-- Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, is a popular launch point for travelers.
The city welcomes the lion's share of inbound international flights as visitors head toward adventure throughout the country's North and South Islands.
But this vibrant city is well worth a visit all its own. It's certainly an urban hub: Auckland’s 1.5 million residents make up a third of New Zealand's population. This city is also a historic cornerstone and, because it's enveloped by wine lands, rainforests and gulf waters, it offers a slew of memorable experiences.
Here are just a few:
Skip the Hotel Gym, Take a Walk
Auckland’s diverse landscape, from lush forests to sweeping countryside, rocky shoreline to cushy bays, provides a plethora of ways to discover on foot. In West Auckland, the family-friendly Kitekite Track is a real walk on the wild side, highlighting native fauna and wildlife. You’ll come across plenty of picture-perfect vistas and reach the beautiful Kitekite Falls (a great swimming spot in summer). The quaint seaside community of Piha is a perfect place to pause for a drink. Other nature-inspired walks include the Coast to Coast Walkway (which connects two different oceans and includes views of The Domain, Auckland’s oldest park) and the Tamaki Drive Walk (which shows off many of the city’s beaches). And if you're super fit, consider the four-day, self-guided trek on the Hillary Trail (named for New Zealand’s most famous explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary), which moves through the rugged coastline and forests of the Waitakere Ranges National Park.
Skip the Cab, Stroll
Don’t Just Cruise the Harbor, Sail It
They say Auckland is home to more yachts per capita than any other city in the world, hence the nickname, City of Sails. So, while you’re here, you might as well take on the seas like a pro. Explore Group leads two-hour sails on Waitemata Harbour aboard an actual America’s Cup yacht. These grand-prix racing vessels are usually the stuff of billionaires -- the America’s Cup is the world’s most prestigious yachting prize -- but this experience lets you take the helm and play pro. Or just sit back and enjoy the view. In summer (November thru March in New Zealand), you can join the Explore crew on three-hour match races.
After You Sail, Jump
To really enjoy Waitemata Harbour, jump in! AJ Hackett Bungee offers the ultimate Kiwi thrill: bungee jumping right off Auckland Bridge. The views from atop the bungee pod, for one, are spectacular, then imagine facing your fears and taking the plunge. You can even opt for a water-touch and end your jump with a dip. Tandem jumps are available and you can increase the adventure quotient by combining the jump with an Auckland Bridge Climb, the only experience of its kind in New Zealand.
Skip the Harbor, Get to the Island
Across Waitemata Harbour is Rangitoto Island, a national landmark and the perfect adventurer’s day trip. Auckland Sea Kayaks leads kayak tours from St. Heliers Bay and across the harbor, with wildlife views of penguins and petrels along the way. Once on Rangitoto’s shores, you begin the one-hour trek to the summit, a journey teeming with sweeping views. Guides talk regional history along the way. Lunch is included (your day begins at 9 a.m. and ends around 3 p.m.) and pickup at your city center hotel is available. There’s also a sunset option (3 p.m. - 10 p.m.), which includes dinner. Rangitoto is one of several islets in the protected Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, like Great Barrier Island and Kawau Island, that offer plenty of chances to hike, sunbathe, observe wildlife and make cultural and historical finds. On Tititiri Matangi, a veritable wildlife sanctuary, you’ll find New Zealand’s oldest working lighthouse, dating back to 1864.
For the Best Views, Get High
Mt. Eden is one of 48 volcanoes in this region and the highest point in Auckland, which is key for sightseers. You can drive or walk to the top of Mt. Eden. From there, the 360-degree vistas of the city below are spectacular. There’s a five-acre part atop Mt. Eden, featuring a stunning plant collection and dotted with waterfalls and rock formations. You can also take a guided tour of what was once a fortified Maori settlement. Be sure to visit quaint Mt. Eden Village, where you’ll find a variety of restaurants, art galleries, jewelry shops and specialty food outlets.
Skip the Bar, Visit the Vineyard
Matakana is a picturesque region located just 45 minutes north of Auckland that’s home to more than 30 vineyards. Go sipping at Hyperion, a boutique winery whose portfolio includes malbec, pinot noir and even grappa, or visit Brick Bay Wines, which also makes honey. At Takatu, home to pinot gris and merlot, you can spend the night; the onsite Lodge features four spacious suites overlooking the vines. If you’re staying in Auckland, though, Boutique Wine Tours will pick you up from your hotel and take you on a half- or full-day wine adventure in Matakana, which is also home to olive groves, cafés and a spectacular Saturday farmers’ market.
Skip Room Service, Go Ethnic
When "Metro," a premier Auckland magazine, listed the city’s top dining trends earlier this year, “Going Exotic” crowned the list. “Cuisines from elsewhere, presented with great skill in a sophisticated urban context, now account for nearly half our list” of 2016’s best restaurants, the editors wrote. In fact, when the Top 50 Restaurants winners were named shortly after, Cassia, an Indian eatery, won the Top Restaurant award while Saan, a Thai bistro, won the Best New Restaurant nod. Indeed, Auckland’s international appeal, growing pool of chef talent and increasing ethnic diversity are quickly making it a foodie haven.
After City Center, Hit the ‘Burbs
Follow the locals to discover some of the best spots in Auckland to eat, shop and party. Ponsonby is a hip inner-city suburb 10 minutes from city center where local designer stores and chic cafés abound. Shop till you drop, then listen to live music into the wee hours of the morning at the neighborhood bar. Check out Ponsonby Central, a speckled complex established in 2012, for one-stop retail and culinary shopping. In Auckland’s North Shore, visit the beachside ‘burb of Takapuna, where you picnic on the shores of Lake Pupuke, browse boutiques along Hurtsmere Road or shop for crafts at the lively Sunday market.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals to and in New Zealand at Travelzoo.