Although we have spent a fair amount of time on New Zealand’s North Island on previous trips, our only stop on the North Island this year was confined to Auckland. Auckland is the country’s largest city and commercial center. It was also the place from which our plane to San Francisco departed (which was the reason we stopped here).
Polynesians first settled the Auckland area about 800 years ago when they discovered an amicable climate, good agricultural lands and great fishing. The area began attracting British whale and seal hunters in 1769 and soon after, a few settlers. The Mauri tribes and the initial settlers established amiable relations and mutually beneficial trading relationships.
In 1830, the chiefs of a few tribes went to England, met the Queen and, believing that the British could bring peace to the warring tribes, agreed to accede to British rule and sell land only to the British. While this allowed Britain to buy land at a low price, not all the tribes were happy with such an arrangement. Not surprisingly, the British government was very happy with the agreement since they sold this land at large profits to British settlers.
Like many New Zealand cities, Auckland is largely a product of New Zealand’s gold rush. It then transformed itself initially into an agricultural center and then into a port city and commercial center. Since it is the closest large city to Polynesia and other South Pacific island chains, it has become a de facto center for transport to and trade with the islands and has also attracted a large population of islanders. This, in addition to sailing and the revitalized waterfront area, shape much of the city’s current culture and its identity of the “City of Sails”.
Auckland’s Waterfront and Central Business District (CBD)
Although much of the central city is rather old and not especially compelling, Auckland does have some interesting streets and areas. The most dynamic area of the city, by far, is around the waterfront. After a century as a run-down port and industrial area, the waterfront has become the center of development and activity. The central waterfront, around the lovely 1912, neo-Edwardian Ferry Building, Queens Wharf, and especially Princes Wharf and Viaduct Basin have already been converted into bustling entertainment and commercial complexes.
Viaduct Basin, in particular, is lined with upscale restaurants, a Maritime Museum and currently houses at least three former America’s Cup Racing Yachts. The K21, which sailed in the 1987 Cup races and was the center of a legal controversy, is on display in front of the museum. Two others are available for charter, for sailing lessons and for competitions among amateur sailors. The basin itself, and the harbor on the other side of the promenade, are lined with an incredible collection of cruise ships and private yachts.
The Wynyard Quarter, just west of the Basin, was among the most rundown of the city’s waterfront and industrial areas. It, however, is now eight years into a huge 30-year plan to convert it into a preferred residential, commercial and entertainment neighborhood. A couple of modern commercial buildings, the ABV complex has already been build and a number of restaurants and parks already draw large numbers of people to the area. This is especially true on Friday nights, when the restaurants are complemented by dozens of food trucks and a free showing of outdoor movies.
Back in the central city, the blocks just inside the harbor have razed and are now lined with modern, 20-30-story skyscrapers, the Britomart transportation hub and the pretty, multi-block Takutai Park and atrium shopping center.
The center of the city is less distinguished. High Street, the original commercial street, now looks hopelessly outdated and has long-since been replaced by the more modern Queen Street. SkyCity, meanwhile, is the central-city’s most prominent landmark. The complex, which contains a number of upscale hotels, bars and restaurants. It also houses the country’s largest casino complex and SkyTower, the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere. This 328-meter tower, which was opened in 1997, is a broadcasting and telecommunications tower that is also one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. It has a restaurant, a bar, a multi-floor observation deck and a couple of popular adventure opportunities. These include an opportunity to walk around the top of the structure on a meter-wide platform (the Vertigo Climb) and a chance to take an express, freefall-journey from the top, to just above the ground (the SkyJump).
Among the CBD’s other highlights are:
- CPO Building ,the original 1909 Chief Post Office, fell into disrepair and was restored in 2003 to become the entry to the Britomart transportation center
- Custom House, build in 1889 in the French Renaissance style, it was supposedly modeled on London’s Selfridge’s department store.
- Town Hall, a grand Edwardian structure with a tall clocktower, build in 1911.
And speaking of clocktowers, the one at the Civic Theater, next door to Town Halls, is also quite nice, especially when it is dappled in sunlight as the evening we saw it. So too was Aotea Square, the park behind Town Hall and the theater, which had food trucks and was preparing for a concert the evening we were there.
We also took a walking tour, which provided an overview of some of the city’s sights and a number of anecdotes, but not much history or many concrete facts. Among the highlights were:
- Fort Lane, which was once the Red Light District, but is now a social center, with a popular coffee shop (Imperial Lane), one of the city’s hottest restaurants (Cassia), a theater and a couple nightclubs.
- Vulcan Lane, one of the city’s few pedestrian malls, which was a primary hangout for sailors, gamblers and criminals. It was, and still is home of the Queen Ferry Hotel and Bar, a sailor bar in which drunk soldiers were thrown into a basement holding area and sometimes shanghaied onto ships that were already out to sea before they woke.
Then, pointing out to a spot in the Harbor beyond the Queen Street Wharf, our guide explained the story behind the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace Ship, the Rainbow Warrior. The ship, which had been harassing the French was planning a nuclear test in French Polynesia. A French Intelligence unit bombed it, killing a New Zealand reporter. When the New Zealand government arrested and jailed the confessed bombers, France protested and threatened to ban New Zealand exports to France, and attempted to do so for the entire European Economic Union. Since New Zealand was so dependent on these exports, it was forced to relent. The affair, however, prompted it to reassess its entire foreign and trade policy and to distance itself from Western countries in favor of closer relations with Pacific nations.
Albert Park Area
The area around Albert Park has a number of interesting sites. These include:
- Auckland Art Gallery, a lovely building that we cover in our next blog.
- Amari Lane, which houses the city’s suffragette memorial that was installed in 1993 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. As our guide explained, one of the big motivations for pushing for women’s suffrage was the expectation that they would pass a temperance act. Although temperance failed to pass in three different elections, individual suburbs were allowed to go dry (which some did) and the entire city eventually enacted a bill that prohibited the sale of alcohol after 6:00 PM, an effort that not only led to increased drunkenness, but also devastated much of Auckland’s restaurant business until the 1967 repeal of the law. Today, many outside areas are alcohol-free zones.
- Albert Park itself, is beautifully landscaped. It was once used as a parade ground to muster troops who were responsible for putting down the mid-19th-century Maori Land Wars, during which natives protested the paltry sum the British paid for their land. The park, which was built atop an extinct volcano, is riffled with underground tunnels that were used as air raid shelters when the country was in fear of a WWII attack by Japan.
- University of Auckland Clock Tower, built in 1926 an inspired by tower of Oxford’s Christ Church.
- Old Government House, a Neo-Classical building that served as the seat of New Zealand’s government until 1865 (when the capital was moved to Wellington) and as the residence of the governor-general until 1969.
- The Northern Club, an ivy-covered Gentlemen’s Club whose members included most of the city’s most influential men since 1850.
- Pohutukawa trees, which bloom with red flowers around Christmas, are huge, beautiful, wide-reaching trees with shallow root structures that spread across great distances—planted along the slopes of the hill as a means of stabilizing the land.