New Zealand’s sprawling city of Auckland is often the entry point for people visiting the country. While it is seen by locals as different from the rest of New Zealand — and I would highly advocate a tour around the North Island and South Island to find out why — I spent several months living and working in Auckland and fell in love with the city. Here is the ultimate guide to backpacking Auckland.
Where to stay when backpacking Auckland
Before arriving in Auckland, I booked my first few nights at the Oaklands Lodge hostel in Auckland’s Mount Eden Village. It was only meant to be a pit-stop until I found my feet, but I ended up staying for months. It feels like home. There are plenty of long-termers here from Europe and new people coming and going which keeps it fresh. Many people return here after travelling around the country, like me.
Auckland is a modern and laid-back place, which feels cleaner and safer than many other cities. The volcanoes peeking up through the city are a spectacular and constant reminder that you are somewhere special. Mount Village itself is a quaint collection of timeless shops and cafes. There’s a greengrocers, a sweet shop, traditional butchers, cake shop, book shop, homeware and gift shops – including one that specialises in Italian imports – a village winery, a fishmongers (which serves award-winning takeaway fish and chips, wrapped in newspaper), a post office and a collection of beauty salons and restaurants. Mount Eden has a strong community feel that adds to its appeal. As well as a collection of local artists, the area has its own regularly updated Facebook feed and a village centre appended to a Methodist church, which hosts yoga classes, zumba nights and other events. Part of what makes this part of town so great is its quick, easy and inexpensive bus service into the city centre.
Other great areas of Auckland to stay in include Ponsonby, with its appealing vintage shops and quirky bars. From here you can catch glimpses of the stunning skyline, strikingly lit up with colour at nighttime.
A drive across Auckland’s suspension bridge provides a breathtaking sweeping view of the city, the calm blue water and the countless white yachts. Just a short drive away are wide deserted beaches, plentiful forests and jutting rocks. All of which have spiritual significance to the indigenous Maori people, who first landed in New Zealand from South East Asian territories around a thousand years ago. I love how this pride in the beautiful natural surroundings and its cultural heritage underpins the feel of this otherwise super-modern city.
What to do in Auckland
The dormant volcano of Mount Eden is the highest natural point in the area. A gentle walk to the top brings you to a spectacular view over the crater and city, including the Sky Tower, which dominates the skyline.
Go out for brunch
On my first morning in the centre of town, I was looking for a place to have breakfast and a twinkly-eyed tourist warden was happy to help, recommending a stylish joint called Shaky Isles, which shares its name with the nickname for New Zealand. It had a sign saying “This coffee is the sh!t”. I know this to be true from my Bali trip: Luwak coffee beans are passed through the digestive system of the Asian palm civet mammal to create a smooth and expensive coffee (yes, I tasted it).
Enjoy the nightlife
On my first couple of weekends I went out with friends to watch the British and Irish Lions rugby team on their successful tour of Australia at the bars down by the Viaduct, overlooking the harbour with its host of gleaming white yachts. Lots of people to meet and dancing until the early hours – I always think a fun night out is the sign of a good city so I wasn’t disappointed.
Of all the people I have met so far, few have been Kiwi born and bred – there are a fair few expats here, largely from the UK it seems. They talk about their appreciation of the outdoors lifestyle, the beaches, the happy people and the opportunity to get out and into nature, whether for a hike or something more adventurous. In summer, the sun shines all day long for months. All this, they say, balances out the downsides of being far from home, the more limited career opportunities and the feeling of being somewhat separated from the world at large.
Discover the Maori culture
At a yoga class, I met a Maori girl who suggested we watch the Kapa Haka Super 12s, as part of the Matariki Festival. This festival is to mark New Year – 22nd June to 22nd July – as celebrated by the indigenous people of New Zealand. The waterfront venue on Queens Wharf hosted colourful trade market stalls selling Maori arts, crafts and clothing. One we saw was a traditional Maori wood carving depicting Mother Earth holding her pregnant belly.
The Kapa Haka Super 12s is a contest in which 12 groups battle it out with creative variations of the traditional Maori haka, or dance, for the chance to win NZ$12,000. Some went all out with Avenue Q style puppets, while others gave us cover versions of well-known songs sung by the troupes in the Maori language. Then, of course there were examples of the fierce haka performed by the New Zealand rugby squad ahead of their international games. What I love about this are the crazy wide eyed expressions and gestures that make the haka so enjoyable and so intimidating.
Auckland day trips
New Zealand is famous for its wines and I was keen to indulge. So when a friend said she was organising a group day trip from Auckland to the island of Waiheke, I jumped at the chance.
Just a 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland, this place seems to have a micro-climate of its own. When we left the city, it was grey and mild, but it blossomed into a beautifully hot and sunny day on the island.
Arriving in the village of Onerua, we stopped for brunch at Wai Kitchen, a restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows sharing a panoramic view of the beautiful Hauraki Gulf coastline. The restaurant had an easy ambience and the food was equally relaxed yet stylish.
The brunch dish that caught my eye was an innovative medley of pulled pork with asparagus, pecorino, sweetcorn and poached eggs, accompanied, in my case, by a very English pot of Earl Grey tea. The plate did not disappoint – it was a delicately balanced dish, light and fresh-tasting, and I savoured every bite.
After our appetites were satiated, it was time to explore. We found a route to the North of Onerua that looked appealing – an hour’s stroll exploring some of the island’s stunning coastline.
The island is quaint, but clearly wealthy. Cute signs for motorists warning to watch out for ducks and ducklings stand near multi-million dollar properties with yachts sitting in their driveways.
Notably, there are the vineyards. This sun-trap island and its nourished soil provides the perfect conditions for rows and rows of juicy, high maintenance grapes soaking up the sunshine and nutrients. There is even a vineyard owned and operated by the University of Auckland as part of its Wine Science programme. Now that’s a science lesson I can get on board with.
Then, there are the views, It seemed that every corner we turned, every way we faced, there would be a new, astonishingly beautiful vista of the island’s rugged coastline. We were transfixed.
We made our way down to some steep steps to a rocky beach, with the sea gently lapping up at the shore. It was completely isolated, except for a local woman walking her dog, who pointed out the narrow entrance to a nearby cave. She confided that, until recently, an old man was known to live within its cool stone walls.
As we continued our stroll, we passed through acres of lush green and purple vegetation. This place is humbling and as nutritious for the soul as it is for those diva-like grapes.
Taking our time to gaze out at the jaw-dropping views and pick prehistoric-looking shells from the beach, our walk had now been well over an hour. It was time to sample some of Waiheke’s famous wine before catching our boat back to shore. While it is undeniably laid-back, Waiheke definitely demands at least a day in order to even begin to take in everything it has to offer.
The first Waiheke winery we visited, a short walk or taxi ride from Onerua, was closed for a wedding. But this was a blessing in disguise. Just a couple of minutes up the road was Jurassic Ridge, a boutique family vineyard run by neurologist-turned-winemaker Lance Blumhardt.
There was no-one there when we arrived in the afternoon sunshine. We duly pulled on the stringed clapper of a hanging brass bell, attached to the building’s brick wall. Hearing the chime, Lance arrived, ready to introduce us to his great passion in life: wine.
Unlike the commercial approach of the other Waiheke wineries we visited, where there are hired staff and a fee charged for tastings, Lance presented a complimentary wine tasting with a great deal of love, respect and humour. There was no script at play here: this is simply his joy in life. He cultivates these wines by himself and he is, rightly, immensely proud of them.
Lance guided us to taste the wines from right to left – white to rosé to deep red. Starting with the fresh and fruity Sauvignon Blanc, he talked us through each of his award-winning vintages and their story – from Pinot Grigio Blush to Montepulciano to two varieties of Syrah. As well as being natural and pure wines, sustainably grown, these wines are fully vegan-friendly, employing no animal products as shortcuts in their production. Clearly, a great deal of love and care goes into these hand-crafted wines.
A typically down-to-earth Kiwi, Lance mentioned that his wife is from Southern Italy and I asked him how they met. He proceeded to tell us a true ‘sliding doors’ story. Lance and his future wife first encountered each other at a neurology forum in Italy: he was the Chair and she was one of the speakers. But Cupid didn’t strike until a few days later on his Italian trip. Riding on a public bus, the journey was inexplicably terminated and everyone was asked to leave. A few minutes later, Lance spotted the same bus, driving down the street, now full of passengers! So he ran after it, but the bus was speeding away. By some miracle, the bus driver spotted him, slowed down and opened the rear door. Lance leapt on, red-faced, out of breath and shocked to have made it onto the bus. And who should be one of the passengers, looking at him with amusement, but his fellow conference participant. Their conversation turned into a long and happy marriage.
Charmed by this romantic tale and with my taste-buds tantalised by his wines, I purchased a bottle of Lance’s light, berry-hinted Cabernet Franc. Jurassic Ridge is the only winery on the island to produce wine purely from this grape, and it certainly worked for me.
Now evening was descending and soon it was time to say goodbye to the island. We returned to the ferry, contentedly quiet and feeling hazy from a combination of the sun’s heat and the fragrant wine. It had been a wonderful day on Waiheke, yet we’d only explored a small part of its land. As we sailed towards the bright lights of the city once more, we promised ourselves that we would return.
One of the prettiest places to visit in Auckland is Devonport, a 10 minute ferry ride from Auckland’s central business district (CBD).
Arriving in this coastal village feels like stepping back in time. Almost like stumbling upon a 1950s British seaside resort in Devon. With quaint art galleries, cafes, book shops and colonial architecture, Devonport has a large British expat population of young families. It’s easy to see how they could be drawn to its timeless seaside streets and gentle pace of life, while still being able to take advantage of easy access to employment opportunities in the big city. Appropriately, there is a UK grocer’s store here, offering all the supplies of Ambrosia creamed rice, PG Tips, Birds Eye custard and Angel Delight that you could want for your nostalgic larder.
One thing that definitely sets Devonport apart from its British near-namesake Devon are its stunning views. The area is crowned by the twin volcanoes of Mount Victoria and North Head, from whose summits you can enjoy sweeping vistas of the waters across Waitemata Harbour, over to the volcanic island of Rangitoto, the neighbouring residential streets and the spectacular cityscape of Auckland.
On my descent from Mount Victoria I discovered the Michael King Writers’ Centre, the first national writers’ retreat, promoting New Zealand’s writers and their work. The centre is named after Wellington-born Michael King, a well-loved historian, teacher and journalist, who sadly passed away in a car crash with his wife in 2004. King wrote more than 30 books on a range of subjects. His writings on New Zealand and its Maori heritage are thought to be some of the most considered, warm and fascinating accounts of this country’s history.
Next up, explore the rest of New Zealand’s North Island here.