February 27, 2015

Auckland, Part 2: Hiking Volcanoes

I'm not very outdoorsy. I don't hike. I'm not proud of it, but I'm not into many physical activities other than shooting hoops and yoga - and I haven't done either in quite a while. But in New Zealand, an island nation with over 50 (mostly dormant) volcanoes, I figured I could be outdoorsy. Of course I wanted to say I climbed a volcano...or three. And the view from the top is well worth it.

View of Rangitoto from Mount Victoria

My first stop was Rangitoto, New Zealand's newest volcano, which formed from a series of eruptions only 600 years ago. Rangitoto Island is Auckland's most prominent natural landmark, with its nearly symmetrical form visible from many locations. To get there, I took a ferry from downtown Auckland, where the Britomart Transport Centre and the ferry terminal are just across the street from each other.

Britomart Transport Centre
Pulling away from the ferry terminal, Ferry Building in orange
Rangitoto Island

The ride over is only 25 minutes, but the shortest path to the summit is an hour. Walking uphill on lava rocks and dirt pathways, drinking water from my handy backpack, I kept thinking, I'm hiking! I can't believe I'm hiking!

(That's how active I am.)

It was cool, as expected. I was hiking a volcano, surrounded by nature and lava rocks. After generous breaks and a crazy amount of wooden stairs, I finally reached the crater and lookout point at the summit.

To be honest, I wasn't that impressed with the view because we were so far form everything. I was more impressed with myself, which is not a bad thing. Nevertheless, I ate a wrap I'd packed and enjoyed the view. I took a detour to check out the lava caves (meh) before making (slipping) my way down.

I was ready to relax after that adventure, and the water was so beautiful, so I decided to take the ferry to Devonport and find a beach. Devonport is a cute, quiet, historic village on the water. It has beaches, pretty villas, shops, and two great lookout points, Mount Victoria and North Head. I ended up at Torpedo Bay, where I changed into my swimsuit, got a plum and creme fraiche ice cream cone, and headed to the beach!

The water was cold at first, but felt refreshing, as it often does. After relaxing on the beach and reading Fresh Off the Boat for a bit, I changed back into hiking clothes and headed over to Victoria Road, which leads to Mount Victoria. Of course I had to climb that volcano!

It sounds predictable, but Mount Victoria ended up being my favorite place of the whole trip. I guess part of it was the name, but the view was beautiful, and it only takes fifteen or twenty minutes to make it to the top. It was such a relaxing place to sit and feel the breeze, while enjoying the view of Rangitoto, North Head, colorful houses, and beautiful blue water. I liked it a lot better than the view from Rangitoto, because I was up high, but still close enough to see everything. Plus, Rangitoto is nice to look at from a distance.

North Head straight ahead.
Rangitoto on the right

I loved it up there. When I came down from the high, I grabbed some fish and chips for dinner and took the ferry back to the CBD. I bought a couple of beers to drink at the hostel, where I started talking to some young Europeans working in Auckland. When the group got bigger and crazier, I found I couldn't roll with them. What can I say? I'm an old woman on the inside. I think I'll have to stop staying in hostels when I hit my 30s, or at least restrict myself to private rooms. I can't hang with these youngins anymore...

The Cloud at Queen's Wharf
The next day, I set out for Mount Eden, the tallest natural point on the Auckland isthmus. The highlight was the gigantic crater at the top. I sort of wanted to slide into it, except that I'd never get out.

One Tree Hill
Initially, I wanted to climb One Tree Hill too, but after Mount Eden I was kind of sick of hiking. I sat down for a little lunch at the Mount Eden shops: mince and cheese pie, and a lovely flat white.

I figured I'd climbed enough volcanoes, so I just wanted to relax. I treated myself to a movie and some beer. I know I could have watched a movie anywhere, but I was on vacation and didn't want to force myself to explore. I told myself, the most important thing is to have fun. I just wanted to kick it for a night. So I went to the theater and watched Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was awesome, though quite violent. Colin Firth rocked it.

New Zealand beer is so good.

In the interest of embracing the vacation vibe, I wanted to spend my last day in Auckland relaxing on a beach. Stick around for Part 3: Waiheke Island.

February 24, 2015

Auckland, Part 1: Downtown

Victoria, Victoria, Victoria. Thanks to British imperialism, which destroyed lives and cultures all over the world, my name is everywhere. New Zealand is no exception. As I walked around Auckland, everything called my name. Like Victoria Park, where people gather and play made-up sports like cricket and rugby.

I had to do a little research. The British Empire may have dissolved in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong, but there are currently 16 commonwealth realms that are independently governed but voluntarily recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. These include Canada, Jamaica, Australia, and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand have struck some kind of balance between their indigenous and British roots. Australia celebrates National Sorry Day annually, to honor and remember the indigenous people of the continent and their mistreatment. New Zealand's indigenous people are the Maori, whom from what I saw are consistently honored and celebrated through the prevalence of their language, educational inclusion in museums, and constant mentions in tourist pamphlets every where I went.

Queen Street meets Victoria Street.

I arrived in Auckland in the morning, too early to check into my hostel, but I was at least able to dump my suitcase and start roaming downtown. From what I saw, the city was pretty similar to Sydney - unsurprising, given their close proximity and similar backgrounds.

Town Hall

My first destination was Albert Park, a large, pretty park in the middle of the city. Filled with colorful flowers, interesting statues and cool trees that I desperately wanted to climb, it was a nice place for a morning stroll.

The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki is on a corner of the park and has free entry, so I decided to check it out. There were some cool paintings and a bit of history, so it's definitely worth a visit. And did I mention it's free?

Focal Point by John Tunnard (1943)
Outside the inside-out by Harry Wong (1968)
Roses in a Jar by David Gommon (1948)

As I walked around, I kept looking up at Sky Tower, the tallest manmade structure in New Zealand. It's like a cross between Tokyo Skytree and Seattle's Space Needle, and pretty cool to look at. I decided to go to the observation deck, figuring I could pay the $28 NZD. I was on vacation, after all. (Actually, I used a coupon in a free guidebook for $3 off. Not bad!)

Auckland let your spirit soar

I'd just arrived and didn't know much about New Zealand, so I figured I'd get a feel for the city from above. The observation deck is 610 feet (186m) high. The Sky Deck is 112 feet higher and included in regular admission, but that day it was closed off for whatever reason. Oh well.

Rangitoto in the distance on the right.
You scared of heights?

There are two more adventurous experiences you can take advantage of for an extra cost - the SkyWalk, where you can walk outside on the platform around the tower, where there are no handrails, well above the observation deck. Or you can jump off said platform. Yep, SkyJump is a safe, wired jump that lets you fall all the way to the base. Both sounded cool, but I thought they were too expensive. It wasn't like the BridgeClimb in Sydney. The experience in Auckland was shorter, and the SkyTower wasn't half as iconic as the Harbour Bridge. That may not be a fair comparison, as Auckland has their own actual bridge climb, which is much cheaper than Sydney's...but even less iconic.

It still looks cool though.

I was feeling pretty tired by that point, after taking a 14-hour flight and doing all that walking right off the bat. Plus I'd finally watched Big Hero 6 on the plane and I wanted to dream about marrying Tadashi, so I checked into the hostel and took a nap. I stayed at Silverfern Backpackers downtown, which was fairly clean, sometimes noisy, and definitely cheap.

I didn't dream about perfect Tadashi (RIP), but feeling refreshed, I headed back out, this time toward the water. From Viaduct Harbour I crossed the bridge over to Wynyard Quarter.

Auckland Harbour Bridge
Wynyard Crossing

With my impeccable timing, I'd caught the Silo Night Market, which goes down Friday nights. It was crazy lively, with music playing from speakers, food trucks, vendor stalls, and people everywhere! I found out that they were screening a free movie there in Silo Park. I think it was Frozen. You know, the perfect summer movie. (Gogo Tamago > Elsa, btw.)

A delicious meat pie - this was actually smoked salmon! Washed down with a New Zealand beer.
Free movie!

Wynyard Quarter is trying to make itself known as a fun center for nightlife and entertainment, and I think it's doing a great job. There's a lot of space there, the waterfront view is awesome, and it seems very community-oriented, with the local night market. It's a cool place.

Nightscape - click to enlarge.

As it got darker, I headed back since I wanted an early start the next day. Every day has to begin with a flat white, my favorite espresso drink. I feel like you can only get these in Australia and New Zealand. Starbucks started putting them on their menus everywhere, but it's just not the same. That robust coffee paired with the creamy smoothness of steamed milk with microfoam - it's heavenly. I love beer and I drank a ton of New Zealand beer over the course of this vacation, but if I had to choose between flat whites and beer? I would have chosen flat whites*, hands down.

*I am only referring to those four days in Auckland. If I had to choose between coffee and beer for the rest of my life, I'd choose beer.


Have you ever been to New Zealand? Do you know anything about it, that doesn't pertain to Lord of the Rings? In any case, stay tuned for part 2: Hiking Volcanoes!