22nd January 2011

The one year anniversary of my arrival in New Zealand passed quietly in mid-October. The absence of popping champagne corks should not be read as a sign of discontent: it was simply that the fact of me living on the other side of the world, some 12,000 miles from home, had become so normal to me that reaching said milestone appeared not so much an achievement, but a pleasingly comfortable reality. And hell, hasn’t time flown? It’s hard to believe that sixteen months have now passed since I last saw (non-Skype versions of) my friends and family, or last set foot in my little London flat in Maida Hill.

But a lot has happened in those sixteen months, and as I begin a second new year as a resident of Auckland, it feels like an appropriate time to take stock of my adopted home town and see how it measures up against its counterparts back home in Europe and across the Tasman.

The one thing that I can say about Auckland with real certainty is that it is a very easy city to live in. I would be surprised to find anywhere else in the world that could offer the same balance of First World infrastructure and services, natural beauty, temperate climate, and all the benefits that a small population brings. That is not to say it doesn’t come with its fair share of irritants too, but where doesn’t? Despite growing up in the sleepy suburbs of a medium-sized market town, I am, at heart, a city boy. Europe was my playground for twenty seven wonderful years, and I won’t deny that I miss the proximity to its grand cultural hives. Auckland is a great place to live in many ways, but not necessarily a great city. While it excels at green spaces, drivability, suburban charm and gastronomic excellence, it perhaps falls a little short when measured against some of the parameters you would use to define the best cities in Europe. To put it bluntly, if shopping, art galleries, public transport and pubs are your criteria for judging a city, Auckland may be a disappointment.

It’s easy to romanticise about these things though. The museums and galleries of London and Paris are all very well, but how often, as a resident, do you actually spend wandering the art-filled corridors of stately home, or pensively stroking your chin beneath the dome of a vast cathedral? In truth, very little. And let’s be honest, you don’t move to New Zealand to be surrounded by edifices of steel and glass and drip fed art and history.

So, in belated celebration of a year in New Zealand, here is a list of some really great things about Auckland: dusky summertime loop walks around the obelisk-crowned One Tree Hill in Cornwall Park; the views across downtown’s mini Manhattan skyline as you drive across the Harbour Bridge from the North Shore; the fact that there is a different first class café for a year’s worth of Saturday morning brunches; the pocket village communities of Mount Eden, Kingsland and Parnell that provide buzzy independent hubs of dining and shopping away from the commercial sterility of the CBD; the grassy volcano-forged eskers studding the outer suburbs that provide stunning 360 degree outlooks over the surrounding city sprawl; the all-too-easy bar crawl of Ponsonby Road’s manifold fine drinking establishments; the winding waterside walk from the Viaduct to Saint Heliers on a cloudless summer’s afternoon; the stunning coastline to the west of Auckland, punctuated by the wild black sand beaches of Piha, Muriwai, Karekare and Bethells; the city’s 3 hour proximity to such dramatically opposed wildernesses as the Bay of Islands to the north and the thermal parks of Rotorua to the south; and, last but not least, the Cavalier Tavern, which is, on balance, my favourite pub in Auckland for its friendly staff, choice of ales, reasonably priced and tasty grub, and the superb views of the city skyline it offers from its terrace.

It is thoughts of these things, which represent the very best of what living in Auckland has to offer, that sustain me through the dark times, like when the seemingly omnipresent rain confines you to hours indoors waiting for the sun to return, or when you realise a good six months have passed since the last decent band stopped by to perform. Certainly, the promise of better times ahead helped me stay chipper through the recent Christmas break, when some of the worst festive weather on record conspired to prevent me showing visiting friends from the UK my adopted city at anywhere near its peak. Indeed, the endless torrential downpours meant the only guided tour I could give them was one of Auckland’s finest pubs.

There were no such frustrations when we flew across to a sizzling Sydney for a long weekend in mid-November. When I was first preparing to move out here, acquaintances who knew Auckland would often compare it to Sydney, and on visiting Australia’s tourism capital for a second time (following an initial trip three years ago) it became clear to me why. The two cities have much in common: both revolve around a harbour and a series of beaches; both have compact CBDs dominated by needle-like viewing towers; and both come alive in the outer suburbs where little communities have exploded with unfettered charm away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.

But there are differences, and important ones at that. Scale is perhaps the most obvious, with Sydney feeling, as you window shop down one of its central streets or wander along one of its vast white sand beaches, like a bigger, buzzier version of Auckland. Sydney’s population stands at 4.6m versus Auckland’s 1.4m, and you certainly sense more people around you in the former’s bars and restaurants and museums. This inevitably brings with it pros and cons. The busyness lends Sydney more of a European city vibe and the physical and aural presence of locals and tourists does add atmosphere to the sort of places that, in Auckland, can appear lifeless. The downside is that it’s harder to find a table in a café or bar and the crowds can get overwhelming, especially when the whole population appears to be sunbathing on a small handful of beaches on a hot afternoon. And there are many of those. Despite sitting on proximate lines of latitude, Sydney is much warmer than Auckland and even in November, when it was still officially spring, Sydney’s temperatures were pushing an uncomfortable 30 degrees. However, given the complete non-summer Auckland is currently experiencing, I would definitely take a few days of east coast Australian sunshine at the moment.

Living in Auckland for fifteen months now, it’s amazing how quickly I have become normalised to its newness and cleanness. The oldest buildings here are no more than 150 years old, which seems a remarkable statistic for someone who has lived in a land as steeped in architectural history as England. Sydney is similarly pubescent compared to the ancient metropolises of Europe, but as we drove around it I saw signs of grime and decline that suggested a slightly older, wearier brother of its New Zealand counterpart. And the quaint pastel facades of The Rocks, the historic area that signposts the site of Australia’s first European settlement, are probably the oldest manmade structures I have seen in the whole of the Antipodes.

For all that, my lingering impression of Sydney is that of a modern, vibrant city whose magnificent harbour shimmers under the glare of an unobscured sun. The days I have spent there, both in November and on my previous visit in 2008, have been almost unendingly cloudless, the heat irrepressible. It’s a climate I might struggle to bear for months on end, but it does help to engender that all too rare feeling of actually being on holiday. While any self-respecting tourist must tick off the key attractions – and my god, even second time around, the Opera House and its unmistakable nest of cut-off domes leave one’s jaw hanging - the best of Sydney, as with Auckland, is to be found away from the commercial hubbub of the city centre. One enduring memory – amplified, I think, by the fact that it was the first genuine moment of absolute relaxation I’d experienced in several months - is of an early afternoon slumber Holly and I partook under the canopy of a long-limbed tree in the serene surroundings of the Botanical Gardens. Though barely a stone’s throw from Circular Quay, it was a little oasis of calm – that is, until a gaggle of noisy schoolchildren and The World’s Most Enthusiastic Teacher decided to ensconce themselves for an impromptu geography lesson mere meters away from my head.

Further afield, we enjoyed exploring the winding stretch of coastline that connects the lively suburbs of Coogee and its more famous neighbour Bondi. Fortuitously, the weekend we were there coincided with the annual Sculpture by the Sea festival, which punctuates the cliff top pathway with a series of elaborate art installations, including a giant set of bath taps and a wire mesh stag with fantastically exaggerated antlers.

As if this were not enough of a treat, the walk also presented us with some tantalising glimpses of humpback whales bursting balletically out of the ocean down below. The evenings, by contrast, were less kind to our bodies, as we took full advantage of the dizzying array of restaurants and bars on offer in Bondi, where our walk came to an end. And just when I thought I couldn’t indulge any further, we found ourselves in an establishment called The Rum Diaries, where I couldn’t help but order a drink called ‘Hot Buttered Rum’. Suffice to say, the consequences for my bowels were not pretty.

Though I came away from Sydney feeling refreshed and inspired – and even with a view that I could easily live there somewhere down the line – I remember coming away feeling happy to return to our little flat in Auckland, which, for all its frustrations, is now the place I contentedly call ‘home’.


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