I lived in New Zealand for a year, a long time ago (well over 20 years now). I stayed on the North Shore, and, given my age at the time, I didn’t actually venture into the city. My main memories of Auckland are of the skyline view from Devonport and the Sky Tower construction kicking off in the mid-90s. That means January 2019 was my first visit to the city.
The trip to Auckland was for one night as a stopover on the way from Tongariro National Park to the Bay of Islands, to break up what would otherwise be a ridiculously long drive. As a typical one-night city break, I expected to check into the accommodation, to get some food, a beer or two, wander around the city – much like the stopover in Wellington a few days earlier. So we aimed to do just that.
Our accommodation was central, just off Albert Street and a couple of blocks from the harbour. Unfortunately, Albert Street was undergoing massive works at the time, and that immediately creates a bit of a poor atmosphere around the place. This obviously can’t be helped, but as an area to step out to, it isn’t great. The works continued down the street and in and around some of the waterfront. The room in the hotel was awful – stinking, mouldy awfulness. The carpet was so filthy it merited a game of The Floor Is Lava. This was by far and away one of the worst hotels I have stayed in.
The first food choice was unfortunately closed for a few days over New Year, so instead, being in the Wynyard area already, we opted for Jack Tar. It’s interesting to look at TripAdvisor reviews after visiting somewhere to gauge thoughts on it and the trend from November onwards suggest multiple poor experiences here. A site like TripAdvisor can be polarising – bad experiences provide the motivation to write a review, and a good night can merit a simple “omgz everything was perfect” with little consideration of details. I’m on the side of the most recent reviews: the food was a bit shit and so greasy that I felt like I needed a shower afterwards. Not a place I’d go back to.
Step two of three on the Auckland stopover was a bit dismal, and the third step turned out to continue that trend of disappointment.
I tend to pick pubs by their beer selection. I wouldn’t object to any name-calling – complimentary or otherwise – when it comes to being picky about beer, and heading to a bar which serves endless amount of fizzy piss water to drink a dozen pints of is not for me (that may sound hipster but I can assure you I don’t have a beard, don’t own a checked shirt, and I happily drink instant coffee). Simply, I want beer that tastes good, and finding that in various places has in itself has provided quite a few interesting encounters over the years.
We (I) picked a pub which seemed in a fairly busy area, just by the harbour, and had a reasonable selection on tap. Now either the evening timing was poor or it’s simply a place on the verge of closing due to lack of business, but the only customers were us and someone knocking back the wine. In fact, I think he tanned six glasses of red in the time it took me to finish a beer. The beer selection was varied but not really that great, and given the place was borderline empty, we moved on.
With the trio of accommodation, food and drinks being awful, we called it a night. Yes, it was just a few hours and it’s unfair to judge anywhere on that alone. Yes, we could have chosen different places, or hopped on to another bar. We could even have packed our bags and moved to another hotel. But that was our evening, and so be it. Auckland didn’t create a great initial impression, sadly, and it stuck.
It isn’t the first time it has happened. I’ve had mediocre or awful trips before, notably Hannover, Kaunas, Riga. And that’s fine. There is a tendency amongst people travelling that every trip has to be the best, and everywhere visited has to be just amazing. It simply isn’t the case. It can’t be the case. Some trips won’t be the best thing ever, and that’s absolutely fine. It isn’t a judgement on the city so much as a judgement on the trip itself. The night in Wellington was intended to be the same kind of stopover – hotel, food, drinks, wander – and it was perfectly pleasant. It’s unfortunate how small things can come together to paint such a dour initial impression of anywhere but in this case that’s what happened on our overnight in Auckland.
As an aside to this, I think the trip around New Zealand and visits to Auckland and Wellington in particular reaffirmed my feeling that I’m simply going “off” visiting cities. That needs a bit of explaining…
I live in a major UK city centre and absolutely love it there. I love having that buzz of a city on my doorstep with all it offers, I love being able to shut it all out when the windows are closed. I love living through the change in the city from the sunny days to the bleak winter, from daytime through sunset to the nightlife. Moreover, my work takes me to many other cities – some good, some bad. I spend more time than I’d like to in London. I’ve spent many years in York and New York, worked in cities in Ireland, Austria, Italy, India, Switzerland, France, and I’ve seen the good and the bad of many UK cities. I’m really fortunate to get the chance to explore other places in that way and see so many other cities.
In personal trips gone by I’ve spent a lot of time in many cities, and generally had a great time. But more recently I’ve found that many European and North American cities (read Western cities, I guess) often don’t offer enough of a differential to make them worth visiting. If a city offers something specific and unique then of course it may merit that trip. But often experience of a place comes down to the trip, rather than the place itself, and the trip could vary so much – the weather, the nights out, events on at the time. In fact, often the trip comes down to the people, which means it could, sometimes, take place anywhere, unless it is for something specific to that city. There are still plenty of places I’d visit when they offer something more unique that I happen to be really interested in.
However, the most interesting city trips I’ve had of late were to the cities of the old Silk Road – Bukhara and Samarkand. Something quite a bit different. Irkutsk and Busan were also interesting and both provided a bit of a challenge in getting around which I really enjoyed.
But by far and away my favourite trips over the past few years have been so far removed from this that I feel much less interested about the idea of visiting cities these days. I’ve loved walking for hours in Qaanaaq, Kangerlussuaq and Ilulissat and not seeing another person. The long train journeys through Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan were incredible. Walking into the mountains in the ‘Stans provided some of the best views I have ever seen. Trekking across the Namib for days was truly phenomenal. The theme in all of these is that they were switched off, free of the lure of technology, free of the expectations and complications of day-to-day life in a city – the crowds, being inundated with information or news that so often really does not matter, or being surrounded by people who are just too loud/drunk. While cities can offer a huge amount for visitors – museums, history, architecture, night life – they cannot offer anything that compares to walking or climbing for miles and the “**** me, look at that view!” feeling, and enjoying it for some time in utter peace and quiet.
This is coming from a position that I am entirely conscious is very fortunate. Through work and personal travel, I’ve had incredible opportunities to see so much. This may also be symptomatic of having had many, many years where I barely switched off, in a position where notifications (work and personal) on my mobile were incessant and a challenge to get away from, and these days I prefer to disappear to climb a hill and spend a few hours not giving a damn about anything else and not being reachable. It’s immensely freeing.
New Zealand often did offer exactly that at times. Some of the scenery is incredible – mind blowing. Sometimes it’s enjoyed as part of the inevitably large crowds of tourists of which I’m just another one, and other times it was the two of us and no-one else in sight. Sometimes it was at the top of a mountain, other times it was the view from the accommodation we had. But it still gives that utter awe that visiting a city doesn’t provide. It was sad to not get the buzz from Auckland that I hoped for but I am conscious that it’s reflective of me being, firstly, a bit down when it comes to visiting cities, and, secondly, being quite happy to be realistic and honest about having a mediocre time somewhere, and Auckland provided that mediocre time in the short stopover.
We visited Auckland again at the end of the New Zealand trip for an overnight stay before catching our flights home the following day. This time it was a hotel near the airport, dinner at a restaurant in Takapuna, and one more stop for a night shot of the city skyline.
Skyline shots were the reason I started to get more into taking photos a few years ago. After a trip to New York and a night visit to Top of the Rock, I was keen to learn what it would take to get some better low-light city skyline shots and set about doing just that. Since then, I’ve had some great opportunities to do this, most notably in New York, Seattle, Toronto and San Francisco, and these type of shots are still amongst my favourites to take. They require patience to find the right spot, to wait for sunset, to wait for the right moment. And I’ve often met people doing the same thing who are happy to chat for a couple of hours. It’s good fun and an interesting learning experience.
In this case I thought underneath the Auckland Harbour Bridge on the northern side would be best, and we arrived a little before the sunset. Given that I had travelled light, there was no tripod so it was handheld shots only, and I think they came out pretty well. The image stabilisation on the E-M1 mark ii is outstanding, and even the four-second handheld shots came out sharp.
The following day it was back to Auckland airport for the first of our three flights home. We travelled out via Los Angeles and were travelling home via Singapore. And, as usual, I was quietly dreading the prospect of the long-haul flights in a little cramped, middle seat in a plane. But it was entirely worth the journey.
This post has expanded way beyond the two short visits to Auckland but it has served as a way to wrap up the New Zealand trip. In all, it was spectacular, with some of the best scenery I have ever seen, and Auckland turned out to be the only let down. Whether this is in any way fairly reflective of aspects of the city, or whether it’s purely down to me “going off” the familiarity of such a city, I can’t really say since both visits were short.
Looking ahead at trips for the rest of 2019, it will likely be places that are a bit quieter and/or off the beaten path with some interesting long walks and, hopefully, spectacular scenery. And definitely fewer cities.