Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Auckland: Visiting NZ's one and only Metropolis

About a month ago, Mickey scored a work trip to Auckland and bought a ticket for me to tag along for the weekend. After two previous trips to New Zealand, one to Wellington and the other around the south island, we were eager to explore Auckland, the city in and around which one third of the kiwi population lives.

Mickey arrived mid-week and I followed him on a delayed Jetstar flight (during which I did not possess my $10 entertainment unit long enough to finish The Blindside) late Thursday night. Taking the direct shuttle into town was easy (take note, Sydney) and cheap, too, thanks to a pre-printed coupon Mickey left for me. Can you see why I love this man? I joined him in a small, but comfortable room at Rydges, a recently renovated hotel conveniently located near the harbour.

While Mickey was at a work event, I spent my first day wandering near the water's edge admiring the sleek racing boats and yachts that line the quays. After some pretty intense shopping, I stopped for lunch at Mexicali Fresh, a restaurant Mickey swore was legit, "Californian owner," etc. Foolishly I believed him and wasted my appetite on dry, shredded beef wrapped in a plasticky corn tortilla, their version of a Tijuana taco. I guess that's what I get for believing I could get a taste of TJ in NZ.

Window-shopping on High Street afforded a unique opportunity to find unique kiwi-designed clothing. I would have loved to wow my Sydney friends with a one of a kind kiwi fashion treasure, but found the prices shockingly high ($400NZD for a sweater - I don't know the conversion, but it certainly wasn't affordable). I would have been happy to take home another pair of thundies, mega fun and comfy underwear, but alas found none.

Mickey was free from his work commitments on Saturday so we took the ferry to Waiheke Island, a gorgeous spot known for its wineries. Spectacular weather helped us instantly fall in love with the place as we traveled in a crowded bus from one end of the island to a beach on the other.

We stopped at a couple of wineries in the afternoon, the most notable of which was Saratoga, a winery owned by a couple from Saratoga, California of all places. They also offered a Mexican-inspired menu, but I talked Mickey down to just ordering a plate of chips and queso. We also stopped at Wild on Waiheke, a winery/brewery/activity center in one. I question the wisdom of the person who thought offering archery and drinking at the same time was a good idea, but everyone seemed to be having fun. In fact, we enjoyed observing separate groups celebrating Hens' and Bucks' parties. I never thought I'd witness a grown man perfect his laser clay shooting skills while painted blue and dressed as a smurf, but thanks to Wild on Waiheke, I have.

There aren't a lot of differences between Auckland and some of Australia's capital cities in terms of architecture, food and culture, but I noticed an abundance of Japanese restaurants in Auckland's CBD. We briefly searched the internet for recommendations before settling on Tanuki for dinner on Saturday. The atmosphere was cozy and authentic, but sadly the food left something to be desired. I found the rice way too sweet and was forced to face facts about my favorite sushi rolls not being gluten free.

But what Auckland lacked in the delicious food department, it made up for in the adorable penguin department. Mickey and I spent our last morning at Kelly Tarlton's, the self-proclaimed biggest tourist attraction in Auckland, which features an Antarctic penguin enclosure. The reviews online were mixed, but we totally dug it.

The penguin enclosure is designed to mimic Antarctic conditions so they keep it at 1C. Visitors observe the little cuties via a revolving snocat car so there's no need for parkas or snow boots. Kelly Tarlton's is home to two species of penguin: the King and the Gentoo. The Gentoo were quite active: swimming, waddling on to the snow and then diving in to the icy water again. Meanwhile, the King penguins just stood there very proudly. They were so lazy that the trainers had to hand feed them! I really admire that kind of attitude in the face of captivity.

Kelly Tarlton's other major exhibit is a reproduction of Robert Falcon Scott's 1911 Antarctic hut. I was completely captivated by his tragic story of exploration, starvation and death at the South Pole. I forgot to mention that Kelly Tarlton's provides a free shuttle to and from the CBD. The shuttle bus is shaped like a shark. I'm not kidding. In other words, I had a great time at Kelly Tarlton's.

Auckland consistently ranks among the top most livable cities in the world and I can see why. It's clean, beautiful, friendly and there's lots to do. Maybe next time I'll find it even more livable if I seek some pointers on where to eat.

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