Somehow I always seem to be writing these blogs while sitting on a train. This entry this is the fourth in a row that have been written on the great railroads of the South Pacific. This time I’m on my way from Auckland to the volunteer project where I’ll be spending the next three weeks. The train itself is also a bit different this go around as I’m on the KiwiRail Northern Explorer, a scenic train which travels the entire length of the North Island from Auckland to Wellington. While I won’t be on board until the final destination, I am enjoying being educated about the surroundings through the audio commentary, and I’m hoping to get some awesome views of rural New Zealand.
After an exceptional flight with Air New Zealand (highly recommend this airline) from Melbourne, I arrived in Auckland on Saturday afternoon. Via the Sky-bus, I made my way to my hostel in the city center and settled in before heading out for the day. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the city as I attempted to get a feel of Auckland. I walked down Queen St, a wide commercial avenue filled with tourists going in and out of the many shopping options, and it reminded me a bit of the magnificent mile in Chicago. Along the way I stopped in a few of the arcades and laneways similar to the ones I grew to love in Melbourne. Before arriving in Auckland I had no idea how hilly the city was, but as I made my way to Auckland domain, I realized it quickly thanks the long and steep ascending streets. When I did arrive at Auckland Domain, I was greeted by thousands of people, food stalls, live music, and more, all a part of a lunar new year festival. The domain is a very large park with huge green fields, rolling hills, and thick forest. I escaped the crowds and went for a walk on one of the paths in the forest, and was blown away by how remote it felt in there. Despite being a quick walk from the skyscrapers of downtown Auckland, in the thick bush I could’ve been in the middle of the rainforest.
As the sun moved lower in the sky, I moved higher and took the elevator up to the 60th floor of the Auckland Sky Tower. Presented with gorgeous views of the city, I walked the complete 360 degrees around the tower before sitting down facing west to watch the sun dip below the horizon. Unfortunately, my plans to watch a colorful sunset were thwarted by the evening cloud cover. Instead I stayed a bit longer and waited for the sky to darken. While not the same as the natural beauty of a sunset, I did enjoy the beauty of watching the city light up for the night. Back on the ground, I had a fantastic meal of oysters and lamb ribs before retiring back to the hostel for a nights rest.
The repetitive beeping of my watch alarm at 6:40 the next morning got me up and out of bed as I began another day of exploration. My first event of the day was a walk to Mt. Eden, a dormant volcano and essentially a large green hill a few miles away from the city center. While the climb from base to summit is only about 15 minutes, the hour walk from the hostel to the base is completely uphill, meaning that by the time I did reach the peak, I had broken a sweat. The effort was well worth it though as I was rewarded with incredible views of the city skyline, harbor, and surrounding areas of Auckland. I used the view as an opportunity to relax and cool off in the morning breeze before making my way back down to the city center. I strolled down to the water where I met Louise, the guide for a free walking tour of Auckland. The two and a half hour tour explored a variety of different areas of the city, from the wharfs, to Albert Park, to the university campus, and more. I very much appreciated getting to learn about the development of Auckland, the history of New Zealand, and the Maori culture. After receiving little to no information about the aboriginal population in Australia, I was glad to educate myself on the Maori people, and hear about the agreement for equality, the language, and the growing movement to celebrate this history throughout the country. Once the tour had finished I walked along the water through Viaduct Harbour, where there the Volvo Ocean Race Village was set up. It was completely unexpected but interesting to learn about the race and see the boats up close.
Wanting to have a plan for the coming day, I was thinking about visiting Waiheke Island when I looked through some tours on Saturday night. The small island just 19 km from Auckland is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty, pristine coastline, and food and drink options. I randomly stumbled upon a half priced wine, beer, and spirits tasting tour, and decided to go for it. That is why I found myself on the ferry to Waiheke Island on Sunday afternoon. When I arrived I met Justin, our driver and guide, as well as the 7 other group members.
Our first stop was Kennedy Point Vineyard. One of many vineyards on the island, Kennedy Point is a very small operation, making only about 4,000 bottles of wine every year. We tasted their Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and Syrah. The wine was lovely and the location and views over the water were remarkable, making for a fantastic time. I finished off the visit with a Sauvignon Blanc oyster shooter which was quite the experience.
Next up was Boogie Van Brewing, a small brewery owned and operated by a former Colorado resident. Not only did we get to taste his excellent craft beers, but he also gave us a breakdown about the brewing process, different malt types, homegrown hops, and his hopes for the future of the brewery.
Finally we stopped at Dellows Waiheke, a distillery created by Bill Dellows, a former Brit full of knowledge about alcohol and it’s history. Bill makes a number of spirits and liquors, ranging from gold medal winning gin to fun flavors such as pineapple chocolate vodka. We sampled a minty “Lucky Leprechaun” vodka, his awarded gin, a Manuka aged whiskey, and finished with limoncello. While I can’t say that I love the taste of straight whisky, it was fun to try some unique flavors and learn about the pastime of the spirits.
With our tour completed and the ferry shortly departing, we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the mainland. I got back to hostel and began packing up for my departure from Auckland. Another weekend gone, another city seen. Sometimes it all moves so fast it’s hard to take in, but that’s what a long train ride is for.