Auckland is the most bustling and cosmopolitan city in New Zealand. But what surprised me when I first arrived, after nearly 26 hours spent traveling from the U.S. East Coast, was that it didn't feel at all as exotic as I expected -- at least at first glance.
As far as architecture is concerned, downtown Auckland has experienced a building boom in the past few decades. Unfortunately, that means that there's little historic charm; indeed, the concrete and glass Sky Tower, a massive "needle" type attraction built in 1996, is the city's most iconic landmark. Even buildings currently under construction look like they've stepped right out of the 1970's, with their overuse of concrete, rather than dynamic and modern. There are a few signs of the city's past -- the revitalized Ferry House by the waterfront, which houses a couple of restaurants and a gelato bar, is a good example -- but downtown's growth by and large has been marked more by knocking down old buildings than by renovating them.
What makes Auckland a truly unique destination is its fabulous proximity to the water. Lining the Waitemata Harbor, which leads to the Gulf of Hauraki and the Bay of Islands, the city's waterfront bustles with ferry traffic. From downtown it's an easy hop to Waiheke Island, a one-time hippie hangout that's now earning recognition for its beautiful vistas and thriving winemaking culture. There's Devonport, on the north shore, a charming coastal town (with a great view of Auckland across the harbor); it's replete with cafes, parks and shops. Beyond the more urban waterways you can travel to other scenic spots -- from the gentle Seabird Coast in the south to the rugged Pacific-fringed Northland in the opposite direction. Both are easy daytripping options.
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Another geographic highlight of Auckland, which sits on an isthmus, is the 48 volcanic hills that are scattered around the city. They're easily identifiable, rising suddenly and steeply and featuring flat tops. On some, such as Mt. Eden, the craters are mossy and furry with grass. You can drive or walk to the top. The views, stretching past the harbors of Waitemata and Manukau and bordered by mountain ranges, are almost as good as those from Auckland's famous Sky Tower.
What will also impress you is the friendliness of the folks who live and work here. The sense we got, over and over again, is that Aucklanders really do revel in the city's relatively newfound popularity amongst tourists -- whether from the South Island, Australia (a three-hour flight away and the closest major land mass), or Asia, Europe and the U.S. The people we met here displayed a strong sense of pride in their city and took it upon themselves to make sure we enjoyed our visit.
--written by Carolyn Spencer Brown