(Auckland Harbour, Photo courtesy of Julian Apse, Tourism New Zealand)
The wind whipped my face as I took the helm of a $10 Million America’s Cup sailing yacht in Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor and tried not to crash into a New Zealand Navy warship steaming on my path.
“City of Sails” they call her – Auckland, largest and most populous Kiwi metropolis, with 1.5 million people, one in five of them boat-owners.
That’s why the moniker stuck though the country’s first governor officially named her for the Earl of Auckland (from the English “Oakland” – an oak forest).
Others dubbed her “The Big Smoke” – for obvious reasons, but Maoris, the original settlers, cherished her as the “Isthmus of a Thousand Lovers”.
She’s also known as the “City of Volcanoes” – with 60 of them (mostly dead, but not all).
Anyway, I took her many names to heart and tried my hand on a real racing yacht which competed in the world’s oldest, most prestigious regatta.
With the crew, I worked on the grinders to hoist her 5-storeys high main sail, tacked and gybed over the whitecaps into the screaming winds for two hours at 23 knots.
We shot right under the Harbor Bridge, with a head room of just three feet between the top of the mast and the bridge’s belly, while kindred adrenalin junkies bungee-jump on the other end.
Well, Auckland’s an adventurer’s paradise, the beginning and the end of my New Zealand loop tour. (http://www.straytravel.com/new-zealand-travel-information/destination-guide/auckland/)
I spent two weeks of my 38-day first visit in Auckland, returning to her thrice as I explored over a dozen national parks and half a hundred attractions from the North to the South Islands. (http://www.straytravel.com/explore-your-pass-options/stray-journeys/cook/)
Truth is, I need not have gone far.
Auckland has everything – the ultimate cosmopolitan center cradled by mountain ranges, wilderness and beaches. In all, she has 50 vineyards, 21 regional parks, 60 volcanoes and 50 islands.
(My shot of majestic thousand-year old Kauris in Cascade Kauri, West Auckland)
(Waiheke Island, Auckland, Photo courtesy of Miles Holden, Tourism New Zealand)
The city itself was an upheaval of congealed lava. Fire-spewing cones now carpeted with grass – like Mt. Eden – or topped with a museum, like Pukekawa, pimpled her landscape. Workers hewed her first buildings and roads from volcanic rock.
Still, Auckland’s a sprawling city and to get acquainted with her in a jiffy, I took the Hop-On Hop-Off Explorer bus with a Samoan chief as driver for two consecutive days.
Explorer buses cover two routes – the Red Circle and the Blue. They stop in 15 top attractions, with an interchange at the Auckland National Museum.
I tackled the Red Circle first, getting off at Bastion Point for a view of Hauraki Gulf dominated by a stretch of island with a young volcano – Rangitoto (“Sky Blood”) just emerged from the sea 600 years ago.
I tarried longer at Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium, browsing over 30 live animal exhibits of 80 different species for which they pump 3 million liters of water and create 4 tons of snow per day.
The aquarium houses the world’s largest Antarctic penguin colony – plump King Penguin babies toddling after tuxedoed parents, begging for food and Gentoo moms brooding eggs.
Underwater viewing tunnels swarmed with New Zealand’s largest collection of sharks – Sand Tigers, Broadnose Sevengills, School Sharks and Wobbegongs, as well as giant stingrays – their 25-year old residents even have names – Molly and Penny, both weighing 700 pounds.
And they’re the only aquarium in the world with Spiny Sea Dragons, deep-sea dwelling relatives of sea horses.
But what intrigued me most was their specimen of a giant squid – Architheuthis Dux– the mythical last great monster of the sea – the Kraken, bane of ancient sailors, devourer of ships, men and whales, so huge you can mistake it for an island.
The giant squid happens to be the favorite food of equally gigantic sperm whales. And their epic battles sometimes kill both fighters.
A Soviet whaler once came upon a Kraken which strangled a 40-ton sperm whale. The latter floated on the sea with tentacles wrapped round its throat, after it bit off the giant squid’s head.
The aquarium’s Kraken was a yearling female, swimming in a tank of formalin, where they plunked her after she washed up in a South Island beach. Even for one so young, she’s enormous – 36 feet long, weighing 550 lbs. Adults reach 60 feet and weigh 2,000 lbs.
Back in the bus, I cruised past ‘Millionaires Row’ – Paritai Drive – a controversial hilltop real estate where houses average $40 Million each, before stopping at Parnell Rose Gardens, abloom with 5,000 rose bushes.
Another interesting stop was Holy Trinity Cathedral, the world’s only example of the “Pacific Gothic” style, with its modern stained glass and Polynesian Christ.
It was the third of the “restless” churches in the area. The first, St. Barnabas, was moved from the spot using bullocks and the second, St. Mary’s, trundled across the road using rollers. Both were too small for the fast-growing worshippers.
Holy Trinity seats 1,200 people and hosted the wake of famous Kiwi mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, one of the first to summit Mt. Everest.
Again, I hopped off at the bus interchange at Auckland Museum, perched on the crater rim of Pukekawa (“Hill of Bitter Tears”) Volcano which blew up 250,000 years ago. The city’s oldest park and sports fields now occupy the caldera.
Heading straight to the Museum’s Maori treasures gallery, I browsed over 2,000 priceless Maori artifacts, from rare carvings to the last great Maori war canoe carved from a giant Totara tree.
Then I sauntered over to neighboring Winter Gardens – a sanctuary full of flowers –the largest collections of camellias in the Southern Hemisphere, bromeliads, orchids, all sorts of native New Zealand plants – a feast for weary eyes.
Returning to the bus, I cruised down Parnell Village, Auckland’s “oldest suburb”, dating back to 1841. It took the name of Samuel Duncan Parnell, a London carpenter who established the Eight Hour day in New Zealand by insisting on working eight hours maximum.
No less than President Bill Clinton favored the village’s century-old timber villas, galleries, cafés, restaurants and colonial boutique shops. He visited Parnell twice.
Coming to the city’s heart, at Queen Street, I peeked inside Civic Theater, the largest surviving atmospheric cinema in Australasia. It uses lights and design to create an illusion that its audience is seated under a starry sky.
The Civic starred as the Alhambra New York Theater in the “King Kong” remake, where the 25-foot gorilla breaks his chains.
Then I hastened to explore Sky City, with its 1,000-foot Sky Tower, the country’s tallest man-made structure, offering views of the metropolis 80 kilometres in every direction, along with an over 600-foot high SkyWalk tethered round the pergola or a SkyJump for adrenaline junkies. (http://www.straytravel.com/new-zealand-travel-information/destination-guide/auckland/sky-walk/)
The complex also houses a casino with 100 table games and over 1,600 gaming machines.
My final stop for the Red Circle was Princess Wharf, home to a cruise ship terminal, hotels and shops, a stone’s throw from the Maritime Museum and Viaduct Harbour, the venue of America’s Cup yacht race.
(To be continued)
Other Useful Links:
For Manila-Auckland flights: www.philippineairlines.com
For the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus in Auckland: http://www.explorerbus.co.nz/
For the American Cup Sailing Experience: http://www.exploregroup.co.nz/en/unique-experiences/americas-cup-sailing-auckland/
For the New Zealand Museum: http://www.aucklandmuseum.com/
For Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium: https://www.kellytarltons.co.nz/
For Photowalks in wild West Auckland: http://www.thelaughingchestnut.co.nz