Our youngest son has flown the nest and headed off on his big OE. So we decided it was time to pack our bags too. My husband and I are making the most of our new independence and have planned three weeks away from our now-quiet home. And with some great deals on airfares, our first stop is Auckland.
Picking up our rental car at the airport, it’s not long until we’re at Ascot Parnell Bed and Breakfast. I’m big on pre-holiday research and we’ve chosen Ascot in part because of its fantastic reviews on TripAdvisor. The bed and breakfast is everything we’d hoped for – immaculate rooms, modern bathrooms, privacy, lovely hosts and a great location. Just on the fringe of the city centre, Parnell is actually Auckland’s oldest suburb, but it’s far from quaint – in fact it’s now one of Auckland’s most upmarket areas. The restored Victorian villas are gorgeous, and the compact village centre is lined with stylish boutiques, cafés and restaurants.
After freshening up, we take a walk to Auckland Museum, nestled in the lush green of the Auckland Domain. The building itself is simply spectacular and the views from outside stretch across the harbour and out into the Hauraki Gulf.
It would be easy to spend hours looking at the collection of Māori and Pacific artefacts alone, from small, early tools and weapons to the huge waka, an ocean-going canoe that carried some of the Maori people’s Polynesian ancestors to New Zealand. Walking through the marae (meeting house) we marvel at the intricate carvings; you can only imagine the many hours that must go into their creation.
The Māori cultural performance is a must. On four times a day, the 45-minute performance is a good way to get a slightly deeper understanding of Māori history, culture, music and language. As an Australian, it is particularly powerful to see the famous haka in its original context – away from the rugby field – and we both have goosebumps by the end.
With lucky timing, the museum is also showing the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, on loan from the Natural History Museum in London. It’s on until 3 August, so if you’re in Auckland in time, make sure you put this on your itinerary. More than 100 images are on display, and the large back-lit panels enhance every tiny detail. There is wildlife and stunning landscapes from every corner of the world – we come eye to eye with a beautiful lion cub in one moment, the next we see a polar bear about to emerge from icy waters. The photographs, by both amateur and professional photographers, have been selected from around 43,000 entries from 96 countries, so these are truly the best of the best.
One of the museum’s most striking permanent exhibitions is Volcanoes, which delves into volcanoes in general, and more specifically Auckland’s own. Auckland is one of the few cities in the world to be built on an active volcanic field and you can see them dotted all over the landscape. Many of the region’s 48 volcanoes still have remnants of early Māori pa fortifications. Perhaps the best part of the exhibition is sitting in the lounge of a real-scale house watching – and feeling – what a future eruption might be like in Auckland. Kids squeal with delight.
That night, we stroll up the road from our bed and breakfast to dine at Cibo. We want somewhere local and a bit fancy – we are on holiday after all. The
menu is extraordinary and extremely varied; I have no doubt that everyone goes home happy from Cibo. After serious consideration, I opt for the roasted hapuka with slipper lobster, and Mr B. is thrilled with his liquoricedusted venison loin. We finish on a sweet note, sharing the coconut lime cheesecake. Divine. Although we don’t partake, Cibo also has a fantastic menu of cheese plates, something you don’t see often enough these days.
We start the next day at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Right in the heart of the city and framed by large columns of kauri, it makes a striking first impression. The building itself is a work of art and was named World Building of the Year for 2013-2014 at the World Architecture Festival. Another pleasant surprise: entry is free.
The gallery has more than 15,000 works by local and international artists, over four floors, and also regularly houses special international exhibitions. While it’s wonderful to see the masters, we are always keen to discover the art of each country we visit too. As well as permanent displays such as Goldie’s famous intricate portraits of prominent Māori figures, the Toi Aotearoa collection gives a wonderful insight into New Zealand art across 400 years. Modern mixed-media, paintings and sculptures sit alongside 19th Century pieces depicting early Māori and European settlement. We’re happy to wander around at our own pace, but the gallery also offers free guided tours.
After a few hours at Auckland Art Gallery, we take the short drive over the Auckland Harbour Bridge to the scenic seaside village of Devonport. You can also catch a ferry from downtown and you’ll be there in just 12 minutes. Devonport has similarities to Parnell, most notably the beautifully restored Victorian villas and heritage buildings that line the streets. For all its popularity, Devonport has retained its charmingly laidback atmosphere and is home to many artists, writers and poets.
If it’s Kiwi art you’re after, this has to be one of the best spots in Auckland. At Flagstaff Gallery, on the main strip, the contemporary collections range from large New Zealand landscapes on canvas to abstract sculpture. Also within easy walking distance are several other galleries well worth a stop, including Art of This World, Peter Raos Glass Gallery and Art by the Sea, where we purchase an exquisitely crafted rimu bowl and a hand-coloured etching by a local Devonport artist. Luckily, the galleries ship internationally, so you’re not limited to what will fit in your luggage.
Having worked up a decent appetite by this stage, we head to Châteubriant, an authentic deli-style French café. The cabinets are brimming with pastries, baguettes, sweet treats and handmade breads, as well as heartier meals you can enjoy here or take home. People are relaxing indoors, but we have a picnic spot at the top of a volcano – Mount Victoria – with our names on it, so we stock up on fresh baguettes, brie and salami-like saucisson. It’s a cool day but the walk up keeps us warm. We pick a spot on the grass and tuck in.
Much like the museum’s location, from here we can see back across the harbour to the city centre and out to the Hauraki Gulf islands. On our way back we drive to the top of Devonport’s other volcanic cone, North Head. Not only are the views even better, you can also walk through the fascinating military fortifications and underground tunnels, which were built during World War II but luckily never needed. If you’re visiting Auckland with the kids, North Head is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
Back at Ascot Parnell we put our feet up with a cuppa in our lovely room and enjoy a few hours of R and R. For dinner tonight, we’re off to the Blue Breeze Inn in Ponsonby. Serving ‘modern Chinese with an island breeze’, the extensive menu means we’re faced with some tough decisions again. We start with pork and prawn won tons and tropical concoctions. It’s not every day you can sip your pre-dinner drink from a raw baby coconut. Afterwards, I savour the amazing flavours of my roasted duck, and Mr B. devours his red-braised pork ribs. Indulging our sweet tooth again, we finish with heavenly whisky and ginger soft serve with pistachio and gingernut crunch.
Our trip to Auckland has been one of fine food, fine arts, history and culture. It’s amazing what you can see and do here within a small window of time, and if you have longer there are many more possibilities – outdoor sculpture parks, guided art tours, heritage walks and live theatre every night of the week. And as for great views, the Sky Tower may be higher but I highly recommend a volcano or two.
Auckland War Memorial
The Blue Breeze Inn
Auckland Art Gallery
Cocktails, Fine Wine
& Craft Beer
207 Parnell Rise
Late Night Lounge Wednesday-Saturday