For most of its history, New Zealand existed at the edge of the world. Before the Maori paddled ashore nearly a thousand years ago, the two main islands of Aotearoa (“the Land of the Long White Cloud”) were practically still prehistoric, ruled over by flightless moa birds that stood 12 feet tall. In fact, New Zealand was the last major landmass on Earth touched by human feet. These days, the nation’s cultural ambassadors—Peter Jackson, Flight of the Conchords, Lorde—are doing a fairly good job attracting international attention to what is arguably the most remote corner of the planet.
Auckland, meanwhile, is investing heavily in its infrastructure (a $350 million convention center and rail system are on their way) and cultural institutions (the reimagined Auckland Art Gallery won the 2013 World Building of the Year award, and the derelict 1928 St. James Theatre is being restored). This year, the country’s largest city welcomed the first annual Auckland City Limits concert festival, an Austin spin-off headlined by Kendrick Lamar. You can’t help but feel that New Zealand is consistently punching above its weight. But what else would you expect from a country that has the warrior blood of the Maori coursing through its veins?
In which Nicholas gazes into a dormant volcano, takes the wheel on the high seas, and contemplates facial tattoos
I’m standing atop Mount Eden: a dormant volcano, former Maori fort, Auckland’s highest natural point at 643 feet above sea level, and now something like the city’s backyard. From up here, it’s easy to see Auckland as a kind of greatest-hits version of the Pacific Rim: San Francisco’s escalator-steep hills, Portland’s fanatic coffee culture, Hawaii’s volcanic landscape, Los Angeles’s sprawl, a Seattle-style observation tower, and fresh seafood that would wow any Tokyoite.
It might not be a good idea to get too engrossed in the view from up here. The hilltop trail circles a 160-foot-deep crater named Te Ipu-a-Mataaho, for the Maori volcano god. One wrong step and you’re in for quite an adventure. But the bowl-like crater is so tufted with soft grass and pinkish wildflowers that—bless New Zealand—even a tumble into a volcano looks as if it might be pleasant.
Mount Eden is invigorating, but I probably wouldn’t be standing here after an 18-hour flight if it weren’t for the two flat whites—New Zealand’s favorite coffee, a less foamy cappuccino—I consumed earlier in the sunny atrium of the Hotel DeBrett. Built in 1925, the city’s landmark hotel combines sleek Art Deco touches with bright pops of color and quirky minimalist furnishings. The surrounding Central Business District, or CBD, is all sleek boutiques, glossy skyscrapers (some of the only ones in the entire country), and as much bustle as you can expect from a pint-size metropolis. To get acquainted with Auckland’s more creative side, I’m off to meet Neala Glass, a whip-smart gallerist who moonlights as a street art guide for Great Auckland Walking Tours, in Ponsonby, a revamped inner suburb a 10-minute cab ride away. Now the haunt of hipsters and artists, this handsome cluster of Victorian villas has become a hotbed of public art—each work a small window into Kiwi culture.
“This area has always attracted migrants, bohemians, artists,” says Glass. “Polynesian rappers who lived here described it as ‘tough but colorful.’” It’s not so tough here now, but the color remains. We’re standing before the corner of a roof jutting out from the grass in Western Park, the work of local artist John Radford. “He submerges buildings like Roman ruins,” Glass says. “He’s inspired by the layered, checkered histories that lie beneath the surface.”
We turn onto Karangahape (known as K Road), a former red-light strip now thick with hip bars and clubs. The street is named for the mythical Maori chief Hape, whose name, Glass tells me, means “clubfoot.” “Because of his clubfoot,” she explains, “he wasn’t chosen to ride here on the Tainui war canoe. So he summoned a giant stingray, surfed here on its back, arrived two weeks early, and let out a wailing welcome call, or karanga, when everyone else got here.” It’s one of the few main roads here that kept its Maori name instead of getting the Victorias and Alberts you see everywhere else.
“This is a nod to our nuclear-free law,” says Glass, pointing to a panel of protest posters—the Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms Peace Mural—tucked behind a gas station. “Artists wanted to make visual their support for the bill. They painted a mural a month, 22 total, until it was passed.” From here, we stroll through narrow Myers Park, a palm-lined statue garden between steep grassy slopes.
“I used to work here,” Glass says as we approach the Auckland Art Gallery. Built in the 1880s in the French Château style, the gallery is dominated by a white clock tower with a gleaming annex made from glass and local kauri wood. I pop into the café for a Vanuatu-grown coffee before meeting gallery assistant Alice Ng for a stroll through the collection. We stop in a small room lined with stately 19th-century portraits of Maoris, each with intricate facial tattoos, or ta moko.
“It’s very painful,” whispers Ng. “They use a chisel to get the ink into your skin. Different tribes have different designs, so you can look at a face and trace a person’s lineage—like a family tree on your face.”
“What must the Maori think about all the American frat boys with tribal tattoos?” I ask.
“They actually have a word,” she says with a laugh, “for ‘ta moko without meaning.’”
I say goodbye to Alice and head toward the Sky Tower, the Southern Hemisphere’s tallest structure at 1,076 feet. Daredevils bungee off the top or—yikes—walk on a platform around the observation deck. After a quick ride to the top, during which I grip the side of the glass-bottomed elevator for dear life, I decide an acrophobe like me is much better off back at sea level. I grab an outdoor table at Depot Eatery, a buzzy bistro in the tower’s shadow, where I slurp sweet, briny Te Matuku oysters from nearby Waiheke Island and bigger, creamier Bluff oysters dredged up from the sand off the South Island’s southern tip.
I work off lunch with a midafternoon stroll, taking in a parade of Victorian and Art Deco buildings and a seemingly endless array of parks thick with subtropical plants. Auckland is a young city, founded by the British in 1840. It has the feeling of a colonial outpost that’s been jerry-rigged to fit into the nooks and crannies of an untamed volcanic landscape. At the heart of it all is the waterfront, a stretch of working docks that has seen extensive regeneration: The brick warehouses of the Britomart Precinct now host some of the city’s top fashion designers, while the reclaimed land of the Wynyard Quarter has brought food trucks and cutting-edge architecture to a post-industrial landscape still dominated by massive cement silos.
One such area is Viaduct Harbour, which got the ball rolling on all this waterfront renewal in the wake of New Zealand’s 1995 America’s Cup victory. (The winning vessel, Black Magic, resides nearby at the National Maritime Museum.) I’m scheduled to head out on a sailing tour of my own with the Explore Group on the 50-foot yacht Defiance.
The name of Waitemata Harbour derives from the Maori word for “sparkling waters,” and the sunlight dancing on the waves tells you why. “Auckland has the largest ratio of boats to people of any city in the world,” skipper Charles Scoones says as we set sail. “If you placed everybody on all the boats in Auckland, each boat would only need to hold five people.” The city also has the largest marina in the Southern Hemisphere—hence “the City of Sails.”
As we pass under the imposing Harbour Bridge (nicknamed “the coat hanger”), Scoones points to two flags flapping above. New Zealand is about to vote on whether to change the national flag. The current one has a Union Jack and the red-starred constellation Crux, the Southern Cross. The new design swaps out the Union Jack for a silver fern. This species of tree fern has a silvery underside, which Maori hunters would use to catch the moonlight on late-night hunts.
“Some people say it looks like a tea towel!” says Nick Fewtrell, a young crew member manning the sails.
“It’s all wrong!” agrees Scoones, shaking his head.
Each of the passengers takes a turn at the helm, and I’m last to go. I’m wondering if this is an elaborate ruse, suspecting that if I give the wheel a full Price Is Right whirl, the boat will barely move an inch to the left or the right. But when I finally grip the wheel, I see how responsive it is—each tiny maneuver breathes life into the sails, catching a new gust. I have to admit, I feel kind of powerful.
I debark for dinner on Princes Wharf. The Culpeper, a sunny new eatery with wicker chairs and palm-frond-patterned banquettes, serves dishes so artful—buttermilk-fried duck with honey-and-pink-peppercorn glaze, hiramasa kingfish and yellowfin sashimi with wasabi-avocado mousse, glazed lamb ribs with brown-butter yogurt and shaved beets—that I Google “time in NYC” to see if it’s too late (or too early?) to send my foodie friends photos of my dinner. (It is, but I do it anyway.)
I wander down Queen Street to Giapo Haute Ice Cream, where I get a scoop of Keri-keri avocado with macadamia praline, topped with macadamias tweezer-dipped in chocolate. (Other flavors come with piped and brûléed meringue or a miniature chocolate kiwi—the bird, not the fruit.) As I make my way back to the hotel, I’m reminded of a quote: “Modern Auckland is a perky gold-digger, over-talkative but full of ideas … and much in love with life.” This much sugar will do that to you.
In which Nicholas learns about extinct giants, gets schooled in “cuddly dudley” wines, and dines on the spoils of Waiheke Island
Eat your heart out, seven-hilled Rome: Auckland boasts a whopping 48 volcanic cones. Few of these are as starkly beautiful as Pukekawa, or “the hill of bitter memories,” atop which sits the neoclassical Auckland War Memorial Museum. I’ve taxied up here from the DeBrett to avoid the punishing incline—though if you’re going to get leg cramps, this green and lovely hillside is the place to do it.
Opened in 1929, the blindingly white marble museum is pure Western pomp, but it is filled with elegant nods to local Maori tradition (such as carved wreaths of kawakawa leaves instead of laurel). With a mission similar to the Smithsonian’s, it’s also a repository for Kiwi cultural treasures, like the ice axe of New Zealand–born Everest-summiter Sir Edmund Hillary and a 10-foot-tall recreation of a giant moa, a massive flightless bird hunted to extinction by the Maori some 600 years ago.
I cab it back to the DeBrett to grab my bags, then walk to the Auckland Ferry Terminal, a brick-and-sandstone colossus now over-shadowed by office buildings. A 35-minute ferry ride across Hauraki Gulf takes me to Waiheke Island, a 36-square-mile retreat that is part Hamptons (posh weekenders), part Napa Valley (wineries and olive groves), part Scottish Highlands (hordes of sheep), and part Kauai (hidden coves).
My first stop is the hillside Mudbrick Vineyard & Restaurant, where I’m having lunch with Aussie-born expat Mike Beagley, managing director of New Zealand luxury menswear brand Rodd & Gunn. Though his store sits on the CBD’s tony Queen Street, on the same block as Prada and Dior, Beagley is the definition of a charmingly approachable bloke.
“Ralph Lauren has a polo model. Rodd & Gunn has a polo team that actually plays polo,” he says, chuckling. “One of our players got smacked in the face with a mallet and got blood all over his uniform. It was fantastic!” I look down at my blood-red Angus beef tartare with mango mustard, daikon, coconut, and egg yolk, and I can’t help but join him in a laugh.
“The real New Zealand is this beautiful view,” he says, gesturing at the vine-covered hills and the skyline in the distance. “It’s an appreciation for great wine, great food, for life.” I have to agree that there is a dolce vita vibe to Waiheke—la dolce kiwita?—as I tuck into my second course of sweet corn and truffle ravioli with black trumpet mushrooms, watercress, and parmesan.
“This is refined,” he says, pointing to our food. “This is rustic,” he continues, nodding outside. “And that’s New Zealand.”
Beagley heads back to work, but I stick around at Mudbrick to meet Steve Robinson, a guide with the island’s family-owned Ananda Tours. He used to play in a rock band called the Heartbreakers (“This was before Tom Petty thought of the name!”) and co-owns the studio that produced the 1995 hit “How Bizarre” by OMC—the biggest pre-Lorde hit by a New Zealander. Today, he’s volunteered to be my designated driver.
“Waiheke is a Jurassic-era island with mineral-rich soils,” Robinson says as we hit the Mudbrick tasting bar. “We’re primarily an island of red wines and olives.” In fact, the island is perfect for growing the kinds of grapes you’d find in Bordeaux. Cellar master Bob Scott, who has a way with words, describes the country’s wines with phrases like “gooseberry with a slight hint of armpit,” “creamy richness that doesn’t go butter,” “pencil shavings and leather,” and “cuddly dudley.”
From here, Robinson drives me to a succession of hidden vineyards, along winding roads so narrow that we have to pull into the brush to allow cars to pass. We get to talking about the flag referendum: “I voted for the new flag, because my wife thinks I’m resistant to change,” he jokes, “and I wanted to prove her wrong.”
At Stonyridge Vineyard, which is tucked into a picturesque valley, I meet winemaker Marty Pickering, the son of a dairy farmer. “You know, I got all those practical, tractor-driving skills from him,” he says over a glass of Bordeaux-style Larose, “but then I don’t really like milk all that much. This end product is so much better.”
Farther on, at Obsidian Vineyards, which is run from a corrugated metal quonset hut, we sip Syrah with cellar master Martin Owens. “Australian Shiraz is a punch in the face,” he says. “New Zealand Syrah is a pat on the back.”
We continue past stands of flowering manuka trees, wetlands teeming with pukeko (long-legged purple swamphens), and sheltered coves like Little Oneroa Beach. Just up the hill from here is my next hotel, The Boatshed, a stylish update of a “bach”—Kiwi for a modest holiday home; the term is derived from either “bachelor pad” or the Welsh word for “small.” The digs are neither padlike nor cramped. In fact, the palette of whites and creams and the breezy nautical theme (model yachts, an old ship’s funnel, a chess set with puffin and seagull pawns) call to mind a Nantucket-set Nancy Meyers rom-com.
Guests assemble for dinner at tables that fill the cozy living room and spill out onto the patio. Using produce grown on-site in the hotel’s veggie patch, chef Adam Rickett creates the kind of fare you might find at a sophisticated friend’s backyard barbecue: dry-aged ribeye with yellow tomatoes, leeks, and zucchini; grapefruit-cured salmon with whipped avocado; salt-roasted beets, pickled fennel, lemon yogurt, and toasted hazelnuts; and a classic iceberg wedge salad.
Later, back in my room, I fall asleep with the door open, lulled by a sea breeze and the sound of waves crashing. I could get used to this.
In which Nicholas tubes through a glowworm-lit cave, gawks at slime-green springs, and eats like a Maori
I wake up before sunrise to catch a ferry back to the mainland. I flip on the radio in my rental car to news that the old flag has won out, and then begin a 120-mile drive south to Waitomo, home of the famous glowworm caves.
I embrace the road-trip vibe and make a breakfast of gas-station snacks: chicken crisps, hokey pokey (honeycomb) biscuits, and Lemon & Paeroa soda (“World Famous in New Zealand”). The whole left-side-of-the-road thing isn’t as hard as I’d expected—though I do switch on the wipers every time I try to signal a turn.
I pass through countryside populated by cows and sheep, suburbs turning to fields turning to gentle hills. Soon, I’m in the unassuming village of Waitomo, which sits atop 25 miles of caves lit by millions of beautiful glowworms.
“They’re officially maggots!” exclaims Angus Stubbs, of The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co., an outfit that drops people like me into a pitch-black labyrinth of subterranean streams.
“But that doesn’t market too well,” says his colleague Logan Doull.
“What strikes me is how bizarre it is that we’re selling you a ticket to see performing insects,” says Stubbs. “I can’t think of anywhere else…”
“Maybe a flea circus?” adds Doull.
The larvae of the fungus gnat, carnivorous glowworms attach themselves to cave ceilings by silk threads covered in mucus, and put on a bioluminescent display to attract unsuspecting prey that have flown into the darkness.
I’m led to a rack of insulated wetsuits, along with a young couple from Melbourne and a seven-girl netball team from Australia’s Gold Coast. “Netball? Is that an Aussie name for volleyball?” I ask, my Americanness glaring. I’m met with a nine-person barrage of shouts and groans. (It’s more like basketball, it turns out.)
“I shouldn’t have had that last basket of chips,” yells one of the girls, squeezing into her suit. “I have a food baby!”
“A food baby?” cries her teammate. “Mine’s full-grown!”
We’re set to explore the cave system via a network of underground streams, which will require us to place our backsides into rubber tubes and plunge butt-first off subterranean waterfalls. We practice our technique off a dock, aided by guides who are more than happy to offer helpful shoves. Screaming is optional, but I do feel that the expulsion of air might stop the murky cave water from going up my nose.
As we duck into the maw of Ruakuri Cave (Maori for “den of dogs”), a guide tells us to point our headlamps toward the hand-size, spidery-legged, grasshopperlike cave wetas on the ceiling. I don’t usually have a problem with bugs—but I have a problem with these beasts.
Once inside, we zip along lugelike, bouncing off limestone walls, bobbing over rapids, our noses inches from dangling stalactites. We’re told that we’re sharing these waters with crayfish and three-foot longfin eels (they bite!), but luckily I don’t meet any in the darkness.
Every few minutes, our tube caravan slides into a cavern, some with 60-foot-high ceilings. It’s not often that nature lives up to its Instagram-filtered, color-corrected photographic approximations, but this, a twinkling galaxy in miniature, is the closest I’ve come to feeling that I’m in the presence of magic. And to think, it’s all just gleaming mucus.
As we towel off back in the sunlight, my fellow spelunkers ask me where I’m headed next. I tell them I’ll be driving to a town called Rotorua, known for its Maori culture and hot springs, and they giggle-shriek: “It stinks!”
A harsh assessment, I think, until I approach the town about two hours later. The healing waters, which transformed this sleepy lakeside town into a tourist spa in the 1870s, give off the rotten-egg aroma of hydrogen sulfide. Luckily, your nostrils adjust quickly.
My first stop is south of Rotorua, at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which, despite its endearingly cheesy roadside attraction name, is actually a brilliant collection of hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud pools—all in surreal, otherworldly hues. The Champagne Pool, which fizzes with carbon dioxide, has a rust-red rim; the Devil’s Bath is a shockingly unnatural shade of slime green due to suspended sulfur crystals. The candy-store colors may look enticing, but some of these pools can quite literally boil you alive or acid-burn you to bits.
Intact, I head back to town, where I check into The Regent of Rotorua, a modish boutique hotel with an indoor pool fed by thermal waters of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Next, I’m off to meet Eruera “Eru” West at Te Puia, a family-run Maori cultural center that is part handicraft workshop, part history museum, and part aviary (they have a pair of kiwi birds). The grounds are dotted with spectacular hot springs, steam vents, and geysers. For West, the place is more second home than workplace.
“This is my tribal area,” he says. “There have been five generations of my heritage doing this. My mom is still my boss!” His aunt Teresa works here too—she’s the one who teaches me how to strip flax leaves and twist them into ropes at the on-site weaving school.
As evening falls, West and I join a group gathered in front of the wharenui, or meeting house. Elaborate eave carvings, with a head at the peak and fingertips at the bottom, are meant to evoke outstretched arms of welcome. It’s time for the te po, a Maori take on the luau.
“Kia ora,” says our host, Robert Piripi, offering up the traditional greeting, a phrase that has also been embraced by the pakeha, or white New Zealanders. “For me, this is home,” he continues. “We cook our food on the steam vents every day. We bathe inside the mineral waters every night.”
A middle-aged American man is chosen as the pakeha leader. The Maori blow a conch shell and send out a warrior to offer a token of friendship. Our “chief” accepts the gift, and he and the warrior press noses twice to mark the coming together of families and ancestors. The Maori then sweep the ground (to represent a clean slate), slap their thighs (to show no harm will come), and let out a wailing call (to symbolize a rope pulling a guest’s canoe to shore). Far from being a cheesy floor show for tourists, this is a culturally important ritual that dates back centuries. It’s a privilege to be a part of it.
After we’re ushered inside, the women perform with poi, twirling balls on a string, slapping them rhythmically against the palms and backs of their hands. The men flick out their tongues and widen their eyes, shouting and grunting their way through a haka, the war dance commonly associated with the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team. “It was designed to make the enemy turn around and run,” whispers West. “Sticking out your tongue shows that your mouth is watering for flesh.”
Speaking of which: The dance is followed by a feast, cooked in giant boxes over natural steam vents called hangi. In Maori neighborhoods, women still leave baskets of food over these seething holes for hours on end—something like geothermal slow cookers.
We start with a nonalcoholic shot of lemon, kawakawa herb, and manuka honey, which is said to have medicinal qualities (and sells for up to $50 per jar). After a quick “amene” (Maori for “amen”), we dig into a buffet of kumara (sweet potato) soup; hangi-steamed lamb, chicken, and pumpkin; and finally the iconic Wellington-born, kiwi-topped meringue dessert pavlova.
“Our word for ‘tourism,’ maanakitanga, actually has a much deeper meaning,” says West. “It means to increase your visitor’s mana—worth, prestige, importance—and that’s what we’re all about. Tribes would value themselves on their ability to accommodate and be hospitable.” A smiling Welsh woman sitting next to West at the table puts it a little more succinctly: “Doesn’t this whole entire country just ooze charm?”