Let's face it, New Zealand's biggest city gets a tough rap from tourists.
For many travellers, Auckland is seen as a place best avoided. Sure, stay a night when using it as a thoroughfare, a gateway to greener Kiwi pastures -- Rotorua for thermal pools and indigenous culture, the Bay of Islands for beaches and diving, Wellington for arts and food, Marlborough for the wine and Queenstown for the skiing and jaw-dropping landscape.
But don't bother to stick around.
The problem, if you believe travel blog sites, is that Auckland is lacking that sparkle quality of its fellow biggest cities -- the vitality of Sydney, the cosmopolitan style of New York, the history of London.
Visitors complain of urban sprawl, heavy traffic, ugly architecture and of a general blandness in their experience.
"It's not a city in the true sense," one Canadian couple wrote on the website Trip Advisor of their visit to the City of Sails.
"There were no obviously cool places to go so we just wandered for a couple of days and left."
An Australian couple was even cheekier, naming Auckland "horrible" and "soulless" in their light-hearted online blog, FushnChups.co.nz, much to the delight of non-Auckland New Zealanders who are all too keen to jump on the AK-bashing bandwagon.
But hold on a minute, I say. Give this city a chance. Yes, the skyline is a little lacklustre, the CBD a little underwhelming and there are many other parts that won't excite.
But dig under the surface just a little and you'll discover hip cafes to rival Melbourne, cool Pacific-style multiculturalism and breathtaking black sand beaches to walk solo along.
You just have to know where to find it. Focus on the inner city suburbs and the ample coastline rather than the CBD, and rent a car for a couple of days to get around with ease.
There's lots to love about Auckland. Here's five things straight off the bat:
Just 35 minutes on a ferry from downturn Auckland and you can find yourself on an island oasis with white sand beaches, top class restaurants and delicious Bordeaux-style reds.
Waiheke (pronounced Why-hickie) is a quiet haven for arty types, wine connoisseurs and nature lovers. Hire a scooter or car to get to the WWII tunnel network and Connells Bay Sculpture Park but those eager to sample the alcoholic delights are best to book a reasonably-priced Ananda Tour.
Highlights for wine include Stoneyridge and Goldwater Estate. For fine dining check out Te Whau and Mudbrick vineyards and rest your head at luxury digs, Te Whau Lodge or the Boatshed. There's lots of low-cost options too, cafes where the local creatives hang out, art studios to see the masters at work, wild coastal walks, good surf and a budget backpackers.
Some of the ferries will stop off en route at Devonport, a classy old-money suburb with lots of craft shops, good cafes and a striking waterfront position.
EAT AND DRINK AUCKLAND
You might not know it but Auckland is home to some top notch restaurants, and enough hip cafes and cool bars to rival Melbourne. You just need to know where to find them.
Dine By Peter Gordon and Kermadec in the CBD are both celebrated fine dining restaurants, while the nearby French Cafe is held up as the gold standard foodie experience in the city. Fish and chips are famously good in Auckland, and the Ponsonby Fish and Chip Co is one of the best.
Delicious, in the hippy-chic neighbourhood of Grey Lynn, is a locals' favourite for great Italian and the enchanting Gypsy Tea Room across the road is a great way to start the night. Another bar must is Bellota, in the CBD.
Good cafes are a dime a dozen but a top pick would be the stylish beachfront Takapuna Beach Cafe, on Auckland's North Shore.
Also highly rated are quirky Queenies, industrial coffee roasters Good One, the ever-tasty Dizengoff and Agnes Curran for old-fashioned lamingtons served in style. All are in Ponsonby, a great neighbourhood to explore on foot.
THE WILD WEST COAST
Auckland is unique in that it straddles two coasts, with calm, white sand beaches on the Pacific Ocean on the east coast and a wild, black sand wilderness on the Tasman Sea to the west.
Both are picturesque but for something very different and un-Australian go west. Just 40 minutes drive from downtown Auckland and you can find yourself at any of eight beaches with dramatic cliffs, high seas, rugged dunes and native bush. On a winter weekday chances are you'll be alone.
Karekare, where the The Piano was shot, is arguably the most compelling. There are no shops, few houses and a 15 minute walk to the water guarantees you'll be in the company of few. Its neighbour to the north is Piha, a famed but notoriously dangerous surf beach with great fish and chips, lattes and an old fashioned camping ground. Both beaches have bush-clad waterfalls and long, well-marked bush walks.
Muriwai beach, further north, is home to a gannet colony and the drive out there takes you through the wine region of Kumeu.
Imagine 48 volcanic peaks stuffed into a city the size of Perth.
Another unique facet of Auckland is its unusual geology. The city is dotted with dozens of cones all within about 20km of the city centre. As you'd imagine that makes for an impressive skyline view from distant points like the aforementioned Waiheke Island. To get up close and personal, you can't go past the 30-minute ferry to Rangitoto, an island volcano that is just 600 years old, the youngest in Auckland's repertoire.
The ferry will set you back $18 return but that's all you'll spend.
Once you're there it is just you, a smattering of tiny tin-pot homes, native bush growing out of dark volcanic dirt and the huge perfectly-shaped cone, complete with crater. It's the ideal day trip in any season. Mount Eden, near the CBD, is the tallest in the field and has the most impressive crater and great views of the city. One Tree Hill (yes, that's its name) is also worth a visit for a walk through sheep-filled paddocks and a close look at sites where Maori built their villages or Pa before European settlement.
Auckland is the largest Pacific city in the world and it shows, on menus, in the music scene, on the catwalk and in the city streets. The melting pot mixes in the island cultures of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau, Tuvalu, not to mention all the rest.
For a taste like no other, head to Otara Markets in South Auckland on a Saturday morning to soak up island music, peruse exotic fruit and vegetables and buy up colourful authentic Pacific-style lava lavas (sarongs), shirts and crafts, including bright mats and huge tapa cloths. For Otara Market on the grandest scale time your visit to coincide with Pasifika, a massive annual day-long festival of Pacific culture, to be next held on March 13, 2010.
Visit www.aucklandnz.com for more information.
* What do you love about Auckland? Post your comments below.
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