A city without limits

CHRIS CHILTON
Last updated 05:00 02/02/2014
Kayaking
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Even newbies at sea kayaking can manage the trip from downtown Auckland to Rangitoto Island.

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Alicia Keys' voice and her overwhelming light show fill every corner of Vector Arena.

From the back of the huge auditorium the 14-time Grammy Award-winning superstar is a lithe, distant figure striking dramatic poses amid a spartan musical set, but she is a colossus in closeup on the big screens either side of the stage.

Powerful beams of razor-sharp blue light scan the 12,000-strong audience, carving sweeping arcs across a sea of raised hands as Keys' voice rises to the crescendo of her anthem Empire State Of Mind.

It is a moment that will live long and luminous in the memory.

Afterwards thousands of excited, happy young concert-goers swarm out of the arena and head for Auckland's nearby bars and nightspots, which are primed and ready to receive their boisterous guests.

It's a Thursday night in Auckland, New Zealand's city that never sleeps.

We make our way back to our elegant accommodation, the Pullman Hotel, an imposing five-star complex just 15 minutes' walk from downtown.

The hotel exudes class and old-world charm in its stately reception foyer and, as it turns out, attracts high-profile clientele. Two days after her Vector Arena concert, we discover we have been sharing residence with none other than Ms Keys.

The hotel's service is fast and friendly and the facilities are superb, with an award-winning spa a notable attraction. Our room is small but it is functional and comfortable.

The Pullman is close to the vibrant Britomart hub, site of the city's public transport centre and a haven of fashion, style and boutique shopping.

Its several blocks of heritage buildings and formidable architecture are abuzz with Metro magazine's top 50 restaurants such as Ortolana and Cafe Hanoi, and teeming nightspots like Josh Emett's Ostro and the gritty Tyler Street Garage.

It is home to some of New Zealand's most iconic fashion labels, Trelise Cooper, Karen Walker and Juliette Hogan among them, and offers such exquisite diversions as the sumptuous gelato from Milse dessert restaurant and patisserie.

As it is in such close proximity to the Pullman, Britomart becomes the centrepiece of our dizzying expedition, inviting daily return visits and serving as the launch pad for adventures and after-parties.

Just a few minutes' walk in either direction from the gorgeous new Pavilions buildings at Britomart, downtown Auckland's myriad opportunities begin to present themselves.

In one direction is Vector Arena, surely New Zealand's finest international concert venue, and in the other direction lies the Viaduct Basin and Wynyard Quarter, a bustling, busy harbour playground.

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This juxtaposition of historic buildings, bold and ambitious tourism ventures and countless cafes, bars and businesses with the sparkling blue waters of the Viaduct Harbour seems to be the key to downtown Auckland's youthful exuberance - commerce and nature co-exist in a relationship that is unique in New Zealand: one that is awash with possibility and the promise of surprise.

Leaping 40 metres off a perfectly sound structure attached by a length of latex is not everyone's preferred holiday activity. However, those who do the jump on A J Hackett Auckland Bridge Climb and Bungy provide great entertainment for those who don't.

An obvious gallows analogy echoes in my head as I climb the dozen ladder steps up to the jump pod 43m above the Waitemata Harbour.

Despite a quick (possibly unfounded) assessment that a fall from the bridge could be survivable, there is a sense of impending doom gnawing at the fabric of my resolve.

It intensifies as I shuffle forward on the platform, ankles trussed and weighted, with knees that have turned to rubber of far flimsier design than the thick bungy cable attached to my harness.

This is a test of courage requiring utter faith in the bungy operators and it pays to remember that, unlike the executioners of old, in 25 years of commercial enterprise A J Hackett has never lost a man at the end of one of his ropes.

There is nothing for it but to leap without hesitation as the lead operator counts three-two-one . . . and I'm gone, hurtling into the void with just a moment for my brain to scream at me that this is so very wrong.

The bare second of freefall terror is rewarded with an immense flood of relief then jubilation when the powerfully resistant bungy cord grabs firm hold of my ankles and jerks me back to safety.

After that life-affirming experience, the return journey of the bridge tour assumes an air of quiet celebration.

The 90-minute, 1.8km-long walk involves an easy gradient climb, requiring basic fitness. Safety is paramount. Walkers are attached by cable and carabiner to a rail that runs the entire length of the custom-engineered walkways. Helmets and overalls are compulsory.

Leo, our uber-friendly hyperguide, spins many a ripping tale as we ascend, stopping at various spots to relay historical anecdotes and statistics that qualify for a section in Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

Leaning against the massive struts of the Nippon clip-on as the bridge breathes deeply under the weight of its load is an eerie sensation. There is more than half a metre of vertical movement, Leo tells us, all part of the bridge's design.

At the top viewing platform we are more than 60 metres above the water, and 20 metres above the vehicles that roar beneath us, gifted a unique view of Auckland from the only walking access to the summit of the harbour bridge.

Across the water to the north, at Birkenhead, is the historic Chelsea Sugar Refinery. Further off to the right, in the distance across the urban expanse to Takapuna, three high-rise towers blot the landscape, monuments to failed ambitions and bad decisions.

And to the right, across the expansive Hauraki Gulf, lies a marine playground in Auckland's back yard, dotted with islands and countless adventures waiting for another day.

Auckland Sea Kayaks owner-operator Nic Mead is an unofficial custodian of the Waitemata Harbour. The environment-conscious kayaker grew up overlooking the waters he now paddles daily, sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm while leading one of Auckland's most rewarding outdoor experiences: the sunset trip to Rangitoto Island.

No previous experience as a kayaker is required for this 5km paddle across the harbour from St Heliers beach. My wife Bonnie Turner and I are novices but we quickly find our tempo as our tandem kayak carves easily through gentle chop and the occasional wake of pleasure boats and the Waiheke ferry.

After little more than an hour of paddling we have earned Nic's beach barbecue dinner, featuring his mum's delicious aubergine chutney over sirloin steaks and crunchy organic salads.

It is an easy hour's trek to the crater of the old volcano, with the loose scoria requiring us to watch our step as we traverse what resembles a lunar landscape forged from lava. Nic stops often to point out the view back across to the mainland or to comment on the changing vegetation.

We reach the summit just as the sun is setting.

This is the spectacular vista people come from around the world to experience. The sky burns vivid orange through a haze strangely reminiscent of Southeast Asia as the Sky Tower, harbour bridge and Waitakere Ranges on the horizon frame this incandescent view of central Auckland.

The night return kayak trip is a treat to the senses, as the city's lights sparkle ever more brightly and, as if on cue to end this wonderful journey, a full moon rises over Browns Island to our left.

Another unique perspective of Rangitoto's 150m-wide volcanic crater is from the air, aboard an Auckland Seaplanes scenic flight.

The throaty roar of the fledgling company's 1961 turboprop De Havilland Beaver floatplane as it taxis across the harbour for takeoff is a thrilling sound.

During our 15-minute flight pilot Steven Newland has his sturdy old bird swooping and sailing majestically over the gulf's islands, at 1500 feet easily low enough to see the route we traversed the day previously on Rangitoto.

Waiheke's famed pristine beaches serve as destinations for the plane on other Auckland Seaplanes charter flights, enabling passengers to taste wines at Man O' War vineyard or dine at the classy Oyster Inn at Oneroa before flying back to Auckland.

The seaplane is an exciting and welcome addition to the Auckland tourism palette, bringing an air of swashbuckling adventure and romance to the Wynyard Quarter.

And to the west, Auckland's herbaceous border beckons.

The Waitakere Ranges stand like brooding sentinels on the city's distant horizon, and their scenic wonders can be appreciated to best effect on a Bush and Beach guided tour.

Gregarious guide Kevin Oates leads us on the company's half-day Wilderness Experience, a bus trip that takes us from the concrete, steel and glass towers of the city to the lush rainforest, waterfalls and giant kauri of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park and hot black sands of Piha Beach.

A stop at Arataki Visitor Centre, high in the ranges, reveals a dramatic panoramic view of the park's green expanse and Manukau Harbour.

On our easy bush walk Kevin tells us of the insidious fungal disease that is slowly robbing us of our treasured kauri forests and points out ravaged horopito leaves, whose sharp peppery flavour and gentle anaesthetic qualities make them a favourite of culinary innovators and stoned caterpillars alike.

A couple of large kereru (native pigeons) observe us from the tree canopy, and Kevin warns us amiably to keep our mouths shut when looking up at them, as they have a propensity for offloading their waste on to unsuspecting tourists.

Nearby we feel the heat of Piha's hot iron sands between our toes, watching the wild infamous swell of the ocean in the shadow of Lion Rock. It is a windy late afternoon when we get there and the beach is largely deserted, heightening the sensation that we are mere specks on the edge of civilisation, in the presence of an awesome force of nature.

As we leave Auckland with newfound fondness we have one more treat in store, a leisurely lunch in the sun at Villa Maria's picturesque Mangere winery and Vineyard Cafe.

Here, on the terrace overlooking Ihumatao Vineyard, close to the airport, we spend a pleasant couple of hours over a nice bottle of 2012 Villa Maria Reserve Barrique Fermented Gisborne Chardonnay, eating, relaxing and recapping an eventful, exciting four days of the finest Auckland has to offer.

Chris Chilton was a guest of Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development. For further information go to aucklandnz.com.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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