Auckland Unfurled

By Angus Phillips
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 22, 2002

People who go to New Zealand almost always end up in one of three places: the South Island, with its hiking trails and wilderness attractions at Queenstown and Milford Sound; the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island, with its warm, sandy beaches and great boating; or Lake Taupo and Rotorua in the middle of the North Island, where the trout fishing is superb.

They fly into Auckland and rush right out again, which is a pity.

Ever since New Zealand won the America's Cup in 1995 and installed it at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron's headquarters in Auckland, I've been a fairly regular visitor to the country's largest city of 1.18 million people, covering events associated with the Cup. I hardly ever get out to the countryside, but have to say that so far, I haven't missed it.

There's much to be said for Auckland, particularly the waterfront area around the new Viaduct Basin at the foot of downtown where America's Cup teams have their bases. It's a fascinating, international place, full of energy and surprises and worth a visit, particularly when the Cup season is on, October through February. You probably wouldn't want to fly close to 9,000 miles to see it by itself, but it's worth incorporating into a trip.

Why? Start with the food. Nowhere in the world will you find fresher fish and shellfish, lamb, vegetables and fruits, or better milk, cheese, butter and yogurt. The variety of restaurants is broad and competitive as a result of a recent influx of immigrants from Asia, Indonesia and Europe, and the local white wines, particularly chardonnays and sauvignon blancs, rank among the best in the world.

My favorite grocery store anywhere on Earth, a place called New World, is a mile from the Viaduct Basin on Franklin Road, all but bursting with fresh goods. And my favorite seafood store, Sea Mart, on the edge of the Viaduct Basin's shopping district, is a perpetually crowded place with a sit-down restaurant and carry-out attached. Sometimes I stop in just to watch the locals shop for live eels, crayfish, tiger prawns and squid. It smells like the sea.

The weather in Auckland is decidedly superior to the South Island's, which is notorious for rain and cold even at the height of the Southern Hemisphere summer in February. Auckland gets its share of summer wind and rain, too, but daytime temperatures are generally in the upper seventies.

It doesn't hurt that the New Zealand dollar is quite soft these days. Last February, on my last visit, a Kiwi dollar cost 42 cents U.S. -- which meant, as my wife likes to put it, that the whole country is 60 percent off (the current exchange rate is about 47 cents). A good dinner with wine at one of the abundant small restaurants in Ponsonby, a trendy neighborhood a 20-minute walk from downtown, might cost about $12 a person. At prices like that, you can eat all you want.

Just 15 years ago, the first time I stopped there, Auckland seemed to be a relatively isolated outpost of decidedly British inclinations. But a peaceful, prosperous, safe, clean, under-populated island nation of nearly 4 million souls and 50 million sheep that's 1,000 miles from anywhere has broad appeal, and Kiwis have been letting more and more immigrants in, to everyone's benefit. Most of them wind up in Auckland, at least temporarily.

The result is a broadly diverse mix of people who jam downtown streets at noontime, it being a small enough city that folks actually walk from place to place. Queen Street is the main drag, running uphill from the ferry and shipping docks to a large, wooded tract called the Domain, where the nation's largest museum, the Auckland Museum, holds a commanding view of town. The lunchtime foot traffic on Queen Street is so thick and busy, it reminds me of New York.

All of which is not to say that Auckland is gentle on the eye. The Southern Hemisphere is graced by big, beautiful cities in Sydney, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Auckland, by contrast, is modest and workmanlike, slightly down-at-the-heels, thrown together without much planning. It won't take your breath away.

But what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in affability. It's a friendly place, people-oriented, and safe to walk any time of the day or night, which you certainly can't say about Cape Town or Rio. Problems in Auckland don't take long to solve, as the locals seem determined to help.

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