Auckland's Ponsonby: So Boho

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Invariably, many visitors to Auckland, New Zealand, find themselves wandering off their jet lag in the sterile surrounds of the city's cavernous Central Business District -- a conveniently located, go-to zone that's filled with foreign exchange outlets, Asian food courts and souvenir shops.

But if you didn't travel transpacific to dine at the Golden Arches, you can seek Auckland's buzzier side in Ponsonby, a boho-chic urban enclave just west of the city center.

In the 1970s, Ponsonby was regarded as somewhat of a slum, populated primarily by Polynesian families and hippies attracted by cheap housing. Today there's a sizable gay population, yuppies and young hipsters abound, and most of the run-down Victorian villas have been gentrified into million-dollar homes. Even those Aucklanders who think Ponsonby is overwrought -- or take to calling it "Ponsnobby" -- can't deny that the area's a cool little slice of Kiwiana.

New Zealanders adore their cafe culture, and you'll get a heavy dose of it with a morning jaunt along Ponsonby Road. Outdoor terraces fill with languorous latte sippers, and there's always a crowd at the original outpost of the Atomic Cafe (121 Ponsonby). Atomic purveys its trademark java blend to top New Zealand restaurants and dishes up mean macrobiotic meals for around $8.50. At Thirty Nine (39 Ponsonby), the eggs Benedict ($9.50) -- offered with bacon or smoked salmon and slathered in Hollandaise -- is every bit as indulgent as it sounds. Healthful foods are the focus at preppy Bambina (268 Ponsonby). Lycra-clad cyclists crowd the enormous communal table for specialties like Ricotta Hotcakes ($8.50) and muesli with homemade yogurt ($6).

Within striking distance, the anti-Spandex crew converges at Cafe Cezan ne (296 Ponsonby), where the servers tend to have attitudes and dreadlocks, and artist types, students and old Ponsonby characters jostle for table space in the graffiti-splashed room. A massive slice of homemade carrot cake served with a stiff coffee costs around $6.30.

If you're after a "proper meal," there's no shortage of fine dining. Occupying a simple white villa, Italian stallion Rocco (23 Ponsonby) is Ponsonby's hottest ticket. The Clevedon rock oysters with chardonnay and shallot vinegar (about $17 a dozen) are exquisite; dinner for two with a bottle of wine will set you back about $105. Atkins addicts should take note of Charlie White's (147 Ponsonby), a bright brasserie named for co-owner Nikki Rhind's childhood horse. The low-carb menu was designed by an American, and steaks served on gourmet greens figure prominently (about $9.50 to $20).

For a theatrical experience, head to Bolliwood (101 Ponsonby), an Indian mainstay where Hindi music videos are screened on an expansive whitewashed wall during dinner, and the spinning disco ball showers your palak paneer (a vegetarian dish of spinach and homemade cheese, about $11) with little prisms of light. Cross the street to Il Buco (113 Ponsonby), where owner Jonny Rudduck has mastered the art of thin-crust pizza. He even sells it by the slice in the traditional Old World way; tasty squares cut from a massive rectangular tray fly out the door for around $2.85.

When it comes to Ponsonby's nightlife, the vibe is decidedly more Northern European than North American. Cover charges are virtually unheard of (including at all the hot spots listed here).

SPQR Cafe & Bar (150 Ponsonby), which doubles as an Italian restaurant, is the undisputed King of Cool, with candelabra lighting, dark and naughty nooks and a fun-loving gay contingent. Next door, at Orchid (152-B Ponsonby), dewy types set like precious gems in the bar's resplendent amethyst- and silver-hued surrounds sip strong martinis and look coy.

Those itching to boogie should hit Bar de Baz (155 Ponsonby), a dance club that doesn't get going till about 1 a.m. -- but parties all night. Perched on a stool at the back bar, you can relish a dazzling view of Auckland's skyline.

Wondering how to dress for all that coolness? Ponsonby Road runneth over with tiny boutiques selling local labels and obscure European brands.

Auckland designer Yvonna Vanhulzen's flirty, feminine designs are showcased at Widdess (177 Ponsonby). Her gorgeous "Dervish" skirts (about $146) -- loose folds of paper-thin cotton with retro patterns and Lycra waistbands -- are the ideal for whirling around local dance floors. A block away, at Carly Harris Design (269 Ponsonby), Indian silk saris get reincarnated as slinky camisoles (about $60) and indulgent skirts ($158). And recycled designer labels from Europe, New Zealand, Australia and America are surprise finds at Encore, a secondhand shop inside the stylishly antiquated Three Lamps Plaza (283 Ponsonby). Recently seen here: shopaholics sparring over a Bisou-Bisou jacket priced at a paltry $56.

ShellShock (53 Ponsonby) is the place to accessorize -- much of its silver jewelry is enhanced with New Zealand's brilliant blue and green paua shell, found primarily in South Island waters (silver paua pendants start from $35). And blokes can up their style ante at Wunderkammer Menswear & Curios (76-A Ponsonby). Owner Mark Crane's cache of European street wear and hand-dyed T-shirts embellished with prints by local artists (about $77 for short-sleeve tees) are as much of a lure as his personal collection of curiosities, which includes such oddities as a dinosaur egg and a taxidermied tarantula.

-- Terry Ward

City buses run regularly from Auckland's Central Business District to Ponsonby, and take between 10 and 25 minutes, depending on the route. For more info on the Ponsonby district: www.ponsonbyroad.co.nz. For general information on travel to New Zealand: New Zealand Tourism, 866-639-9325, www.newzealand.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company