Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and, as the site of the major international airport, most visitors’ first view of the country. Planes bank over the island-studded Hauraki Gulf and yachts with bright spinnakers tack through the glistening waters of the Waitemata Harbour towards the “City of Sails”. The downtown sprouts skyscrapers and is surrounded by the grassy humps of some fifty-odd extinct volcanoes, and a low-rise suburban sprawl of prim wooden villas surrounded by substantial gardens. Look beyond the glitzy shopfronts and Auckland has a modest small-town feel and measured pace, though this can seem frenetic in comparison with the rest of the country.
Auckland is one of the least densely populated cities in the world, occupying twice the area of London and yet home to only 1.5 million inhabitants. It is also the world’s largest Polynesian city. Around eleven percent of the population claim Maori descent while fourteen percent are families of migrants who arrived from Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and other South Pacific islands during the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, the Polynesian profile has traditionally been confined to small pockets, and it is only now, as the second generation matures, that Polynesia is making its presence felt in mainstream Auckland life, especially in the arts.
Many visitors only stay in the city long enough for a quick zip around the smattering of key sights, principally the Auckland Museum, with its matchless collection of Maori and Pacific Island carving and artefacts. A better taste of the city is gleaned by ambling around the fashionable inner-city suburbs of Ponsonby, Parnell, Newmarket and Devonport, and using the city as a base for exploring the wild and desolate West Coast surf beaches and the wineries, all less than an hour from the city centre. With more time, head out to the Hauraki Gulf islands: craggy, volcanic Rangitoto, sophisticated Waiheke, bird-rich Tiritiri Matangi and chilled-out Great Barrier.
Auckland’s climate is temperate and muggy, though never scorching hot, and the humidity is always tempered by a sea breeze. Winters are generally mild but rainy.
Auckland’s greatest asset is the island-studded Hauraki Gulf, a 70km-square patch of ocean to the northeast of the city. In Maori, Hauraki means “wind from the north” – though the gulf is somewhat sheltered from the prevailing winds and ocean swells by Great Barrier Island, creating benign conditions for Auckland’s legions of yachties. Most just sail or fish, but those who wish to strike land can visit some of the 47 islands, administered by the Department of Conservation, designated either for recreational use with full access, or as sanctuaries for endangered wildlife, requiring permits.
Auckland’s nearest island neighbour is Rangitoto, a flat cone of gnarled and twisted lava that dominates the harbourscape. The most populous of the gulf islands is Waiheke, increasingly a commuter suburb of Auckland, with sandy beaches and some quality wineries. Wine was definitely verboten at nearby Rotoroa Island, once a Salvation Army de-tox centre and now open for day visits.
Waiheke’s sophistication is a far cry from laidback Great Barrier Island, the largest hereabouts, with its sandy surf beaches, hilly tramping tracks and exceptional fishing. The Department of Conservation’s policy of allowing access to wildlife sanctuaries is wonderfully demonstrated at Tiritiri Matangi, where a day-trip gives visitors an unsurpassed opportunity to see some of the world’s rarest birds.
Rugged and sparsely populated, Great Barrier Island (Aotea) lies 90km northeast of Auckland on the outer fringes of the Hauraki Gulf and, though only 30km long and 15km wide, packs in a mountainous heart which drops away to deep indented harbours in the west and eases gently to golden surf beaches in the east. It’s only a half-hour flight from the city but exudes a tranquillity and detachment that makes it seem a world apart. There is no mains electricity or water, no industry, no towns to speak of and limited public transport.
Much of the pleasure here is in lazing on the beaches, ambling to the hot spings and striking out on foot into the Great Barrier Forest, a rugged chunk of bush and kauri-logging relics between Port Fitzroy and Whangaparapara that takes up about a third of the island. The forest is New Zealand’s largest stand of deer- and possum-free bush, offering a unique walking environment. Because the area is so compact, in no time at all you can find yourself climbing in and out of little subtropical gullies luxuriant with nikau palms, tree ferns, regenerating rimu and kauri, and onto scrubby manuka ridges with stunning coastal and mountain views. Many of the tracks follow the routes of mining tramways past old kauri dams. Tracks in the centre of the island converge on 621m Hirakimata (Mount Hobson), which is surrounded by boardwalks and wooden steps designed to keep trampers on the path and prevent the disturbance of nesting black petrels. If you’re looking for more structure to your day, a few small-time tour and activity operators can keep you entertained (see Kaiaraara kauri dam).
The vast majority of visitors arrive from Auckland between Boxing Day and the middle of January, many piling in for the New Year’s Eve party at the sports club at Crossroads. The rest of the year is pretty quiet.
Great Barrier is formed from the same line of extinct volcanoes as the Coromandel Peninsula and shares a common geological and human past. Aotea was one of the places first populated by Maori, and the Ngatiwai and Ngatimaru people occupied numerous pa sites when Cook sailed by in 1769. Recognizing the calming influence of Aotea on the waters of the Hauraki Gulf, Cook renamed it Great Barrier Island. From 1791, the island’s vast stands of kauri were seized for ships’ timbers, and kauri logging didn’t cease until 1942, outliving some early copper mining at Miners Head and sporadic attempts to extract gold and silver. Kauri logging and gum digging were replaced by a short-lived whale-oil extraction industry at Whangaparapara in the 1950s, but the Barrier soon fell back on tilling the poor clay soils and its peak population of over 5000 dropped to around 1000.
The low, conical shape of Rangitoto, 10km northeast of the city centre, is a familiar sight to every Aucklander. Yet few set foot on the island, missing out on a freakish land of fractured black lava with the world’s largest pohutukawa forest clinging precariously to its crevices. Alongside lies the older, and geologically quite distinct, island of Motutapu or “sacred island”, linked to Rangitoto by a narrow causeway.
A day-trip is enough to get a feel for Rangitoto, make the obligatory hike to the summit (from where there are magnificent views of the city and Hauraki Gulf) and tackle a few trails, but longer stays are possible if you pitch your tent at the primitive campsite at Home Bay on Motutapu.
Rangitoto is Auckland’s youngest and largest volcano. Molten magma probably pushed its way through the bed of the Hauraki Gulf around six hundred years ago – watched by Motutapu Maori, who apparently called the island “blood red sky” after the spectacle that accompanied its creation.
The government purchased Rangitoto for £15 in 1854, putting it to use as a military lookout point and a work camp for prisoners. From the 1890s, areas were leased for camping and unauthorized baches were cobbled together on the sites. Over 100 baches had sprouted by the late 1930s when legislation stopped any new construction. In recent years, the cultural value of this unique set of 1920s and 1930s houses has been appreciated and the finest examples of the remaining 34 are being preserved for posterity, their corrugated-iron chimneys and cast-off veranda-railing fenceposts capturing the Kiwi make-do spirit.
A visit to Tiritiri Matangi is the high point of many a stay in Auckland. About 4km off the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula and 30km north of Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi is an “open sanctuary”, and visitors are free to roam through the predator-free bush where, within a couple of hours, it’s possible to see rarities such as takahe, saddlebacks, whiteheads, red-crowned parakeets, North Island robins, kokako and brown teals. To stand a chance of seeing the little-spotted kiwi and tuatara, you’ll have to stay overnight.
Four of the species released here are among the rarest in the world, with total populations of around a couple of hundred. The most visible are the flightless takahe, lumbering blue-green turkey-sized birds long thought to be extinct (see Te Anau Wildlife Centre); the birds were moved here from Fiordland, have bred well and are easily spotted as they are unafraid of humans and very inquisitive. Saddlebacks, kokako and stitchbirds stick to the bush and its margins, but often pop out if you sit quietly for a few moments on some of the bush boardwalks and paths near feeding stations. Northern blue penguins also frequent Tiritiri and can be seen all year round but are most in evidence in March, when they come ashore to moult, and from September to December, when they nest in specially constructed viewing boxes located along the seashore path west of the main wharf.
The standard loop along the east coast then back via the central Ridge Track passes Hobbs Beach, where you might want to indulge in a little swimming from the only sandy strand around.
Evidence from pa sites on the island indicates that Tiritiri Matangi was first populated by the Kawerau-A-Maki Maori and later by Ngati Paoa, both of whom are now recognized as the land’s traditional owners. They partly cleared the island of bush, a process continued by Europeans who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century to graze sheep and cattle. Fortunately, predators such as possums, stoats, weasels, deer, cats, wallabies and the like failed to get a foothold, so after farming became uneconomic in the early 1970s Tiritiri was singled out as a prime site for helping to restore bird populations. The cacophony of birdsong in the bush is stark evidence of just how catastrophic the impact of these predators has been elsewhere.
Since 1984, a reforestation programme has seen the planting of over 300,000 saplings, and though the rapidly regenerating bush is far from mature, the birds seem to like it. Most are thriving with the aid of feeding stations to supplement diets in the leaner months, with nesting boxes standing in for decaying trees.
The straggling suburbs of north Auckland merge into the Hibiscus Coast, which starts 40km north of the city and is increasingly favoured by retirees and long-distance commuters. The region centres on the suburban Peninsula and the anodyne beachside community of Orewa, now mostly bypassed by the northern motorway. Immediately to the north, the hot springs at Waiwera herald the beach-and-BBQ scene of Wenderholm Regional Park and the classic old village of Puhoi. Passing beyond Puhoi puts you into Northland.
Most southbound travellers hurry along Auckland’s southern motorway to Hamilton or turn off to Thames and the Coromandel Peninsula at Pokeno – either way missing out on the modest attractions of the Hunua Ranges and the Seabird Coast on its eastern shore.
Even for Auckland day-trippers the older and more rounded Hunuas play second fiddle to the more ecologically rich Waitakeres, but there are some decent walks around the Hunua Falls and greater rewards further south with excellent migratory seabird viewing and hot pools at Miranda.
Real New Zealand begins, for many, in West Auckland, where verdant hills and magnificent beaches replace tower blocks, suburbs and sanitized wharves. The suburban sprawl peters out some 20km west of the centre among the enveloping folds of the Waitakere Ranges. Here, some of Auckland’s finest scenery and best adventures can be had little more than thirty minutes’ drive from downtown.
Despite being the most accessible expanse of greenery for 1.5 million people, the hills remain largely unspoilt, with plenty of trails through native bush. On hot summer days, thousands head over the hills to one of half a dozen thundering West Coast surf beaches, largely undeveloped but for a few holiday homes (known to most Kiwis as baches), the odd shop and New Zealand’s densest concentration of surf-lifesaving patrols.
The soils around the eastern fringes of the Waitakeres nurture long-established vineyards, mainly around Kumeu, just short of the Kaipara Harbour town of Helensville and the hot pools at Parakai.
In honour of the 2008 passing of New Zealand’s mountaineering hero, Sir Edmund Hillary, Auckland has linked a series of existing walking tracks through the Waitakere Ranges into the Hillary Trail (70km; 3–4 days; w arc.govt.nz). Running from the Arataki Visitor Centre via Whatipu, Karekare, Piha and Te Henga to Muriwai, it gives a great sense of the region – regenerating rainforest, stands of kauri, rocky shores, black-sand beaches and historic remains. The highest point is only 390m but it is an undulating track and moderate to good fitness is required. Occasionally slippery, steep paths and unbridged streams can make it a good deal harder in winter, and in any season the last 27km day takes most people at least 10hr.
Nights are generally spent in primitive campsites ($5; book on t 09 366 2000), though you can stay under a roof in Whatipu, Piha and Te Henga. The best source of on-the-ground information is the Arataki Visitor Centre.
Perhaps the most intimate and immediately appealing of the West Coast settlements is KAREKARE, 17km west of the Arataki Visitor Centre and accessed along Piha Road, with manuka, pohutukawa and cabbage trees running down to a broad beach and only a smattering of houses. In one hectic year, this dramatic spot was jolted out of its relative obscurity, providing the setting for beach scenes in Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano and the inspiration for Crowded House’s Together Alone album. The Karekare Surf Club patrols a relatively safe swimming area on summer weekends, or there is a pool below Karekare Falls, a five-minute walk on a track just inland from the road. There is nowhere to stay here, and no facilities.
For decades PIHA, 20km west of the Arataki Visitor Centre and accessed along Piha Road, has been an icon for Aucklanders. A quintessential West Coast beach with a string of low-key weekend cottages and crashing surf, it lures a wide spectrum of day-trippers and the party set, whose New Year’s Eve antics hastened in a dusk-till-dawn alcohol ban on holiday weekends. Despite the gradual gentrification of the old baches and the opening of the modern Piha Café, it is hanging onto its rustic charm.
The 3km sweep of gold-and-black sand is hemmed in by bush-clad hills and split by Piha’s defining feature, 101m-long Lion Rock. With some imagination, this former pa site resembles a seated lion staring out to sea. The rock was traditionally known as Te Piha, referring to the wave patterns around it that resemble the bow wave of a canoe. Most swimmers flock to South Piha, where the more prestigious of two surf-lifesaving clubs hogs the best surf.
You’ll need your own transport to do justice to the beaches and most of the ranges, unless you join one of the West Coast tours, or perhaps join a canyoning trip. All trips pick up around central Auckland.
Bush & Beacht0800 423 224, wbushandbeach.co.nz. Afternoon trips include a short bushwalk to waterfalls and kauri trees, and a visit to Piha beach. The more satisfying full-day tour has longer walks and more bushcraft.
Fine Wine Tourst0800 023 111, winsidertouring.co.nz. Phil Parker personally leads small-group, half-day tours including three Kumeu wineries, lunch and a visit to Muriwai. Also full-day wine tours to Kumeu with five wineries and honey tasting, plus tours to Waiheke Island and Matakana.
Potiki Adventurest0800 692 3836, wpotikiadventures.com. Run by a couple of passionate Ngapuhi women who bring a Maori world-view to their full-day, small-group Urban Maori Experience trips, which include morning and afternoon tea. Tours visit Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) before heading west to the Waitakere Ranges and Whatipu beach to learn creation stories and medicinal plant usage. Saturday trips include a visit to Otara Market.
TIME Unlimitedt0800 868 463, newzealandtours.travel. Personal service and a willingness to go the extra mile characterize these small-group tours focusing on Titirangi and Whatipu beach with an excellent bushwalk and pounding surf. Go for the half-day or include it as part of a full-day city and coast tour. More hiking-focused trips through the Waitakeres are available at similar prices.