Sunday, October 23, 2011

Auckland: Sceneries, wineries and ferries

Naturally scenic and panoramic is the best way to describe this "City of Sails". I have never seen as many sailboats and yachts as those docked in Auckland City and its surrounding islands. The contrasting colors of ocean blue and forest greens, accentuated by various colors of buildings and houses, provide a relaxing feast to the eyes.

Geographically, Auckland region (with its surrounding islands) is a vast area to cover in one week, so I thought of chronicling my visit, to provide any potential Auckland visitor a reference for places of interest.

Stonyridge vineyard, Waiheke Island
Place of Interest 1: Waiheke island

How much - NZ$125 (basic tour cost)
How long - one whole day
How far - 45-minute ferry ride from the city
How to do it - online booking
Organizer: Fullers (Taste of Waiheke)

If you are a wine enthusiast, Waiheke Island is definitely a must-visit for you. Waiheke is home to more than 30 boutique wineries whose labels cannot be found in supermarkets and groceries but are available only in their vineyards and in some "exclusive" retail outlets. The best way to visit the wineries is to join a tour group, as most wineries will not offer guided vineyard tour service to individual visitors. Besides, when you are in a group, you'll get to taste three types of wine for each winery you visit. In my case, I joined the Fullers' "Taste of Waiheke" day tour. For only NZ$125, I got to visit three wineries (one of which has a brewery as well) and an olive grove, and to explore the whole island.

First stop: Stonyridge Vineyard.  The photo on top with a lady tour guide is the Stonyridge vineyard, where wine tasting included Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Merlot. I must say that their Rosé tasted very good.  And we loved the vineyard guide as she was bubbly.  And, for the guys out there, you would even love her more as she is a young and sexy lass :=)

Aside from grapes, Stonyridge also grows a few cork trees (which they use for producing the corks for their wine bottles) and some olive trees for aesthetic purposes.  I must admit, that was the first time I saw a cork tree (see left photo, sorry, I'm still trying to discover how to rotate photos here!) and an olive tree.


Olive oil tasting at the Rangihoua Estate
The second stop: Rangihoua Estate.  This is an olive grove whose owner turns out to be a friend of the owner  of Stonyridge Vineyard.  Stonyridge wasn't interested in growing olive trees for commercial purposes so they brought up the idea of an olive grove to a friend and they supplied the first olive trees grown in Rangihoua Estate.
During our visit to Rangihoua Estate, a very pleasant lady brought us through the whole process of olive oil processing, which is done by just one big machine (see photo on the right)! After we were shown the olive oil production process, we were offered to taste four types of olive oil.  And, man, oh man, olive oil never tasted as good as when it was served to us fresh from the bottles. I liked their olive oil very much I bought two bottles!  We were told that olive oil shoud be stored in dark bottles to maintain its good quality. We got one amusing tip from here: that drinking a small of olive oil before going to bed prevents snoring!

Third Stop: Wild on Waiheke Brewery and Winery. There were five types of beer and four types of wine from which we chose three free glasses for tasting!

Wild on Waiheke Vineyard
Wine and beer tasting experience here was better (though their wines are not necessarily better) as fresh oysters were available here a la carte.  For only NZ$9, we got a dozen fresh oysters to pair with the drinks.  One tip we got from the staff was to put a fresh oyster into the glass of beer! The staff told us the oysters were sourced from the island itself - no wonder they were so fresh!
By the way, in case you're interested in team building activities on a vineyard, Wild on Waiheke offers these services.

Wild on Waiheke restaurant
Wild on Waiheke restaurant, with a retired English couple

Fourth and last stop: Mudbrick Vineyard. Fullers organisers know their customers very well - just as our excitement for winery visits has plateaued after Wild on Waiheke, the stunning views of Mudbrick Vineyard raised our excitement levels even higher than that when we began.

Mudbrick Vineyard, simply stunning!

View from the top-most part of Mudbrick Vineyard.

Our tour guide/driver and Mudbrick
 vineyard's wine tour guide.
Mudbrick, vineyard area


 We were on top of the hill-vineyard, overlooking parts of the vineyard and the ocean. I must say this was, so far, the most beautiful and most calming natural view my eyes had laid on.Indeed, they saved the best for last!

After Mudbrick vineyard, there is plenty of time to explore the beautiful island since Fullers tours provide free island bus passes for tourists.

Place of Interest 2: Devonport Island

How much NZ$11 (return ferry ticket), excluding meals
How long - 1/2 or 1 day recommended
How far - 12-minute ferry ride from the Ferry Building at Quay St.
How to do it - self organize; buy a return ferry ticket either online or at any ferry station

View of Auckland downtown from Mt Victoria, Devonport Island

If I had to live in Auckland, Devonport is the place for me, that is, if money is not an issue :=).   This small quaint beautiful marine village island has pretty Victorian villas, sandy beaches, stylish shops, great cafes and sandy beaches to boast of. Not to mention the stunning panoramic views atop Mt Victoria and the lovely pohukutawa trees. And one can go to the places of interest just by walking! First interesting stop is Victoria Rd where cafes and shops are concentrated. As soon as you step out of the ferry station premises, Victoria Road welcomes you.

Victoria Road at Devonport Island
We first strolled along Victoria St., scanned the shops and cafes/restaurants. Then, armed with a map, we walked towards Mt Victoria where, along the way, we saw beautiful Victorian houses.

Victorian houses at Devonport Island
Before starting the uphill walk, we came across The Michael King's Writer Centre, Aotearoa New Zealand’s first national writers’ facility and literary centre.  The Centre used to be a signalman's house, a heritage house on the slopes of Mt Victoria.

It offers low cost accommodation to visiting writers, a way of supporting New Zealand writers and promoting the development of high-quality New Zealand literature.

The climb to the top of Mt Victoria (283 ft above sea level) is an easy uphill walk, and the stunning 360-degree-view from the top is more than enough to compensate one's efforts going up.  Mt Victoria was fortified by the Maori in 1885 out of fear of attack from the Russian Pacific Fleet.

We got down from Fort Victoria and headed for a light lunch to Five Loaves Cafe, a charming small coffee shop that serves good sandwiches, salads and desserts. This is a quiet coffee shop, so if you prefer more company, Victoria Rd (see photo above) the best place to eat where you can also people-watch.

After lunch, we headed to the following:
-an Old Anglican Church
-Devonport Museum
-Navy Museum - Located at the beach side, a visit to this is highly recommended.
-Devonport Chocolates - If you are chocolate lover like me, you mustn't miss this. A must-try is the Devonport Chocolates' Hot Choco Shot at only NZ$3.50

Place of Interest 3: Rotorua and Waitomo Caves

How much - NZ$325 (packaged one-day tour)
How long - 1 day, 730AM depart Auckland City, 810PM arrive Auckland City
How to do it - book online to join Great Sights' Waitomo & Rotorua Deluxe Day Tour
Organizer: Great Sights,

Tourists taking part in the HAKA dance in Rotorua.
This one-day tour gave me a taste of New Zealand's history, culture, nature and farm life.  The drive from Auckland City to the southern suburbs and country is very scenic, providing relaxation to the eyes. Itinerary of this tour is as follows:

This is a stolen shot (inside the cave) I managed to get.
Taking of pictures inside the caves is prohibited.
a) Waitomo Glow Worm Caves - A 2.5-hr drive from Auckland City, this is the first stop of the tour.  Going inside the dark caves by foot and by boat, with their ceiling dotted with lights from thousands ofglowworms, is an amazing experience!  Apparently, these glowwroms can be found only in New Zealand!  Aside from the glowworms, numerous stalactites and stalagmites naturally decorate the walls and ceilings of the caves.

b) Agrodome Complex

At around 11AM, the bus headed to Agrodome complex, an organic farm where I got introduced to New Zealand farming.

Our host took us to a 60-minute tour of an authentic working farm. I watched a sheep being shorn (see photo above), I fed farm animals which I haven't seen before, and I witnessed an actual production of wool in a 100-year-old working woolen mill.

Feeding a herd of sheep.
A 100-year-old working woollen mill.

c) Rotorua

If you want to experience Maori culture near Auckland City, Rotorua is the perfect place to visit, where 35% of its 70,000 population are Maori.

Sacred meeting house in the traditional Maori village.  A tourist took part in the welcome ceremonies.
We arrived at the Te Puia, New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Here, visitors are usually welcomed in a traditional Maori way, with volunteer visitors taking part in the whole ceremony.  Inside the sacred house, we were entertained by a slew of traditional Maori performances such as the Poi dance, the Tititorea (stick games) and, of course, the famous Haka dance where visitor men and boys were invited to dance with the Maori performers.
A guided tour ensued, through the Institute grounds. We were brought to Te Wananga Whakairo (The Carving School), Te Rito (School of Weaving), and to  a life-size replica of a traditional Maori village.

Carving school in Rotorua

Weaving school in Rotorua.

Our guide then walked us through Rotorua's geothermal area with mud pools and the famous Pohutu Geyser which spurts out boiling water and steam high into the air.  The walking tour ended at the nocturnal Kiwi House.

Rotorua's Pohutu Geyser

Rotorua's mud pools

At 5pm, we boarded our coach and headed back to Auckland City, with snacks served on board.  We arrived at Auckland's Intercity Terminal at around 815pm.

By the way, overnight tour packages are also available where you get to sleep in a Maori village accommodation and eat Maori native meals.

Place of Interest 4: Howick Village (Eastern Auckland suburbs)

How much - NZ$30 rent a car (excludes meals and entrance fees)
How long - half day to one whole day
How far - 30-minute drive from the city
How to do it - self drive

A stunning view while going down from Picton St, along Ridge St, Howick Village

Howick is where the first "fencibles" (soldiers from England) arrived in 1847.  The fencibles were supposed to protect Auckland from invasions at that time when Auckland was the capital of New Zealand.

A description of the Fencibles found inside Howick Historical Village

a) Howick Historical Village
Address: Lady Marie Dr
             Pakuranga North 2010, New Zealand
Open: Everyday except Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Good Friday and Anzac Day,10am to 4pm
Entrance Fee: NZ$14

Just 20 minutes drive from the main city of Auckland, this living museum has around 30 historic buildings built during the period 1840-1880.  Impressively, this living museum is manned mainly by volunteers.  Go on the third Sunday of the month when you could interact with more than 30 costumed villagers, watch several activities in the Village and realx at the Cafe.  Unfortunately, my visit to Auckland did not coincide with a third Sunday, so my friend and I had to make do with a few costumed villagers.
But even with very few costumed villagers around, this place made me understand the difficulties that the early Irish migrants endured.

By the entrance of Howick Historical Village

A costumed lady volunteer villager (right)

The Brindle Cottage inside Howick Historical Village, built 1852.
Funny wine measurements.

 b) Picton St (Howick's main street)
After touring the whole living museum, you may drive to Cafe Paris at Picton St for lunch. The drive takes less than 10 minutes. While in Cafe Paris, relax and be inspired by this quaint and charming cafe, which according to those who have been to Paris, is reminiscent of a typical Parisian cafe. As I was in New Zealand, I opted for a dish with local material base called kumara (sweet potato) - and it was yummy!  And of course, my friend and I lingered on in the cafe after lunch, sipping a good cup of coffee.

Inside Cafe Paris
Kumara-based dish at Cafe Paris
After relaxing at Cafe Paris, we took a stroll and explored the shops and galleries along Picton St, visited St Mary's Catholic Church and All Saints Church (Selwyn), the oldest building in Manukau built in 1847.
All Saints (Selwyn) Church at Picton St, Howick Village, built in 1847
c) Bucklands Beach
After a relaxing coffee and stroll at Picton St., a drive to naerby Bucklands Beach area would be  agreat way to end the day.  Bucklands Beach is a quiet, charming and relatively upscale suburb.  A number of foreign retirees have bought properties and are living in this area.  It has a ferry station located in Half-moon Bay.  It takes around 35 minutes by ferry from Half-moon Bay to downtown Auckland.  Take a stop at the golf-course in the Eastern Beach area to enjoy the beautiful views of the ocean and Rangitoto Island, famous for its symmetrical-coned volcano.
View of Rangitoto Island from a golf-course in the Eastern Beach area, Bucklands Beach
View of Rangitoto Island from a golf-course in the Eastern Beach area, Bucklands Beach
For more information on Howick Historical Village, click on the link below.
Place of Interest 4: Auckland City (Main City)

How much - City Link bus one-day pass=N$10; Auckland Museum entrance fee=
How long -
How far -
How to do it -
Auckland City has a very good ferry transport system, which both locals and visitors heavily use- for locals, to go to and from work, and for visitors, to go to and from destination islands like Devonport and Waiheke.  It is no wonder then that the City's commercial business district (CBD) is just adjacent to the ferry station.
I explored the city by myself, armed with maps and guides readily available at the Auckland Inernational airport, and tips from my Auckland resident friend Sarah. The guide book I used (see photo below)  amazingly has a suggested route for visitors to follow for car/bike/bus users.  But if you are less of an explorer and dislike walking and riding buses and trains, you are better off joining a city tour.
A very helpful guide, available for free at the Auckland Int'l Airport
I shouldn't fail to mention that my visit to Auckland coincided with the World Rugby Cup, so the City was at its busiest!
a) The Ferry Building and the surrounding harbour (at least 4 hours)
Located at the west end of Quay St, this area is bustling with activities almost the whole day. To the right of the Ferry Building is Queens Wharf, to its left is Princes Wharf, Hobson Wharf and Viaduct Harbour.  This whole stretch faces Waitemata Harbour.
Start your day with a great brunch at Quay Street Cafe located at the corner of Quay and Gore streets, if you'd like a quiet start with a great view and the company of professionals working at the CBD.  If you are up for a vibrant start and a stunning waterfront view, The Ferry Building is a great place to eat your brunch.
Sauteed mushroom on toast, at Quay Street Cafe
I ordered "sauteed mushroom on toast" and black coffee, which cost me NZ$19.50.  The "sauteed mushroom on toast" was worth the price- it was really good!
Along Quay St: this building is home to the (in)famous global brands
 After a satistfying brunch, I started my walking tour along Quay St with Queens Wharf as the first stop.
Rugby crazy Auckland: a giant rugby ball at Queens Wharf
The Queens Wharf hosts two interesting buildings: Cloud and Shed 10.  Cloud was built in time for the World Rugby Cup 2011, to house an inner-city Fanzone, festival and showcase event during the World Cup. It is 180 meters long and can accommodate around 5,000 people. Shed 10 was newly-renovated, also in time for the World Cup. A historic building built in 1910, it is the only original building left on the wharf.
The newly-built Cloud, a wave-like white stucture.  On the right (partially hidden) is Shed 10.
The next stop was the Ferry Building at the north end of Queen St, another historic building beside Queens Wharf, completed in 1912.  It is the busiest in the harbour area since this is where ferry-riders come and go.
The Ferry Building view from the waterfront.  The row of restaurants is covered by the red kiosk.

Quay St; to the right of this street is the Ferry Building.
Beside the Ferry Building: This jazz band, playing "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You", almost made me dance.
From the Ferry building, I walked west towards Viaduct where another row of great restaurants line the waterfront area. Viaduct is host to the Voyager Maritime Museum.
Lunch with Miriam at Portofino Restaurant at Viaduct; behind us is the Voyager Maritime Museum.
b) Queen St and Wellesley West St and surroundings (at least one day, if you intend to go shopping)
Queen St is the main street whose north end is the Ferry Building and is perpendicular to Quay St. This is the equivalent to Orchard Road, but really, this is a much tamer version of orchard Road.
As I walked down south from the Ferry Building, I checked out the following interesting places (refer to Auckland A-Z Guide for location map):
- Downtown Shopping (to the right while walking southwards from the Ferry Building)
- Customhouse which houses the DFS Galleria (beside Downtown Shopping)
- Britomart train station (across from Downtown Shopping); this is a must-visit if you'd like to have a sense of Auckland's train system.  I did ride a train with a friend from Britomart to Manukau, a suburb south of the main city.  Auckland has a good train system, but I must say that Singapore's is still better as of end 2011.
- Queen's Arcade, a shopping place
Queen St cor Quay St.
Walking a little bit further down south, I hit the crossing of Wellesley St and Queen St.  I turned right to check out the SkyCity, home to Sky Tower and SkyCity Theater.  Entrance to the Sky Tower is NZ$28,and if you are adventurous enough, you may try their organized SkyJump and SkyWalk, for a fee of course.  I didn't try any of these.
From SkyCity, I walked back along Wellesley St heading towards Auckland Arg Gallery, located a little past Queen St.  Admission to the Art Gallery is free and there are scheduled free one-hour tours daily at 11:30AM and at 1:30PM.
c) Auckland Museum (half-day or one day, depending on your curiosity)
Since I was staying in Bucklands Beach, I took a ferry from Half-Moon Bay ferry station (Bucklands Beach area) to downtown Auckland.  After breakfast at the Ferry Building downtown area, and armed with the Guide book, I walked to the side street of the Britomart train station, and hopped into the green City Link bus line to head to Auckland Museum.  Auckland has three City Link bus lines - green, orange and red - all lines go around the city (  I bought a one-day bus pass which cost NZ$10.  This ticket may only be used starting 9AM.
It is worth visiting the Auckland Museum as it tells the story of New Zealand.  At the lobby of the museum building is Atrium Cafe, where I took my light lunch and coffee (of course with dessert :-)) after the four-hour museum tour.
Auckland Museum lobby.
Auckland Museum's Atrium Cafe.
After lunch, I walked towards Parnell Village, one of my favorite places in the city. 
d) Parnell Village (half-day)
Parnell Village charms its visitors with its quaint yet sleek vibe. This one-street historical attraction is home to some of the oldest victorian style buildings in the city, which now house fine specialty boutique shops, cafes and restaurants.  The boutique shops remind me of Ang Siang Hill or Keong Saik Road in Singapore (Singapore is my home at the moment). Apparently the billionaire property developer Les Harvey, an Aucklander, is responsible for organically restoring these victorian houses.  Click on the link below for a short and succinct story of Les Harvey and Parnell VIllage.
d) Saturday Morning Market: La Cigale  (half-day or less)

Inside La Cigale
Cheese, cheese,cheese!!!
J'aime bien La Cigale French Style Farmers Market!
Weekend markets are common in Auckland, and if you're into French style farmers' market, La Cigale is the place to visit.  La Cigale is open the whole week but the French Style Farmers' Market runs only on Saturdays from 8AM to 1PM.  A smorgasbord of various dishes from Greek to Spanish (love the Paella!) to Turkish to French, and more, are sold here.  We had brunch here, starting with appetizers taken from free samples :=)  Freshly baked bread and a very good collection of cheeses and wine are also available.  If you have more time, it is highly recommendable that you try their weekday dinner.  Click on the link below to have an idea of the food served in La Cigale  French Bistro.
e) Auckland Botanic Gardens (four hours to one day, depending on your interest)
If you're into parks and picnics, visit this 64-hectare excellently land-scaped garden with over 10,000 plants in its collection.  It is located in Hill Road, Manurewa, south of the city. Its green and scenic views provide a relaxing feast to the eyes.  If you fancy a lunch on a terrace, visit the garden's Cafe Miko.  It is best to have lunch at Cafe Miko on a Sunday when live music is played from 11Am to 2PM.  The link below provides more information about the garden.
Auckland Botanic Gardens facade
Entance lobby of Auckland Botanic Gardens
Inside Auckland Botanic Gardens
Inside Auckland Botanic Gardens
(To be concluded) 

(unfinished, to be continued)

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