Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Weekend in Auckland

A couple weekends ago, we spent a great two and half days in Auckland -- which, like many big cities, is much-maligned by the natives who don't live there. Our neighbor, Jeanette, upon hearing that we were headed there for the long Queen's Birthday weekend, said, "Oh, are you picking up someone else at the airport?" Sally, the lone Auckland-lover among our Kiwi friends, recommended we check out the multicultural Saturday morning market in South Auckland and then, hedging a little, said, "Maybe I should find someone to go with you." A patient of Mark's warned us specifically against going to that area, recounting the story of someone who was axed to death at the market fairly recently. We decided to skip the market, but we found a lot to enjoy in the city. Auckland definitely doesn't have the spectacular setting of Wellington, but there are some very pretty spots and lots to do.

Highlights that were not photographed included our Saturday visit to Kelly Tarlton's cool aquarium and Antartic expedition exploratorium where we saw a fascinating ray show (who knew the huge shark-related animals would come up to their minder like a dog?), took a mini-tank ride in among the penguins, and walked through a recreation of Scott's Antarctic headquarters. Following that, we had good Japanese food on the hip Parnell shopping drag where we did a bit of window and real shopping too. We treated ourselves to an anniversay present of this very cool lampshade for our bedroom at home. We figure, after 12 years, an overhead lamp in that room would be nice. A nice plus is that it's made from sustainable materials by a cool artist who lives not too far from us in the Taranaki region.

For the foodies (including me), I wish I'd had my camera at the very good dinner we enjoyed Sunday night at a restaurant called Euro, one of the kitchens under chef Simon Gault (who I coincidentally heard on national radio today), which had just a bit of the molecular gastronomy thing going on. The food was well-conceived, interesting, and well-made -- not something we've experienced too much here I'm afraid. We particularly enjoyed the calamari salad with dates, lemon, and arugula (great sweet-tart balance), the herb gnocchi with pork and anchovy rillettes and wild mushrooms, and Alex made his way through his entire portion of duck with citrus sauce with raisin couscous and chive and pink peppercorn butter -- despite having had a really long day and a big bowl of seafood chowder to start.

On the fanciful side, components like red pepper tapioca pearls of "couscous" with Mark's fish of the day and Japanese mustard ice cream with a starter of crab and avocado ravioli added interest without overwhelming a dish with strangeness. Strangeness did completely envelop my dessert, entitled "Spoons of 2011," but I can handle that in the last course. It was four spoons filled with architectural elegance and unexpected juxtaposed flavors and textures including feijoa and lime sorbet with pineapple jelly, a smooth oval yogurt skin ("egg") encapsulating gorgonzola and honey, and guava fizz candy crystals with another capsule (this time a "sphere") made from honey, and then lychee tea frothed with lemon "air," more like a foam. [A culinary non-highlight of the weekend, unfortunately, was that I finally ate a NZ crayfish (koura) at a different restaurant. It was underwhelming - particularly as I misguidedly ordered it smothered in gloppy sauce.]

We had started Sunday with the generous breakfast buffet at our hotel, CityLife, which we do recommend for anyone traveling en famille. We had a spacious two-bedroom suite and kitchen and there was a nice indoor and chlorine-free pool, The hotel is walking distance to the water and the Sky Tower among other attractions. Mark had found a good deal via (the "last-minute bargain" website here) with breakfast, valet parking, and a family ticket to Kelly Tarlton included. It wasn't their fault that, even 10 stories up, I couldn't sleep Saturday night because of boisterous rugby fans who were up after 3 am watching some big game in another time zone.

We were happy to see that it would be a cool but sunny day so we headed to the ferry dock to take a trip to Rangitoto Island, the largest and most recently erupted of the volancoes in Auckland's harbour. (The next day, at the museum, we sat through a simulation of Rangitoto erupting again in modern-day Auckland. A bit freaky.) Due to some confusion re: changing seasonal schedules, we did not catch the earliest ferry and so we had to speed-hike up and down the lumpy, black volcanic trails, stopping only briefly to shoot a few views back onto the city and take a very quick side trip into the lava caves. We made it back to the ferry, luckily, or we would have had to wait another four hours.

We saw these guys as we ferried out to Rangitoto.
View from Rangitoto back onto Auckland.Many sailboats in this city.
The black volcanic rock formations of the island.
We got back to the city in time to grab a bite at a design-your-own-burrito type of Mexican place, which made Nikko's weekend - he misses Moe's so. Then we expanded our horizons by squeezing in with the boisterous crowd revved up to see some big motocross finals race in a closed off city parking lot.

Some young fans.
After that, we headed over to the Sky Tower, tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere at 328 metres and known by all sorts of lovely names, including one that gives the Cialis-emblazoned sail in the photo above, a whole 'nother spin, shall we say. You can -- it being New Zealand after all -- jump off the tower, as this woman was doing; walk around the tower on a Sky Walk, as the orange-suited people are doing; or just walk over conveniently placed windows in the floor with a straightshot view of the far-below sidewalk- which was enough thrills for us.

This young man was probably between the ages of Nikko and Alex and the jump guy must have spent at least 10 minutes talking him into the jump. We didn't blame him.

After the previously mentioned fine dinner at Euro, we crashed into deep and heavy slumber with no loud rugby fans lamenting their team's loss to disturb us this night. The next day we headed to the Auckland Museum, known for its fine collection of Maori artifacts.

The floor of war memorabilia included some real cool airplanes that reminded me of Dad's models. So this photo is for you, HRM.

Alex with a moa, the main source of land-based meat food for the first Pacific Island settlers. It was eaten to extinction.

And, since you can't really take photos of real kiwis, I figured this would have to do.

The ancient version of penguins did get this big, apparently.

The botanic gardens arond the museum were beautiful with stately palm trees.

We wrapped up our Auckland visit with a drive out to one of the beaches, Mission Bay, where we sat at a sidewalk cafe and had good pizza and a few drinks and people-watched before enjoying a final ice cream and a stroll on the beach.

View of Rangitoto, the dormant volcano we had climbed, from Mission Beach.

Yes, we decided, Auckland is more than just a place to drop off and pick up visiting relatives.

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