Auckland's Great Outdoors

15 December 2014

With its multicultural population, great dining and many attractions, Auckland is a fine destination, but nothing makes it finer than its magnificent setting.

The best way to appreciate the city is to get outdoors, where the wind whips across the gulf, making your cheeks glow and hair fly. Great fluffy clouds scud in a brilliant blue sky and, just beyond the city, a superb coastline unfolds ancient volcanic islands, black-sand beaches and rainforest-draped hills.

 A great way to see the city

Where nature stops, the locals have added even more reasons to get some fresh air, with 20-odd golf courses, a dozen riding stables and over 100 vineyards dotted in and around the city.

You’ll find a good concentration of cellar doors in the western and northern suburbs, with Henderson and Kumeu, about 30 minutes from the city centre, the easiest to reach.

The city also has plenty of parks: central Auckland Domain provides a great of choice picnicking spots and nice formal gardens, while Cornwall Park has wonderful avenues of oak trees to provide shade on a hot day.

For splendid 360-degree sunset views over the city, head to the summit of Mt Hobson, which is only a 10-minute walk from the suburb of Remuera.

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Urban Specials

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 America's Cup yachts in full sail

Start off, perhaps, on the water itself. There’s a reason Auckland is nicknamed the 'City of Sails', since it claims more boats per capita than anywhere else in the world. Visitors can enjoy the experience on chartered boats from any of a dozen companies that will hire you Beneteau yachts, powerboats or kayaks.

The greatest thrill, though, might be a sailing experience on board America’s Cup yachts, which is open even to sailing novices. After a safety briefing, you’re out on the water being shown the ropes, quite literally. Then you’re off and racing. The yacht surges forward, spray hisses and sails crack: there could hardly be a better way to spend an windy Auckland day.

You can also appreciate the harbour without getting spray in your eyes.

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Top Of The Walks

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For one of Auckland’s best walks, head out on Tamaki Drive around the city’s eastern bays; you can also rent a bicycle and follow the dedicated cycle lane. Stop at Mission Bay, where huge trees shade a grassy area where locals kick balls and play Frisbee.

Eateries along the white-sand beach will provide a shot of energy for the return journey, or onwards.

Beyond Mission Bay is Kohimarama Beach, which is a quieter bay and has a very good yacht club. Tamaki Drive finishes at St Helliers about 10 kilometres from the city.

Alternatively, you can catch a ferry from the city centre across the harbour to the charming seaside suburb of Devonport, which is intimately linked to the sea: the Royal New Zealand Navy has a base here, and the Devonport Yacht Club is renowned – it’s where America’s Cup winner Sir Peter Blake learned how to sail.

The suburb is a world away in atmosphere from the city centre. Skyscrapers are replaced by a quaint village straight out of colonial times. Cute shops and galleries lure shoppers along the main street, Victoria Road. Walk through residential streets to North Head for fine views along Cheltenham Beach and across the harbour to the city centre.

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Coasting Along

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 There are cellar doors within reach

A well-known strip of coast further east beyond the city is certainly worth exploring. The Pohutukawa Coast, named after a variety of native tree, is something of a holiday getaway for Aucklanders, thanks to its scenic stretch of coastline where beaches are backed by the Clevedon Valley’s vineyards and fine gourmet restaurants.

The whole forested coast is terrific for hiking, mountain biking and bird watching, and you can also snorkel and inspect the marine life – though admittedly, the chilly temperature of the ocean isn’t one of Auckland’s chief attractions for those used to warmer climes.

Auckland’s west coast, in contrast, is less genteel. There are some truly spectacular beaches on the Tasman Sea west of the city, surrounded by natural bushland. The area is dotted with ancient volcanoes that have left behind black-sand beaches and steep ranges covered in rainforest. It’s a good place for 4WD adventures and mountain biking. The pounding waves here make swimming dangerous (be sure to swim between the flags) but the scenery is spectacular and the beaches have a wild beauty that is quite extraordinary so near the city.

 There's a whole seascape to explore

At Whatipu Beach you can walk among huge sand dunes and collect sun-dried driftwood, and at Karekare explore the forest, which is laced with streams and the odd waterfall. The magnificent sweep of Karekare Beach was made famous in the movie The Piano. Nearby Piha Beach is the place for surfers; clamber up Lion Rock and you’ll get a panoramic view of the sweeping sands.

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Island Escapes

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Out in the Hauraki Gulf, whale and dolphin sighting are virtually guaranteed year-round. Several whale-spotting operations leave from the quays in the city. But the gulf’s numerous islands also make for a fine escape. Fifty or so islands surround Auckland, some completely undisturbed but for the wash of waves and calling seabirds. Their quiet and isolation makes them ideal for exploration by yacht if you’re an experienced sailor and wish to charter your own vessel.

For the rest, a public ferry runs to Waiheke Island in 35 minutes, where you’ll find cafés, crafts stores and cellar doors that provide the chance to sample Bordeaux-like wines. A hop-on, hop-off public bus takes you in a lazy loop around the island, whose strangely Mediterranean-like micro-climate also produces olives.

 There's no shortage of beach strolls

Rangitoto, another short ferry ride away, offers a completely different experience. The birth of this volcanic island was witnessed by local Maoris some 600 years ago. The hike to the summit of the volcano is a slog over black lava (especially in summer, when it radiates the sun’s heat), but well worth it for sweeping views all the way to CBD skyscrapers.

It’s a reminder that you really aren’t far from the city – in fact, the adventurous can even kayak out to Rangitoto from the city centre.

Brian Johnston

Born in Nigeria of Irish parents, Brian Johnston has lived in Switzerland,the UK and China, and now calls Sydney home. The widely-published freelance writer and author is a two-time Australian Travel Writer of the Year.