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Members of the The Flight Deal have been to New Zealand twice in the last two years. Always a good time. The food is good, the scenery is even more amazing. Worth the long journey.
Jim “The Travel Organizer,” who last wrote about Oslo, the small German town of Speyer and Deidesheim, Oahu, Napa Valley, Venice, Singapore, Bangkok, Sonoma County and Myrtle Beach, went to Auckland recently and here are his tips should you visit.
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This report covers Auckland, the second destination in our epic, 34,498 mile – Charlotte – New York – Helsinki – Oslo – Doha – Auckland (and back) odyssey. To read about what prompted us to take this circuitous path from the 4th northernmost country in the world (Norway) to the 4th southernmost country in the world (New Zealand), read my destination report on Oslo.
Getting from Auckland’s airport (AKL) to the Central Business District (CBD)
Skybus offers convenient transport between the airport and Auckland’s CBD, where most visitors will be staying. Advance tickets ($16 NZD = $11.07) can be purchased at a modest discount online. Skybus begins operation from AKL at 4:45am, departing every 10-30 minutes and making 6 stops, mostly along Queen Street, in the CBD. It’s hard to beat Skybus if traveling with a family since up to 4 children up to 16 years old, ride free on a family pass.
Alternative: “Backpacker Shuttle” shuttle is a relatively new service. I met Brett, the owner of this start-up, for dinner one night to understand his business model. Apparently once a backpacker himself, Brett is (as of the date this report is written) a one-man show, using his own vehicle. His focus is on providing door-to-door service from the airport to hostels, etc. But he indicates he will not turn away readers of The Flight Deal. In the interests of full transparency, I experienced some “hiccups” in communication but this is not unusual for start-up operations. Brett prices his transport services on a per person basis ($15 NZD = $10.37 USD). While not a significant savings over Skybus, his unique selling proposition is his “door to door” service. So if the lodging you book is more of a walk from a Skybus stop than you might prefer, it might be worth contacting Brett via WhatsApp (+64 22 091 8704). (Editor’s Note: You can also take Uber from the airport to CBD for about 50NZD or about $35USD)
Where we stayed
It’s hard to imagine a more ideal location for one’s stay than the Hilton Auckland. At the end of Princes Wharf in the CBD, it is less than a 5 minute walk to the Ferry Building, the New Zealand Maritime Museum and stop #1 on the Auckland Explorer Bus (see below). I happened to be sitting on a sizable pile of Hilton Honors points so our 5 nights cost us $0 out-of-pocket + 232,000 points ($232/night), about 20% less than what we would have paid in cash. I was a Diamond member when I made our booking (thanks to a status match) and even though I was “only” a Gold member when we checked in, we still got upgraded to an oversized Harbor View room – very nice! The hotel’s generous breakfast buffet often ended up being our largest meal of the day (more opportunity to walk off those calories). The ground level lounge features live entertainment weekend evenings.
What we did
Auckland’s harbor (a portion of which is visible in the picture of the Hilton Auckland on Princes Wharf above) opens into the Hauraki Gulf – a 3 million acre marine park. The Gulf is where the competing pressures of population growth (in 80 years, Auckland’s population has mushroomed more than 514%), tourism, shipping and conservation concerns converge. This is a truly unique ecosystem; “(n)early one-third of all the planet’s marine mammal species have been spotted in the gulf’s waters” (100% Pure New Zealand website), including a semi-resident population of critically endangered Bryde’s whales. We went out on a 4.5 hour “Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari” (AWADS) with the company by the same name. AWADS, New Zealand’s only research-based marine mammal experience strives “to provide an environmentally responsible travel experience where…customers can enjoy and appreciate nature with minimal impact on the environment.”
- Save up to 50% off this $180 NZD (about $125 USD) adventure by purchasing your tickets through the Bookme website if you plan far enough in advance.
- Schedule your safari as early as possible during your stay in Auckland, if you don’t see marine mammals on your first outing, AWADS will give you a voucher for a free sailing on a subsequent day.
Tiritiri Matangi (meaning “a place tossed by the wind”), one of the more than 50 islands in the Hauraki Gulf, is a wildlife sanctuary you can visit Wednesday – Sunday and holidays most of the year and daily from December 26 – mid-January. Tiritiri Matangi Island is home to one of the rarest birds in the world, the critically-endangered takahe (pictured here), thought to be extinct until the discovery of a small colony in 1948.
Tip: You can visit on your own by booking passage on the single daily ferry but you will get infinitely more out of your visit by paying just $10 NZD (less than $7.00) more to be greeted by a volunteer guide when your ferry docks and led on a 90 minute nature walk. On this guided walk, you will learn the story of how almost 300,000 trees were planted by volunteers over a 10 year period to create “…a forested sanctuary made safe for endangered birds but open to the public” (“History”) on this island which had been stripped of 94% of its native bush over 120 years of farming and wartime defense.
If you’ve read my destination reports for Sonoma and Napa Counties in California’s Wine Country, you may recall that one of my “gigs” is developing wine-tasting itineraries fully customized to match one’s taste, interests and time available. So I couldn’t visit Auckland without spending a day on Waiheke Island, another island in the Hauraki Gulf which is home to more than two dozen wineries. Since we would be using Fullers’ Waiheke Island Explorer Hop On, Hop Off Bus once our ferry docked at Matiatia Bay, I sent e-mails to most of the wineries listed on their brochure. Only 5 replied to my inquiries; we visited 3 of them (described below).
Tip: Ticket options are confusing! If you want to use the roundtrip ferry and unlimited hop on, hop off bus to get around the island and visit the wineries, purchase the “Waiheke Explorer” ticket on the Fullers website for $60 NZD (about $41.50) per person.
The “Waiheke Explorer” bus meets each ferry and sets off on its cross-island path. Since most wineries don’t open until 11am, we traversed the island and started our winery visits on the return journey. Our first stop was #10, Tantalus Estate Vineyard. Our tour and tasting was conducted by Clare Dunleavy who, literally, has “written the book” – its title is Waiheke Island: A World of Wine – about the owners and winemakers whose vision and passion have made Waiheke Island a world class destination for oenophiles. A “tantalus” is an open rack that holds liquor decanters (usually crystal) secured by a mechanism preventing the stoppers from being opened unless the device is unlocked. The word comes from the Greek legend of the mythical King Tantalus who was condemned to stand forever in a pool of water in Hell, the waters of which would recede if he bent over to drink. So to be “tantalized” is to be tempted by something one can’t have; Tantalus Estate Vineyard appropriates this myth by describing the opening of one of its bottles of wine, in Clare’s words, as “unlocking preciousness.” The chic tasting room and restaurant on premises are decorated with chandeliers made from inverted sauvignon blanc vines that were pulled out when the vineyard was replanted with Bordeaux varietals in 1998.
Our next stop was #12, Batch Winery, the highest altitude vineyard on Waiheke Island with spectacular 360 degree views of the island and, off in the distance, Auckland’s skyline. Like Tantalus Estate Vineyard, Batch Winery’s name has an interesting etymology. Each bottle’s label carries a unique “batch” number denoting the vintage and style of the wine within. Also, in New Zealand, the word “bach” (pronounced “batch,” from “bachelor pad”) “…is deeply embedded in the Kiwi psyche” (100% Pure New Zealand website) to describe a holiday home. Like typical New Zealand baches, Batch Winery features eclectic architecture in multiple colors but with design elements that belie the simplicity of the lines. The winery features translucent wall panels in the colors of wine that change with the ambient light throughout the day.
Our final tasting at #17, Jurassic Ridge Winery, was conducted by its colorful geologist/neurologist “founder, viticulturist, winemaker, cellar door pourer, sales manager, tractor driver and odd-job man” (“About Us”), Lance Blumhardt. The vines of Jurassic Ridge are planted atop 155 million-year-old rock formations which gradually break down, giving the wines grown here a flavor profile reminiscent of some of France’s iconic wine growing regions. One of the things that make Lance’s wines special is his winemaking philosophy, “Jurassic Ridge wines are suitable for all wine lovers including vegetarians and vegans as NO animal products…are used in their production” (“Winemaking”).
The Auckland Explorer Bus can be a good way to see Auckland attractions beyond the CBD. Divided into “red” and “blue” lines which meet at Auckland’s War Memorial Museum, this hop on, hop off narrated bus “tour” includes stops at Mt. Eden, Auckland Zoo, Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium and even a ferry ride to Devonport.
- Although described as 2 lines, the “red” line becomes the “blue” line (and vice versa) at the Museum, so you never have to worry about “missing” a connection from one line to the other.
- The buses run in one direction only, according to the chronological order of stop numbers, so backtracking is not efficient.
- Your bus ticket includes discounted admission to the New Zealand Maritime Museum.
- Save up to 55% by purchasing your tickets through the Bookme website!
We’re big fans of walking tours. We did both Auckland’s Free Walking Tour (leaves Queens Wharf daily at 10:00am; PM tours are added during New Zealand’s summer) and a self-guided walking tour covering additional sites and areas. Julie, who led our free walking tour, was extremely knowledgeable; she shared things about important people and events in Auckland’s history we never would have learned otherwise. I also put together a half-day self-guided walking tour that included a visit to the Auckland Fish Market, Silo Park, some public art installations, Auckland Town Hall and Aotea Square, art galleries and some beautiful churches (pictured here). Just contact me if you would like a copy of this self-guided walking tour.
An oddity about paying at restaurants…
Your server may not bring a bill to your table. Instead, you go to the register when you are ready to pay; your tab will be linked to your table in the restaurant’s POS system. Also, tipping, per se, is not expected; it is, however, customary to put your spare change in the “charity jar” near the register.
About the Author:
I organize things; it’s what I do! I enjoy the natural adrenaline high of travel as much as the next person but I also try to limit the likelihood that the surprises I experience along the way will be unpleasant ones. To this end, I spend more hours than most preparing for each trip. Fortunately for me, I enjoy the anticipation of travel as much as the experience of it. The focus of my trip reports will be to help those who read them to enjoy high value experiences — maximizing enjoyment while minimizing cost. I’ve been a minister, nonprofit agency executive, professor and consultant; my “job” in retirement is planning our next trip. If you would like additional information and/or recommendations, please feel free to contact “The Travel Organizer” via email.
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