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Auckland

sky tower base jump The Sky Tower is the perfect "I just got to Auckland" place to visit. At 1,076 feet high, it, er, towers above the city. Its observation deck offers a superb 360-degree panoramic view. One of the creepiest features of the observation deck -- at least for this vertigo sufferer -- is the thick, clear glass panels placed in the floor. Step on them and look down many hundreds of feet to the street level. Kids seemed to have no fear of walking on them, but I could not, for the life of me, force myself to do it! There's a terrific gift shop at the basement entrance to the observation deck. And there's more to Sky Tower than merely observing the view -- the truly daring can also leap off the Sky Deck, a base jumping experience that plunges you down more than 600 feet, or take the Sky Walk, which ultimately takes you up to the 1,000-foot level. The tower is part of the SKYCITY complex, which offers a huge casino along with some restaurants and shops.

The Auckland Museum is not to be missed. You'll spy it immediately from the Sky Tower vantage point: the Greek Revival style structure makes it easily the most distinctive building in Auckland. Many of its exhibits center around New Zealand's Maori people, the original inhabitants of the island, but it also has displays focusing on local history and geography.

For those in search of local charm and character, don't miss a foray into Parnell or Ponsonby, two of the city's most interesting neighborhoods. Parnell is a bit more elegant; there you'll find jewelry and artisan boutiques, cozy sidewalk cafes and the Parnell Rose Gardens. Ponsonby is hipper and funkier, with trendy designer shops, chic restaurants, and the city's sleekest bars and nightclubs.

Waiheke Island, located a 35-minute ferry ride away from the Auckland waterfront, reminded me a bit of the U.S. Virgin Islands' St. John. Like that island, Waiheke was once famed as a nesting spot for people in search of alternative lifestyles and really gained prominence as a destination for arty folks in the 1970's. These days, it attracts Auckland commuters and active types drawn to its great beaches and water sports. It also appeals to connoisseurs of food and wine -- Te Whau Vineyard features one of the most storied restaurants in Auckland, with marvelous views of Waiheke Island, Rangitoto and the Auckland isthmus.

Named after Kelly Tarlton, New Zealand's most famous treasure hunter, Kelly Tarlton's Sea Life Aquarium is a marine park located harborside that offers everything from a fish's-eye view of the sea to an Antarctic adventure with dozens of playful penguins.

Devonport, which dates back to the mid-19th century and was the first settlement on the north side of the harbor, is simply a very pleasant town in which to while away an afternoon -- particularly if you've succumbed to sightseeing burnout. A small village with a main street of shops and boutiques, Devonport faces Auckland proper from across the bay. Attractions there include the tunnels of North Head and the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, but we simply enjoyed a meal at the Esplanade Hotel and went window shopping.

Rangitoto Island, which emerged as an erupted volcano, is a great place for hiking through lava fields and into lava caves. You can even stroll around the crater's rim. Fullers offers year-round ferry transportation from New Zealand.
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