Exploring Auckland, New Zealand

by Eric Pateman

Are the 13+ hour flight times from Canada to Auckland, New Zealand worth the journey? Visiting Aotearoa, or the land of the long white cloud, is a serious commitment and not a trip one chooses on a whim for the long weekend. My answer? Most definitely!

The city of Auckland is surrounded by water and has two gorgeous coastlines; at only 2 km at its narrowest point, you can walk from coast to coast in a day! The whole country is circumnavigated by 3,700 kilometers of coast line, thus water-based activities are a key part of life, and Auckland is also known as the “City of Sails” for the Kiwis’ feverish passion for yacht racing!

The region features a very unique and stunningly beautiful landscape that begs to be explored. With more than 50 volcanoes in close proximity, it is the only city in the world bravely built on a still active basaltic volcanic field.

In the past year, I have been fortunate enough to travel to Auckland several times, and yet, I still can’t get enough! This city calls me back again and again for its approachability, and ticks off all my favourite activities – hiking, biking, running, water sports like surfing and swimming, fishing, and of course, eating! Auckland celebrates casualness like no other city. It reminds me of the Vancouver vibes I am so familiar with – just swap Gortex and lululemons for shorts and jandles (flip flops for us Canadians) as a nod to Auckland’s tropical climate.

The climate is also one of the reasons I am sure that Auckland is home to the largest South Pacific / Polynesian population on the planet. With an open immigration policy with many of the surrounding islands, Auckland embraces these incredible cultures. New Zealand also celebrates its indigenous Maori traditions which form the backbone of its culinary scene. Pit cooking (or hangi) is well known and used for celebratory cooking throughout the region. If you want a taste, check out celebrity Chef Rewi Spraggon’s new Maori Kitchen on Queen’s Wharf which just opened. I have also enjoyed fantastic local flavours at a small café and catering company called Puha and Pakeha, which does more modern twists on Maori cuisine!

The food culture in Auckland is one of the best reasons to visit this amazing city! While Wellington may have historically been the food capital of New Zealand, Auckland is now home to the majority of the award-winning restaurants in the country, and for good reason. With more than 200+ cultures calling the region home, the diversity of cuisine is incredible. And with a temperate climate that allows for fertile growing conditions, more than 25% of all of New Zealand’s produce is grown within the geographic limits of the region, making it a great place to find fresh, local ingredients from the sea, rivers, lakes and farmlands, and put them in the hands of some of the most talented chefs in the country!

In my view, food is an accentuator to experiences, and it can take a good experience and make it incredible! For example, I love eating oysters – anywhere, anytime – however in Auckland, you can take it to a whole new level! Jump on the Shuckle Ferry and head out into a bay to harvest them directly from the beds and eat them right on the boat, floating in the sunshine on the most azure blue waters, while drinking a chilled bottle of local bubbly or Sauvignon Blanc. Trust me – eating oysters will never be the same!

Culinary adventures are so much more than just fine dining restaurants, hence why even Michelin is now awarding stars to Hawker Market stalls in Singapore. While New Zealand may not have any Michelin starred restaurants (and personally, I hope it never does), it can compete with the best food in the world thanks to its incredible farmers, producers and chefs!

If you’re looking for a great day trip, take a ferry from the Auckland waterfront to Waiheke Island to explore some of the region’s top wineries and incredible restaurants, such as Tantalus Vineyards, which happens to be owned by a fellow Canadian! Pick up a bottle (or a few) to enjoy while hiking to the top of the local volcano or picnicking on a wild beach while surfing. Savouring a bottle of local wine, even out of plastic cups, surrounded by New Zealand flora will make it a bottle you will not soon forget!

There’s no shortage of day trip options throughout the area surrounding Auckland’s city centre. Head out to nearby Clevedon to try some beautiful buffalo cheese and milk products including some buffalo milk yogurt that was insanely smooth and creamy.

Before you head out to eat your oysters on the Shuckle Ferry, venture into Matakana, a picturesque village nestled amongst beautiful greenery and a charming little river. Quaint shops for books, chocolates, cheese and charcuterie, fragrant baked goods, coffee and wine abound. It also boasts a movie theatre with its own wine tasting room and an incredible farmers market on Saturdays. My wife loved this village so much, she went back to visit it again to stock up for a road trip up to Paihie with our children.

If you are a fan of food and art, be sure to pay a visit to the Brick Bay Winery, Restaurant and Sculpture Garden. With an ever-evolving selection of masterful sculptures on a trail that meanders through the acres of property guided by an expertly crafted map, this is a perfect afternoon stop for a glass of wine, a delicious bite and some culture.

And, if you happen to arrive in the region at the right time of year (early January), you can head out to the Ōtuatua Stone Fields and the Public Avocado Orchard and pick your own avocadoes off the giant trees. My daughters have tried in vain to get avocado pits to sprout in our kitchen, so they were ecstatic to see not only an orchard of full-size trees bearing fruit, but, even better, to climb up to pick them!

If you are staying put in downtown Auckland, don’t worry, there is no shortage of great eateries to check out. Here are some of my top picks:

Depot is from celebrity chef Al Brown, who is arguably the most vocal and important figure in celebrating Auckland cuisine, and this is a super-casual place right in the heart of the CBD that showcases the ingredients and casualness that makes Auckland special.

Convict, in its upstairs location just off busy Queen Street, is another spot that also celebrates ingredients without pretension. With a model similar to Dim Sum restaurants, this unique take on Auckland cuisine has me booking my reservations before I ever depart Vancouver.

The multicultural imprint on the Auckland dining scene is evident with standout restaurants like Cassia, with its modern interpretation of Indian cuisine that would easily rank it as one of the world’s best. Azuba prepares Japanese-inspired cuisine that is as gorgeous as it is tasty, with impeccable service. And the recently opened La Fuente Mezcal and Wine Bar will have you lining up for a taste of Mexico!

If a more theatrical dining experience is what you are looking for, Auckland does not disappoint either, with standout fine-dining at places like Pasture, a tiny 20-seat restaurant that was just voted Auckland’s restaurant of the year. For a meal that is a true performance, visit Clooney’s, which is just outside the CBD but offers a style of service that is more like a Broadway show, with an open kitchen and tables that are enveloped in sheer drapes. Each dish is delivered with a story and passion that is hard to convey.

If you still have room for something sweet, do not miss Giapo. This place takes ice cream to a level I have never seen anywhere else. The line-ups will be long (year round), but don’t be deterred – trust me, it is worth it! Not only is it an insta-dream, there is a wide selection of innovative and delicious flavours for even the dairy-intolerant in your family.

Be sure to take a tour of the city when you arrive – I always find it is the best way to get your bearings and discover some hidden treasures. One of my favourite tours in Auckland is run by a lady named Liz is who is a multi-generation Aucklander – her passion for sharing her city is contagious.

The long flight to this gem in the southern hemisphere will be quickly forgotten once you swap your rainboots for jandles and celebrate the casualness of Auckland. New Zealand, the Kiwis and Maori people, and the naturally pure environment are a perfect combination to make the trip of a lifetime!

Where to stay

I love to gather ingredients at the local shops and markets to cook when I travel, so I usually book a short-term vacation rental or AirBnB. When I was in Auckland, I discovered a fantastic property management company called Urban Butler that represents some of the best apartments in the city, but they also go above and beyond to help you plan your experiences, and introduce you to the right people and places during your visit. If a traditional hotel is more your style, I would recommend the Hilton for its location on the waterfront, the Heritage Inn due to its central location and roof-top pool, or if you want to be right in the middle of the CBD and all the action, the Sky City Hotel cannot be beat!

About Eric Pateman

Eric is one of the world’s leading experts on Culinary Tourism and is one of our nation’s leading ambassadors of Canadian cuisine. He owns and operates the successful Edible Canada brand of companies, which includes an award-winning restaurant, retail stores and a culinary travel division. Additionally, Eric also has a salt company called Amola and a consulting practice that keeps him travelling around the world about 250 days a year for both public and private sector clients to define cuisines, build brands and shape the future of food. You can follow Eric’s global culinary adventures on his Instagram account @ericpateman.