For the directionally challenged, the title to this week’s blog entry may seem a misnomer. But when you think about it, think again. And upside down. Because two years ago last week, I had left the Cook Islands in a southwesterly direction to end up traveling around New Zealand’s North Island—not to be confused with the South Island, which is much colder than the North, a concept completely foreign to any and all Canadians.
To be more specific, I was now in Auckland, the non-capital of New Zealand, even though it’s home to 1.3 million Kiwis in a country of 4.4 million people, and almost 40 million sheep. And although this was my third visit to New Zealand, it was only the first time in Auckland, other than having spent one night there in 1991. At the time, I found it a sedate, quiet, niiiice city. Not much had changed in 18 years.
Don’t get me wrong. Being nice is…nice. And obviously being nice counts for something as far as the Mercer Quality of Living Survey goes, since it recently ranked Auckland fourth out of all cities in the world. It’s just that during the six days there, I didn’t get a true sense of personality or vibe that I did from other places like San Francisco or Naples or Fukuoka City—all non-capital-cities-although-they-could-be, all located on the ocean, and all with equivalent or even smaller populations.
Given my love for New Zealand, one of the most beautiful countries in the world, I wanted to love its largest city equally. But I was finding it hard to warm up to the place (even despite the non-stop rain), and in some ways found it frustrating—almost as frustrating as trying to navigate around the place, due to its huge suburban sprawl and short-sighted city planning.
It’s not that I didn’t try. I hadn’t been in Auckland two hours and already had managed a trip to the grocery store for a groceteria-based knowledge gathering session (see “The Whole truth” in Archives), and then out to dinner at Mission Bay with my friend, Melissa. Melissa was also from Nova Scotia, and for almost 10 years we had worked together at various gyms throughout the city. Now she was on the tail end of her own yearlong stay in Auckland before heading west back to Halifax.
I have to say, it’s a very weird sensation to cross paths with a friend from home when you’re halfway around the world. It seems disjointed or out of context somehow. It got even more randomly bizarre, when following my evening’s Facebook status update on “doing yada-yada-yada in Auckland,” I got a FB message the next day to happily discover that another friend happened to be passing his way through the city. Steve and his daughter Maddie were working their way back to Seattle after doing a South Pacific trip of their own, so we ended up having dinner together…once we found a city centre restaurant that served food past 10:00pm. But going out to dinner can only occupy your time so much. A couple of hours, to be exact. What else was a girl to do?
If you look on any website for “Things to Do” in Auckland, you’ll quickly realize that there aren’t a lot of options listed within the city itself, other than jumping off the SkyTower. This is New Zealand after all—home of “We’ll jump off of anything, anywhere.” But since I’d already bungy jumped in New Zealand twice previously, and also jumped out of an airplane, descending off the side of a miniature CN Tower seemed, dare I say it, a nice thing to do, but not a must do.
Most recommended activities for tourists involve getting out of the city and doing things like whale watching, jet boating and kayaking. But again, “Been there, done that.” (I know, I know, even I’m starting to get fed up with me.) Finally realizing I needed to fall back on two reliable standbys—food and wine—I booked myself into a cooking class and a trip to Waiheke Island, a 35-minute cruise from Auckland, and home to some of the best vineyards on the North Island. Houston, we have lift off!
The cooking class was hosted by the Auckland Seafood School, so a dinner of barbequed prawn salad and sesame-crusted salmon with Asian vegetables and a sweet soya glaze was to be expected. Unexpected were the interesting opinions of some of the South American women with whom I was partnered. And by interesting, I mean racist. Truly, it’s amazing what happens when a trophy wife combines a couple glasses of wine with a newfound sensation of accomplishment in the kitchen. Suddenly, she becomes an expert on all things South Pacific-related, including the so-called lack of work ethic amongst “the natives.” I came this close to saying, “Your last name isn’t Mengele, is it?”
Thankfully, the night ended quickly, and I escaped—not unlike a Nazi on his way to Argentina—with the next day being far more civilized. And by civilized, I mean drunken. Because when you’re on a chauffeured eight-hour wine tour, and no one has to worry about driving, you know a lot of wine is going to be drunk. Like those of us on the Waiheke Island tour.
Folks, if you ever do find yourself in Auckland, go to Waiheke for the day. Talk about personality and vibe! It’s like a little hippy beach commune, full of 8,000 primarily creative (and drunk) residents, with a quarter of them traveling back and forth to Auckland for work. The scenery is stunning, the beaches are unspoiled, the wines are quite decent and the locally produced olive oil is even better.
While I absolutely loved Waiheke Island, the highlight of the entire non-Auckland trip was renting a car and driving to Matamata aka Hobbiton aka “the place where they shot all The Shire scenes from Lord of the Rings.” The place itself was The Alexander Family farm, which was chosen as a film location by virtue of the fact that everywhere you look, across every view plain, not a sight of modern civilization can be found. No wires, no cable lines, no houses, no buildings, no kidding.
As a huge Lord of the Rings fan—both the books and the movies (and Viggo Mortensen and Sean Bean)—this was definitely a must see. Even without the gorgeous scenery, and the mug of butterbeer, and the sheep sheering demonstration, it was worth the four-hour drive there and back just to spend some quality time in Bilbo Baggins’ Hobbit hole.
Well, Auckland, despite a rocky start, we ended our relationship positively, although it was by virtue of day trips away from the city. Does that count? I think it does—and I think Frodo would agree, too. After all, it’s only when you leave a place that you truly begin to appreciate it.