New Zealand: Waiheke Island Part 2

8 04 2009

After spending the night on Waiheke Island, we had the entire morning and most of the afternoon on the next day before we had to go back to Auckland in order to catch our flight to Wellington.  Since our flight was in the early evening, we planned to take the 4 PM ferry at the latest back to Auckland.  We decided to explore the largely uninhabited east side of Waiheke Island by car followed by a late lunch at Mudbrick Vineyard.  

There is only one road in the eastern part of Waiheke Island and it goes in a loop so it’s hard to get lost.  The drive itself was very scenic, with miles of rolling hills, happy sheep, and terraced vineyards dotting the landscape.  First we passed by several hilly pastures.

We often pulled over to the side of the road to take pictures. Here is one tip that is useful for all of New Zealand: if there is a picnic table or park bench set up in a random location on the side of the road, stop because there is a 99% chance that it is a scenic location.

Once we reached the coast, we saw lots of pretty harbors.

We passed by several vineyards on our drive, including this small one.

In addition to sheep pastures, there are several cattle fields.

The plant life here is almost tropical, and very green.

Back around the top part of the loop, we get back to farmlands.

While most of the roads were paved, be aware that parts of the east side of the island are dirt roads. The rental car agency is aware of this and allows its cars to drive on non-sealed roads.

After our scenic drive around the island, we were more than ready for a hearty lunch at Mudbrick Vineyard.  Mudbrick grows all of its own vegetables in a garden on the premises.

 

Mudbrick is considered one of the best restaurants on the island and in the Auckland area in general, and the food lived up to its reputation.  I thought the local olive oil and mixed green salad was especially delicious. While I know it’s a cutting edge restaurant, I thought the use of foam for every course was a big much though. LOL!

The views from the restaurant were spectacular though.

 

After our leisurely lunch, we returned our rental car and took the ferry back to Auckland.  

We had what turned out to be a surprinsingly fancy getaway within a vacation at Waiheke Island.  Between the beaches, our B&B, the sailboats, and the town, we couldn’t help but feel that Waiheke is very similar to a Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard.  There was even a little bit of that snootiness that comes with these sorts of island/seaside towns.  I kept expecting someone to order some Clam ChowDA.  At the same time, the green hills and vineyards evoked a vibe straight from Sonoma Valley and the hot weather, palm trees, and beaches looked like they would be right at home on the Big Island in Hawaii.  Aucklanders should count themselves lucky that this jewel of an island, an instant classy holiday, can be found only 40 minutes away from the city.

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New Zealand: Waiheke Island Part I

6 04 2009

On our second day in New Zealand, we headed to Waiheke Island, a popular holiday destination for Aucklanders.  Just 40 minutes away by ferry, Waiheke Island has everything an urban holiday maker would want, including miles of sandy beaches and gentle harbors, several outstanding wineries, a well developed artist community, a quaint downtown, and a relatively unpopulated east side containing hilly farms and scenic views.  Did I mention that the hot dry microclimate is perfect beach weather?


Oneroa Beach on Waiheke Island is reminiscent of Nantucket with its sailboats and quaint downtown.

We decided on Waiheke Island primarily because we were looking for a beachy place to relax after arriving in NZ. We had also looked into the Bay of Islands and the Coromandel Penninsula as possible beach destinations, but decided on Waiheke Island because of its easy proximity from Auckland and the wine. If we had more time, we certainly would have gone to all three places!

To get to Waiheke Island, we boarded the ferry at the Ferry Terminal on Quay Street in Auckland. You can’t miss the historic ferry building. As you can see in the photo below, it’s a large orange building right on the water. Ferries to Waiheke Island run every hour, and advance reservations are generally not needed. Incidentally, if you are looking for NZ souvenirs such as lanolin and wool, there are a bunch of souvenir shops between the Ferry Terminal and the Westgate shopping center. I found some of the lowest prices for lanolin there.


The beautiful and historic Ferry Building on Quay Street in Auckland.

Once you board the ferry, it’s a quick and scenic ride to Waiheke Island. You will see wonderful views of Auckland and Devonport, along with several smaller islands in the bay. The approach to Waiheke Island itself is quite impressive because of the mansions you see on the hills and the sailboats in the harbor.


A view from the life raft on the ferry.  Don’t worry, we didn’t row all the way to Waiheke Island.


Our first views of Waiheke Island included these beautiful cliffs and hills.


A mansion sitting atop a hill on Waiheke Island.


Is the twisted metal art or trash?


Sailboats in the  ferry harbor on Waiheke Island.

After arriving at Waiheke Island, we were picked up by our B&B.  If you are renting a car, the rental car center is right next to the ferry dock.  I would highly recommend renting a car if you want to explore the island.  Although we were picked up, we ended up renting a car later in the day anyway.  It was one of the most painless car rental experiences we ever had.  We were able to call and rent a car minutes later.  We rented it for 24 hours, and returned it to the ferry right before we boarded to return to Auckland.  Best of all, it was really inexpensive at around $50 USD for a large car with gas, insurance, and taxes included.


This is not the car we rented, I only took a photo because it’s a cute car with my favorite food painted on it.

After getting situated at our B&B, we had a quick lunch at one of the cafes in Oneroa town. By quick, I mean island slow. At least we had a fantastic view!  We picked a cafe with a view of Oneroa Beach.  


You can see me in the reflection!


The turquoise waters of Oneroa Beach.


I loved the sailboats on the beach.

We enjoyed some local Waiheke Island beer and gigantic New Zealand green lipped mussels for lunch.  I have to say, I think the mussels were a little too big for my taste.  At least at this restaurant, the larger mussels tasted tougher.  I would also recommend that no matter the size of the mussel, try to to eat it all in one bite!  Seeing the insides of a mussel will not help your appetite, and this is coming from a huge mussel lover.


Some crisp cold Waiheke Island brewed beer.


I’m trying for a beachy shot here, with a Jack Johnson vibe.


The mussels were literally as big as my hand!

After lunch and picking up our rental car, we decided to go and witness the crystal clear waters of Onetangi Bay. Said to be one of the best beaches in New Zealand, we were not disappointed. The surprising thing was that it was a beautiful, sunny, perfect beach day in summer, albeit a weekday, and there was almost no one there! We literally saw maybe 6 people total.


We saw one family enjoying the beach.

For a perfect finish to our relaxing day on Waiheke Island, we dined at Cable Bay Vineyards for dinner. The food was superb, and Charles enjoyed the wine immensely. I don’t have any photos of the food because well, it was a fancy restaurant and it would have been weird if I took out my big SLR camera in this kind of establishment. I did manage to catch a few pics of the magnificent sunset we had though!

The view from our table at Cable Bay Vineyards, with the Auckland skyline in the background:

Here is the wide angle view of the glorious sunset we saw at Cable Bay:

Next: Waiheke Island Part 2





Review: The Langham Hotel, Auckland

1 04 2009

Anticipating jetlag on our first night in New Zealand, we booked a club level room at the Langham Hotel in Auckland.  The Langham is conveniently located in Auckland’s Central Business District (CBD), just one block from the southern end of Queen Street.  We found the Langham to be a world class hotel that was the perfect place to relax and luxuriate after our 13 hour flight from Los Angeles.  The Langham had all the class and none of the attitude that sometimes accompanies hotels of this caliber.  

We elected to book a club level room over a standard room because it included a full hot breakfast, internet terminals with printer for guest use, and access to the Club Lounge.  In addition to the breakfast, the Club Lounge serves drinks and snacks all day long.  Given our flight’s arrival in Auckland in the early morning, this proved to be a great value because we were able to have breakfast twice during our stay.  Since we requested an early check-in by email prior to our arrival, we were able to check into our room at 8 AM.  We were then able to shower in our room and have breakfast in the lounge on arrival, which allowed us to take maximum advantage of our first day in New Zealand.  When we returned that night, our bathroom was even cleaned already.   

The room itself was elegantly appointed, comfortable, and clean.  I especially liked the deep warm tones, the beautiful use of wood, and the multitude of pillows.  The bed was comfortable to sleep in – not too hard and not too soft.  

The bathroom was luxurious and included a full bath and shower.  Nothing was lacking.  There was even a full amenities kit in a leather box that included a sewing kit, baby powder, and toothbrushes, among other things.   The extra set of towels was much appreciated.  Shower pressure was good.  

We found service from check-in to check-out to be excellent.  Everyone we met was friendly, helpful, and professional.  We used the concierge in the lobby frequently, from asking for directions to the nearest cell phone store, to the best way to explore the CBD by foot, to how to book the ferry to Waiheke Island.  Every question was answered in a helpful and friendly manner.

Overall, we were very pleased with our stay at the Langham.  Although the club level room was more expensive than the standard room, it was worth every penny.  In addition, given the strong dollar, this stay was a fantastic value for a luxury hotel.  We expected a high end experience and received it with a friendly smile.  We would stay here again in a heartbeat.





New Zealand: Auckland

30 03 2009

While New Zealand is not the most foreign country we have ever visited, we certainly consider it to be one of the most adventurous vacations we have taken.  Not only did we see vast mountain ranges, hike rugged coastlines, and kayak on braided rivers, among other things, but New Zealand is also one of the most remote countries we have ever traveled to in terms of distance.  When you fly to the islands of New Zealand, there isn’t much else out there besides Australia, Antarctica, and the Pacific Ocean.  This was our first time in this part of the world and in fact the entire Southern Hemisphere, and it was fascinating to see a different perspective of the world, both geographically and in other ways.  


View of Auckland from the ferry to Waiheke Island.

From our arrival in Auckland to our last port of call in Queenstown, my mind constantly analyzed every scrap of data thrown to my senses in order to attempt to comprehend what made New Zealand unique.  My thoughts were often at odds with each other because so many things were familiar but also completely different.  A strong British influence was indisputable, especially in certain cities, in the accent, and in the driving on the wrong side of the road, but there was also a surprisingly solid Asian presence in certain places, in addition to the enduring Maori imprint. Perhaps not surprisingly, a British colonial spirit in the most positive sense was obvious. The kiwis we met all seemed to have the same friendly, can-do, ready for anything, DIY attitude, which was wonderfully refreshing coming from the US.


A hilly Auckland Street.

My first impression of Auckland was that it was very similar to San Francisco because of its hilly streets and large Asian population.  This was surprising to me because I didn’t think of Auckland as a very ethnically Asian city outside of the Maori population, but there were Asian grocery stores, restaurants, and even karaoke (and of course Asian people) everywhere!  At the same time, Auckland was very unlike San Francisco because its buildings on the whole were more modern, its flora and fauna more exotic, and its streets much cleaner and more inviting.  I of course realize that Auckland doesn’t fit the molds of the cities in my mind because it has its own identity.  However, comparing it with other places I’ve seen is one of the most fun parts of traveling.

We had a full day and a half to explore Auckland, and had a great time just walking around downtown, aka the central business district (CBD).  Since our hotel was near the Auckland domain, we mostly just kept to K street, Queen Street and the surrounding area, and the ferry dock on our walks. 


A neat set of buildings on an Auckland street.

First, we explored the alternative K street (Karangahape Street).  This is a good place to look for stores in which ordinary people shop, like a supermarket, bakery, dollar store, and a Vodaphone shop.  This was labeled alternative by our concierge.  We were confused at first because alternative usually has a different meaning in cities but we figured out that he just meant different from Queen street. 


A supermarket on K Street.


I loved the covered sidewalks on K Street, which reminded me of some Asian cities.


We found karaoke!

After we bought our SIM card at the local Vodaphone shop, we headed down grand Queen Street, the main shopping and business street in Auckland.  This street is similar to Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  First we passed by Myers Park, then Town Hall at the Edge.

 
Myer’s Park in Auckland


Auckland’s Town Hall on Queen Street

 
We saw a neat record store on Queen Street.

Tall modern buildings lined the sides of the very busy Queen Street.

 

The British influence is evident in the arcade style shopping complexes prevalent along Queen St.  This one in particular (below) has a basement that features an Asian food court.  It looked pretty authentic from what I could tell!

 
A British style shopping arcade in Auckland.

There was almost a European feel to the inviting streets and sidewalk cafes. Perhaps some of this could be attributed to the smaller scale of things in Europe versus the mega skyscrapers of big cities in the US.

This avenue off of Queen Street is one of the areas that reminded me a lot of San Francisco.

At some point while in Auckland you may notice a giant space needle.  This is the famous Auckland Sky Tower, the highest structure in the Southern Hemisphere and part of the SkyCity casino complex.  There is a really yummy cafe on the ground floor of the casino building.  Do not confuse the SkyCity Casinos on Federal Street with the SkyCity Cinemas, which are on Queen Street.  The Sky Tower is on the corner of  Federal and Victoria St.


Auckland’s Sky Tower

We went to the Sky Tower’s observation deck, which is well worth the views.  The only thing is that the glass is tinted blue, so all my photos came out with a bluish tinge.  Below you can see all the buildings we just walked past.  In the top right corner is the angular Auckland town hall.  Queen Street is easily distinguished by the large Coca Cola sign and the tall building with golden windows.

 

On the day we were in Auckland, the Queen Mary 2 was docked at the harbor.

Behold, the skyscrapers of Auckland’s Central Business District!  If you look at this photo closely, you will notice someone hanging a few feet below us in the air.

That’s right, as a visitor, you have the option of experiencing the Sky Tower via an outdoor drop from the top to the street level, connected only by a rope.  This is how we KNEW we were in New Zealand!  Those crazy kiwis and their adventure sports!  

 

Your goal is to hit the bulls eye on the street.

Alternatively, you can elect to take a walk along the narrow walkway surrounding the top of the Sky Tower as these brave souls have below.  We did neither, since we are wimps.  

Following our visit to the Sky Tower, we walked down to the ferry (more in a later post) and then headed over to Albert Park, the home of the University of Auckland.  Albert Park has some wonderful trees and gardens.

There we spotted some exquisite architecture, including the famous clock tower.

The palm trees here just makes this cottage look so colonial.

From the university, we meandered our way back to our hotel, passing dormitories, libraries, and other collegiate bildings.  Students walked past us chatting about classes, exchanging notes and numbers, and wearing their ever present bookbags and messenger bags.  What a wonderful way to end our walking tour of central Auckland.

After a quick rest in our hotel room, we decided to head to Parnell for dinner.  We had read about Parnell in our guidebook, which described it as a trendy and posh neighborhood in Auckland known for its high end boutiques and gourmet restaurants.  Parnell reminded us a lot of Lincoln Park, our old neighborhood in Chicago, but a little fancier.  


Victorian signage adversiting cafes and boutiques line the sidewalks in Parnell. 



Parnell’s iconic telephone booth is situated next to a chocolate boutique cafe.



Although everything in NZ is well maintained, Parnell’s quaint, well manicured shops take it to the next level.

We walked from one end of Parnell Road to the other before deciding on Iguacu as our restaurant of choice for dinner. This restaurant received excellent reviews online so we were excited to try it. We were not disappointed – every course we had was fantastic, especially the appetizer.  We were lucky to have such a strong dollar!


Our large and delicious appetizer, the tasting platter, was worth every penny.



Iguacu’s signature pork belly main dish.



Oven roasted lamb rump



  Chocolate tower filled with mixed berry mousse

Although we didn’t come to New Zealand for the cities per se, we had a perfect “city” day in Auckland.  We were impressed with Auckland and found it to be both aesthetically pleasing and pleasant to explore.  Its interesting mix of buildings and cultures, numerous green areas and parks, walkable scale, and world class dining, all added up to a truly cosmopolitan city.  

As city dwellers ourselves it is always interesting to see and experience cities in other countries.  For every new city I visit, I not only gather another data point for my internal analysis of foreign cities, but I also absorb an experience – that atmosphere that just cannot be quantified.  The ultimate compliment I can give to Auckland is that I can see myself living there.








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