side of this bed and breakfast goes admirably beyond the "continental" offerings of similar establishments; take your time this morning deciding between the banana crepes with cinnamon maple syrup and the eggs Florentine whilst sipping a coffee on the veranda.
After breakfast spend the morning exploring a few of the trails in the Waitakere Ranges, less than a half hour drive from downtown. Stop in at the Arataki Visitor Center to help make the most of your trip; the rangers there can help guide you toward exotic black sand beaches, lush rainforests and cascading waterfalls.
Head back to town and contrast your morning in the rainforest with some of Auckland's urban delights in the afternoon—lunch with a view in Viaduct Harbor is a welcome respite. Soul Bar is supremely located at the water's edge and offers plenty of local seafood and produce with a farm/boat-to-table approach and a complete vegetarian menu as well. Omnivores should try the grilled snapper with coriander and walnut vinaigrette while vegetarians will love the goat's curd gnocchi with broad beans and wild arugula.
Finish your Sunday with a visit to the Sky Tower for panoramic views of the city and surrounds from 186 meters up. It's a beautiful way to wrap up the weekend and gives you a sense of perspective that takes in Auckland's natural wonders as well as its cosmopolitan appeal.
Ins and Outs
Auckland is a 3-hour flight from Sydney or just over one hour from Christchurch. The year-round climate is gentle and sunnier than elsewhere in the country, with summer temperatures averaging around 24 degrees Celsius (75 Fahrenheit) and mild, wet winters. Weather can change quickly anywhere in New Zealand, so a good raincoat and waterproof hiking boots or sandals definitely come in handy.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.