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Auckland: Where Big City Meets Kiwi Charm…

It really wouldn’t be fair for us to have traveled thousands of miles to say that Auckland is a lot like San Francisco, but there seems to be something of a separated at birth feeling about this place.  Tall buildings dominate the downtown area near the waterfront, there is a bustling workforce that floods the area each morning and afternoon as folks arrive for their workdays and depart in the late afternoons.  Parents and grandparents are out walking with their kids/grandkids and the weather feels like we never left home (except for the fact that it is winter, and that a slight early morning chill cannot be ignored.)

Friday: Albert Park, University of Auckland, Auckland Museum, Mt. Eden

After finishing breakfast in our apartment, we headed out for a day of walking around the city.  First stop was Albert Park.  Located just a stone’s throw from our hotel, it made for a great start to the day as we traversed beautifully manicured grounds, trees, flowering plants everywhere, and a fountain surrounded by wooded park benches to just take in the view.  It was a little strange to be so close to the hustle and bustle of downtown and yet in such a quiet and secluded place at the same time.  It made for a great start of the day.

From here, we generally followed the path of the Coast to Coast walkway, a 16 km walk that takes you from the north coast of city center Auckland to the south coast at Otohunga.  Though we knew we would not be able to cover the entire distance, we found the walk to cover a lot of great sights while introducing us to life outside of the tourist areas.  Example — We passed by local schools where PE classes were introducing young students to the fundamentals of a scrum (rugby formation). Maybe we should have stuck around for the lesson.  =)

For a portion of the walk, we passed through a number of sections of the University of Auckland.  Each area of the University has a different academic focus (business, law, arts, etc.) and it was interesting to pass by some classes in session.

A short time later, we arrived at the Auckland Domain.  Domain seems to be best defined here as a mega park like Golden Gate Park or Central Park in New York.  Everything was green, well manicured, and the gardens and artwork along the way was very enjoyable.  As we made our way up to the summit of the park area we arrived at the Auckland museum, a huge marble building that reminded me somewhat of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.  Huge columns framed the building and inside lay three massive levels of artwork, artifacts, Maori history, and the War memorials remembering the brave men and women of New Zealand who have given their lives in service of their country.

Here, we meet Neil, or guide for the first part of the morning.  He took our small group of 5 (us and a trio of Aussies) around the major sights of the museum and gave us recommendations on how to best spend our time.  Following the completion of the tour, we spent a few more hours enjoying the many wings of the museum, from Maori culture and natural history of New Zealand to the war memorials mentioned earlier and everything in between.  It was a great morning and upon completion, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on the front stairs of the site.

From here, we continued along the Coast to Coast path and made our way to  Mt. Eden.  This former volcano rises high above the surrounding landscape providing panoramic views of the surrounding areas.  Unfortunately, some current construction prevented us from reaching the final summit, but we still enjoyed plenty of sweeping vistas from our location.  As it was beginning to get into the mid-afternoon hours, we decided that it was time to start making our way slowly towards home.  As we began our walk back towards a nearby bus pickup, Darin remembered that there was a nearby gluten-free grocery and bakery, Gluten Free Grocer.  We made our way over and Natalie picked up an amazing GF brownie.  (Unfortunately, it was so amazing delicious and chocolaty, that no historical photographs could be taken of it before it was completely devoured.)

We picked up a local city bus for 50 cents and completed the 20 minute ride back into downtown and completed some bookings for the rest of our time in Auckland.  Once complete, we jumped on the free city loop circuit bus and headed to  Aotea Square, the home of Auckland Town Hall.  Beautiful building with much history, but now is being used for amazing concerts (apparently the acoustics are amazing).  As we walked by, lines of fans were lining up for an Owl City concert.

One final stop to pick up some hot out of the fryer kumara fries (New Zealand sweet potatoes) and back to the apartment for a chicken and corn chowder dinner to call it a day.

Saturday:  Otara Market & Waiheke Island

As we awoke to thick fog, we really didn’t know what to expect for the day weatherwise, but just before 7am we boarded a local bus for the 45 min trip to Otara, a southern suburb of Auckland.  The Otara Market is held every Saturday morning and is comprised of about 200 vendors in an outdoor setting in this case, a massive parking lot.  It reminded us a lot of the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet in Oahu, but on a much smaller scale.  There were a lot of produce vendors and a tremendous selection of fruits and vegetables, along with a slightly smaller selection of clothing, electronics, and hot food vendors.

Following the walk through the market, we headed back into the city and made our way to the downtown waterfront to catch the ferry out to Waiheke Island.  Waiheke Island (meaning “cascading water” or “waterfall” in Maori) is one of 44 islands in the Haruki Gulf and is located a short 30 minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland.  As part of a package deal with the ferry service, we took the ferry out to Waiheke and it included an additional 1 hour 45 minute guided tour of the island along with an all day bus pass.

Allan, our guide for the day, was easygoing, fun, and exemplified the same great personality and attitude towards life as we have found with nearly every Kiwi we’ve met thus far.  On this introduction trip, we drove through and saw the tiny towns of Matitia, Oneroa, Ostund, and  Onetangi.  It was here that we got to spend about 20 minutes on Onetangi Beach, a captivating 1 1/4 mile stretch of sand that is minimally impacted by people, buildings, or hotels.  We came to learn that the small population of Waiheke, about 8500, survives entirely on collected rainwater or trucked in supplies of drinking water and that the island doesn’t have a sewer system, so growth opportunities or severely minimized, which makes the locals happy, but also substantially increases the value of property values on the island.

Following our time admiring the beach (fog has burned off by now and the weather was again wonderful – we are extremely lucky) and taking plenty of pictures we closed out our tour and headed to the tiny town of Ostund to enjoy their Saturday market.  It made the earlier Otara market massive in comparison, but it was great seeing island locals interacting with one another, sharing stories of the week, and picking up everything from local Makuna honey to children’s storybooks from a local author.  After walking through the market and enjoying a picnic lunch outside the market in a great park on the same site, we picked up the local island bus service (day pass is included with the ferry and tour package) and headed to the first of two wineries we would visit today.  Stony Ridge Winery sits amid the rolling hillsides of the island, covered in grapes, trees, and lush green grass.  With wood chairs covering the outdoor patio, it is a great spot to enjoy tasting the many varieties of local wine.  At this stop, the place was a bit busy, so Natalie picked up a couple of reds to try and we sat outside and enjoyed the scenery and some great music on the outdoor speakers.

From here, we traveled back down to the main road, picked up the bus again and headed west to the little town on Oneroa, where we starting a 2 km walk out to Mudbrick VineyardsWhen we arrived, we found a great winery and restaurant perched on a hillside with sweeping view of the bay and all the way back to Auckland.  We each had a tasting of 6 wines a piece (one standard flight and one premium flight to share) and with a couple of local discounts, the entire tasting cost $5NZD. (Normally, this would cost $25NZD, and it’s worth this price!)  The best part?  Nicest people, spoke with the winemaker and he and the staff answered all of our questions, as well as meeting a group of local NZ folks our age, just out enjoying the day (one of which was from Concord, CA!).  The wines were exceptional and we made our first purchase of the trip, so we headed back with two new bottles of Waiheke wine that will be enjoyed in the coming days.

It was almost a 3km walk back to the ferry in Matiatia, and we made it back with about 8 minutes to spare before the ferry (service once an hour) took off for the short 30 minute ride back into downtown Auckland.  We certainly got our share of exercise today, but enjoyed a wonderful day in Otara and Waiheke.  Waiheke Island is an amazing place, and though just a a few minutes from Auckland, it is no wonder why this place is a holiday hotspot for New Zealanders every summer.

Sunday:  Down Day + Prep For The Next Week

Though today was originally planned to head out to Rangitoto Island, the youngest volcanic island in the Haruki Gulf, these plans got postponed by some rough weather and tides that the ferry had to deal with, so we will return in October to Rangitoto and will incorporate the town of Devonport (on the northern side of Auckland harbor) into the day’s itinerary.

Today became errand day, with a run to the supermarket, a few loads of laundry, and general cleanup and prep for the coming week.  We also had a chance to connect with some family back home, since we finally got a chance to take a breath.

It’s been a fantastic time in Auckland and only wet our appetites even more to see and experience the rest of this amazing country.  This week will take us to the “Winterless North” (we’ll see how accurate that Kiwi term is) to the Bay of Islands, Paihia, and 90 Mile Drive for two days and then begin our road trip on Wednesday to Waitomo and Rotorua for the rest of the week.

Check out all of the latest pictures online on the Photo Page and look for quick Facebook updates throughout the week!

Question of the Day:  If you could plan the “perfect trip”, would you be most happy —  a) in a hammock on a tropical beach, b) hiking a quiet trail through the forest to a hidden waterfall, or c) meeting tons of new people at a club in a new and exciting city…  Tell us your answer along with a great reason why!

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