What do NZ cities have to offer?

22:09, May 19 2013

I'm coming to the end of an exhausting, if lovely, five days in Portland. With each trip I take here, I leave even further convinced that this city really is a global anomaly.

Such is my positive impression of this place, that it has got me wanting to play the devil's advocate on something.

See, New Zealand is a beautiful country, stacked with world-class, worth-a-trip-around-the-world scenery. But what do our actual cities have to offer a visitor?

While I am a bearded, reasonably liberal recent university graduate who does from time to time listen to independent rock music, my Portland-affection does not come solely from the whole air-quotes "Portland" buzz and the (somewhat true) "put a bird on it" stereotype, immortalised in Portlandia.

This city has an incredible amount going for it. It is set on each side of a river, which as a start organises it around a focal water feature. With a population of around 600,000, it is not huge. The city is easy to navigate. Sprawl has been minimised by setting and keeping to sensible urban planning boundaries set a long time ago. There's a lot of rain in the Pacific Northwest, so it's New Zealand-level green here. There's a Japanese Garden here regarded by some to be the best of its kind outside of Japan. The city itself has been sensibly developed, restoring buildings while mostly keeping their original facades and integrity. There's a high concentration of LEED certified buildings. It is amazingly bike friendly. 

The Portland culinary scene is dense with nationally recognised restaurants and entrepreneurs slinging a handful of different food styles across town. The coffee, spurred by the Portland-local Stumptown, could hold its own in an arm wrestle with Wellington. There's a 30-year history with craft beer here and in the city limits there are more than 50 breweries. Aesthetically, Portlanders are person-to-person about as well dressed as any people on Earth. It's imposing.


Portland, I think, is a true urban holiday destination; New Zealand... not so much.

At the end of this year, LP's parents are likely to make a trip down to New Zealand for a few weeks' holiday.

The recommendations I have for them for where they should go are not at all city-centred.

They'll fly in and out of Auckland. It is our largest city, so I imagine they will have a few nights there at some point. Auckland is unwieldy. It is hard to amble through without close direction. As a tourist, as nice as the waterfront and a few of the neighbourhoods are, I imagine it would be easy to get lost in and feel disoriented.

I can't help but direct them to not focus too closely on Auckland and instead head outwards to places like Leigh, or Bethells Beach, or farther north toward the Bay of Islands, or down to the Coromandel and so on. 

Hamilton? Taupo? Gisborne? Avoid.

Driving the East Cape of the North Island? East Coast beaches? Tongariro National Park? All very worthwhile.

I wonder even with Wellington, a city that I'm fond of and that they'll spend some time in, whether if we were to take a trip to Martinborough for the day or drive up the Kapiti Coast it would in the end be more memorable.

Portland as a city centre is incredibly defined in its personality and what it has to offer someone new which they couldn't get anywhere else.

I'm not settled on what the defining urban experience is in New Zealand.

Take Wellington, the city I know the best, having lived there for nearly 10 years. It is compact, easy to navigate, nicely cultural, centred on a well considered waterfront, has great coffee and a lot of good food for a city of its size.

This all made it a wonderful city to live in. But as a visitor, is this going to blow someone away?

There's the City Gallery, or Te Papa, or maybe a Lord of the Rings tour, if you're that way inclined. Culture and history will always resonate with people of a certain mindset, but will this be something a tourist will look back on in a dozen years' time, as they might a trip to Milford Sound?

I'm leaving Portland feeling a bit doughy around the waistline, having filled my face with delicious foodstuffs and quaffed locally made beers accessible in derivations I won't find anywhere else, easily.

New Zealand is lovely, beautiful, relaxed and we're all pretty nice as people.

But for a tourist, are our urban centres just a pleasant distraction in between experiencing the great outdoors? What does a New Zealand city have to offer any tourist that is truly, globally unique? 

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