Auckland, New Zealand

I must say Quantas is one of the better airlines I’ve had the pleasure to fly with professional flight crews, comfortable seats and tasty food. Our flight over on Quantas was actually quite easy, and I had an entire row of seats to myself so I was looking forward to stretching out to get some sleep. This prospect was in some jeopardy early in the flight due to a family behind me with one squalling child (poor kid was teething) and two very young kids one of which kicked my seat for three hours solid at the beginning of the flight in spite of polite requests to cease. In the interim, I was able to get some work done and look out the windows. I have always liked the windows on 747s because they are relatively big and allow for quite a bit of vision when you are able to see stuff. When they shut the lights off for the middle part of the flight, I was able to look out at the sky above the South Pacific and see an amazing variety of stars with constellations that I have never before seen. I was looking for the Southern Cross. At some point, the kids behind me finally crashed, allowing me to sleep for almost seven hours, but I was kinda bummed about not being able to see much below me out of the window from Los Angeles all the way to Auckland because it was dark ALL the way.

Flying into Auckland is fairly impressive with amazing seascapes and green everywhere. On arrival, the airport in Auckland proved very clean and quite nice with a waiting area for families and friends to sit in an elevated seating area so you can see folks coming. Customs was quick and easy and M was waiting for us on the other side to take us to their home in the Mt. Eden neighborhood. Mt. Eden is an older neighborhood with wonderful houses that are about 100 years old and typically made of Kauri wood with Matai and Rimu wood floors and tin roofing. Things are quite green and verdant outside, but there are no sprinkler systems. It rains enough to keep things nice and there is an amazing variety of odd plants, huge ferns, fern trees, huge oak looking trees and other wild looking plants that I never see back in the U.S..

Mt. Eden also approximates the famous Eden Park Cricket pitch which was the home of the very first victory by New Zealand against the West Indies in 1955.

Walking around Auckland is fairly easy with a good public transit system filled with polite drivers and passengers alike. Routinely, when we got off the bus in Auckland, all of the riders including the hard core looking surly teenagers with spiked hair and torn clothes say “Thank you driver”. I love it. The feel there is much like that of Seattle Washington combined with perhaps Vancouver Canada with a fairly diverse population. Walking also allows one to get an appreciation of the local economic structure which in Auckland at least appears to be quite fragmented and is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it appears to work quite well with small businesses being the rule, rather than the exception. A huge variety of small family owned stores and restaurants make for a wonderful diversity combined with a quality product from meat markets to fish mongers to car shops that specialize in say, gas struts for hatches and hoods. No big box stores that I could see, which was rather refreshing.

Speaking of food: Frasier’s in Auckland was an experience to behold. Lattes served in soup bowls and an eggs benedict experience that I suspect may never be surpassed. From my limited sampling, Frasier’s should be a destination for anyone in the Auckland area interested in breakfast or an early lunch and I would assume that their other meal times would be just as rewarding.

I also had lunch at a small place called One Red Dog downtown in Auckland. It was a pizza/pasta place where I had a calzone made with a local cheese, chicken smoked with a local wood which imparts a kind of almond flavor to the chicken, and it was finished off with a mango chutney mixed in with the tomato sauce with fresh basil. Weird, but VERY tasty. We dined while sparrows flew on occasion into and out of the restaurant helping themselves to what crumbs hit the floor.

We also ate New Zealand green lipped mussels at a place called The Occidental on Vulcan lane. This is a Belgian place with great beer and some of the best mussels I have ever had in my life. We had four or five different types of of New Zealand green lipped mussels and they were all fabulous. I ate too much and drank too much (a few Chimay’s and a Framboise). We then walked around town for an hour and then back home where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit pillow.

The following day, I walked around more and it became apparent that there are lots of students of all varieties in Auckland. The trades are popular with lots of technical colleges, but there also appear to be lots of art students. Computer animation as art is HUGE judging by the half dozen computer animation colleges I saw just walking around. There also appears to be lots of music and art colleges while the fashion industry apparently turns out many students as well. Lots of really cool little clothing shops with some very reasonable prices for high end custom clothes that draw lots of folks from Japan and Singapore, and other local countries go there to clothes shop. It is interesting though that the women in Auckland were fabulous dressers with funky clothes and the guys for the most part appeared oblivious to the clothing market choosing instead to dress like slobs, irrespective of socio-economic class.

People watching is very interesting with everybody regardless of style or quality of clothing, seeming to wear black. The color black appears to be a national favorite and not only are the clothes black, but things like straws and plates and other decor is all the color of black. In fact, the national rugby team is called the New Zealand All Blacks and the basketball team is called the Tall Blacks. If anybody can inform me as to the origin of this national obsession, I would appreciate it.

My boss, R said that “New Zealand has the richness of culture that comes out when any one particular culture does not dominate.” This is perhaps the best description that one could come up with for New Zealand. This place is amazing with Maori culture mixed in with Asian, European and other Polynesian cultures along with all of the art, language and food that comes with them.

New Zealand is a very young and affluent country. Lots of young couples and babies in “prams” are about. The kids appear to be very relaxed talking with others including adults with very little of the fear that is instilled in kids as part of the culture back in the US. I am sure there are some bad aspects of things but I did notice as we walked past a grammar school that all of the kids appeared to be playing together nothing in the way of little cliques or isolated kids on the playground. Interesting, but it could also reflect the very democratic nature of the country as a whole. The economy has a very flat pyramid and the average household wage is reasonable. I was informed by Sharon and Craig that it is approximately ~$41k US (stats here) with a significan
t degree of socialization between socio-economic classes (which might appear very foreign to folks particularly on the east coast of the US.

While in the area, you should take advantage of the many parks that seem to be everywhere in Auckland. Eden park is one of many old volcanic cones that the Maori used as a fortress. The place is beautiful with cows living in the park in the middle of the city. Again….weird. You are walking down a trail in the middle of a large metropolitan city and you round a corner to come face to face with a dozen or so cows. Very happy looking cows if I might be so bold. I don’t know if it is the sort of romantic view that visitors seem to have but all of the animals and people seem to be happy.

One Tree Hill is another park in the middle of Auckland that is also a functioning farm with green green green fields and very happy looking roosters and cows and sheep walking around. The top of the hill gives a tremendous view of Manukau sound all the way around to Rangitoto.

The people of New Zealand appear to be very active. Everywhere in Auckland at least, cyclists and runners are partaking of the beauty of the outdoors in one of the cleanest large cities I’ve ever seen. And when they are not walking/running/cycling, they are on the water. Auckland is called the city of sails and this is truly reflected in the number of boats down on the waterfront. There is something like 1 boat for every four people in New Zealand with over 70 thousand boats in the Auckland area alone. Amazing. The Kiwis here also appear to do a bit of “whinging” to use the local vernacular. The Americas Cup boat was down on display and there was an explanation of the history behind it. Lots of legal action even to get the current holder of the Americas Cup to race them which they eventually agreed to do and soundly beat the New Zealand effort, which they again complained and instigated more legal action. Weird.

The beaches are also quite accessible with over 100 beaches within an hours drive of downtown Auckland. We took a quick thirty minute drive over to the ocean to Piha beach (location of much shooting for The Piano) which was composed of black volcanic sand making for very dramatic scenes. Lots of photos here, but the photo that I missed (always remember extra batteries for your camera!) was a family walking down the beach with an off road pram and baby which was nothing unusual, but they also had with them two dogs and a baby goat. The baby goat was absolutely the alpha creature of the group and seemed to be saying to the dogs, “follow me” because he was leading the dogs everywhere and here is the deal: they WERE following him everywhere WITH enthusiasm. It was absolutely hilarious.

Car culture in New Zealand is quite evident with a very active bunch of young folks who highly customize their automobiles. Fins and gills and wings like some phallic symbols on wheels to quote Thomas Dolby. Also a number of former Japanese market automobiles appear to make it to New Zealand for a thriving used car market. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see a large number of micro car models not typically seen in the US, but given current gas prices, one has to wonder why not.

I also recommend scheduling an entire day to see the Auckland Museum and war memorial along with the surrounding botanical gardens. While not the most comprehensive museum or the largest I’ve seen, it is clearly among one of the best in the world with tasteful displays and an elegance unparalleled by many larger museums of the world. The museum is a large neo-classical building located on a hilltop overlooking the Auckland harbor and is a combination natural history museum, historical archive and memorial to those fallen in combat.

The natural history portion includes everything from the geology and geography of New Zealand to the flora and fauna. Did you know kiwi birds have whiskers like cats? Bizarre. And speaking of bizarre, there are two moa birds on display. One skeleton and one taxidermied version that are both impressive renditions of a BIRD that one would not want to meet in a dark alley if alive. It is truly a shame they were hunted to extinction as the sight of one actually moving and living must have been a humbling sight.

There were also some fascinating exhibits about local Maori culture including entire Maori meeting houses reconstructed within the museum along with lots of boats, paddles and instruments of war like spears and clubs and such. There were also lots of implements of daily life like fishing implements, cooking vessels bark cloth etc…. which again makes you realize that the effort required to maintain life back then was truly Herculean. Notable is an impressively constructed Maori war canoe in the center of one exhibition hall.

Additionally, they have both a Nakajima Zero and a Supermarine Spitfire. I had seen a couple of Spitfires before, but the Zero is a much rarer aircraft and the first I had ever seen.

Of course there is food to be had at the museum as well. A had a snack of Devonshire biscuits likely made with lots of butter served with same, jam and a sweet clotted cream called Devonshire cream. A truly heartstopping snack, but tasty. I had something called a “chicken tortilla” which turned out to be ineed a tortilla with chicken underneath, but also sliced potatoes, an interesting fruit chutney, some unidentifiable but quite tasty brown sauce covering it up with little bits of fruit mixed in. Pretty darned good.

Oh, I would be remiss if Devonport were not mentioned. Devonport is this beautiful little town that has the strangest combination of atmosphere. It is primarily an English type seaside town, but with elements of North Africa (from the plants and trees), the South Pacific (from the weather) and England (from the buildings, food and people). After a quick snack and Guinness, I walked up the street to a knitting store where I got a couple of skeins “hanks” of knitting for my mom. The material is an incredible mix of Merino wool and New Zealand opossum fur. Very soft indeed and apparently only available in New Zealand.

After snacking in Devonport, I had a bit of a walk up to a place called the Armory. This was another ancient Paa where the Maori held as a strategic fortress. Later during WWI and WWII it was used as a strategic gun emplacement. I can think of worse places to be stationed as the gun positions to the north looked out over a beautiful sound towards Rangitoto. The houses down in Devonport are as cute as can be.

On our way out of Auckland, there were a bunch of Japanese tourists that apparently came down on a shopping holiday that were in front of us. The deal with that is that they pay $1300 US to fly in from Tokyo to various cities with empty luggage only to shop till they drop and fill up said empty luggage with goodies from far away places. Again…..weird.

Are there any drawbacks to New Zealand? I am sure there are many that might become apparent after living there for a while. One that does come to mind however, is work. Aside fro
m being a place to go for those who enjoy the outdoors (making the process of work all that more difficult), I will say however that there is a certain bureaucracy that tends to get in the way of accomplishing work. I will admit that living in the US has me a bit spoiled for Internet access. I am likely too wired and my demands for connectivity could be pathological, but even getting Internet access for the brief times at the medical school in Auckland was a bit of a struggle. I had to ask the local IT guy there to get access and he only reluctantly agreed to write down a couple of IP addresses. When I told him we would also need a subnet mask and gateway to go with the IP address, he harumphed and said “Oh, very well”. Also finding a place to plug ones laptop in is quite difficult. There are Internet cafe’s, but they are designed around existing desktop systems. Laptops are still a bit of a luxury item, but I will say that Starbucks and T-Mobile prove to be quite accommodating as hotspots. You drink coffee, work…..drink more coffee, work a little more and rattle yourself down the street in a fit of caffeine induced tremors.

All told, Auckland, a city of over 1 million people is a place I could easily spend more time. At the same time, it appears to have elements of small town life combined with a sophistication that runs deep. The quality and diversity of food is amazing, the cultural mix of people is refreshing and if you enjoy the outdoors at all, this place should be a pilgrimage destination. New Zealand is amazing. If you have the means and the time, I highly recommend spending a little time with the Kiwis. At the end of August, the winter is ending in New Zealand so the weather was a bit cold while we were there, but the people are tremendously warm. Everybody is very friendly and polite, especially my hosts, M and E who were wonderful.

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