Few things are as certain as the cycle of the seasons and yet, when you find yourself hopping from foot to foot on the scolding sand of some impossibly scenic beach at the height of the New Zealand summer, the very notion of winter appears like some Nordic fantasy. More than ever, I felt like this, this last summer gone, as the sunny days and muggy nights seemed to cling on in heavenly perpetuity. As late as May, this Englishman, weaned on wet holidays and white-grey skies, found the impending creep of colder weather an unfeasible prospect as I sauntered around Auckland comfortably jacketless.
Slowly but surely, though, the weather has turned. The faintest breeze blows fragile leaves from their branches and pavements have disappeared beneath detritus beds. Daylight hours can still preserve the illusion of summer for a while, but the air cools rapidly when the sun sinks behind the skyline and evenings are once again spent huddled around plug-in radiators. Almost three years on from my arrival in New Zealand, central heating is still to be discovered, it seems.
And yet, I have to remind myself that I’m a lucky man, for even the chilliest days in Auckland are still a picnic compared to the arctic nightmare of the British winter. It rains a lot here, but in between storms, the sun can still light up a winter’s day like an ersatz summer. Rainbows appear with startling regularity, and late afternoon sunsets over the city skyline are frequently things of wonder.
Dusk sets in later here. I remember the despair I used to feel back home when darkness would fall as early as 4pm during the year’s shortest days and seven hours of confinement in the office could mean you’d miss the succor of daylight altogether. We only recently passed the winter solstice here and yet twilight can still hold off as late as 6 o’clock. And, for all my moaning about the lack of decent interior heating, it never gets that cold. One night recently, I even had to stick a leg out from beneath our double duvet because it was keeping me just a little too snug.
The worst aspect of winter here – and specifically, the month of July – is the lack of decent entertainment on the box. The very time when you yearn most for a cosy night in front of the TV, all the best series (Mad Men, Game of Thrones) have finished their runs in time for the US summer, and the new footy season is still a good six weeks away.
Winter here, I find, is best enjoyed exploring Auckland’s wealth of eating and drinking establishments. I have waxed lyrical about my adopted city’s culinary excellence on many occasions, but even after 3 years I am still finding new bars, cafes and restaurants to write home about.
A recent discovery that has quickly established itself as a favourite of ours is Selera, a Malaysian eatery in Newmarket that serves some of the city’s tastiest rendang and noodle dishes at improbably reasonable prices. I even overcame my initial reluctance to dine somewhere without an alcohol license, for the food is so good that you barely register the absence of a nice lager to wash down the spice.
Dominion Road, which boasts an impressively long strip of cheap but quality Asian diners, has also become a regular haunt in recent months. The choice of restaurants is almost overwhelming, but Metro magazine’s brilliant Cheap Eats blog has been an indispensable guide to the best picks. The wonderfully named Zap 2 is a particular favourite, and its extensive Thai-themed menu has eventuated in many an evening of noodly indecision.
It’s not all about rice and dumplings on Dominion Road though. La Voie Francaise is no gimmicky imitation of a French café, but an authentic purveyor of the finest baguettes I’ve tasted in the southern hemisphere. Though there’s a bakery just a couple of blocks up from our house, the 15 minute drive to La Voie is well worth the effort, and as an accompaniment to a warming winter stew or soup, there’s nothing better than a warm hunk of their mouthwatering bread slathered with creamy butter.
Another acclaimed French-run establishment is a café called Voila in the nearby suburb of Sandringham. Incongruously stationed in the middle of a street of Indian restaurants that collectively pump out a cloud of spicy air so strong that it carries down the whole street, Voila cooks up some of the finest breakfasts in town, its speciality crepes provoking vivid daydreams of a favourite pancake stall near Notre Dame.
Auckland caters expertly for most types of Asian cuisine, but it does Japanese especially well. Half-decent sushi was something of a luxury in London, and I would often find myself opting for the ‘cheat’ breadcrumbed chicken options over the raw fish variety. For whatever reason, New Zealand sushi is a class above and Japanese cuisine as a whole is well served by an array of quality eateries to suit any budget. Tanto on Manukau Road is something of a hidden gem, but for those in the know it offers an extensive range of delicious Japanese dishes, including sushi, tapas-style mini plates and full-blown mains. With its modern yet cosy interior and attentive wait staff, Tanto is equally suited to large gatherings and couples looking for a quiet night out, and is licensed to wash your meal down with as much Asahi beer or sake as you can stomach.
Livelier, and my pick of Auckland’s suburban Japanese restaurants, is Nippon Sake Bar, which is nestled a little further up Manukau Road and is decked out inside with an evocative assemblage of paper lanterns, bamboo awnings and paintings of mythical scenes. You know you’re not in for a run-of-the-mill dining experience the moment you step through the front door and get greeted by the banging of a gong and a chorus of salutations from the chefs. Seating options cater to all requirements: intimate booths for couples or friends; cushioned benches for larger groups; and for the brave, a bar with a front seat view of the masters at work in kitchen. The bar is always my preference if my dining group allows it. There’s something mesmeric about watching a culinary craftsman up close and you appreciate all the more the dishes they serve up to you steaming and sizzling within seconds of completion.
At the top end of the spectrum and offering one of the finest dining experiences I’ve had the fortune to enjoy anywhere, let alone in Auckland, is the recently opened Kazuya, which turns Japanese cooking into an art form. The seven course degustation is not cheap - especially if you opt to include matching wines and sake - but if you’re going to spend an evening in thrall to food this exquisite, you don’t want to be doing it by half measures. Exceptional service (the wait staff never had to check who had ordered what, even for a table of almost twenty people) and minimalist dark hued décor set the scene for a gastronomic extravaganza, where every fastidiously presented dish was greeted with awe and fascination. From a plate of over thirty individually prepared vegetables to the childhood dream come true of pastry ice cream, Kazuya electrified my taste buds in a way few restaurants have before.
So with dining options this good in ever abundant supply and days filled with sunshine that make a mockery of the season, I should have been able to navigate another winter in Auckland with relative ease. But then, a week ago, I was suddenly struck by the most acute pangs of homesickness that I’ve felt in the near three years I’ve been here. The cause? Andy bloody Murray. Yes, the gawky Scottish miserablist turned tennis superstar that Britons have been willing to Wimbledon glory with the collective force of 65 million hopes and prayers for over half a decade. And the year that he finally vanquishes the demons of 77 years of failed attempts by male British tennis players and actually goes and wins the bloody thing, I’m asleep under superchilled bedsheets some twelve thousand miles away.
It wouldn’t be so disquieting were it not for the fact that during my time in NZ I’ve already missed, in 2011’s Royal Wedding and last year’s Diamond Jubilee and London Olympics, three of the most iconic events of modern British history. I was, granted, fortunate to be back home for that magical afternoon exactly a year ago when Murray reached his first Wimbledon final, but watching him get beaten by Roger Federer’s untimely reminder of his claim to be the greatest men’s singles tennis player of all time left a rather bitter taste in the mouth.
When it comes to national sport, only the England football team’s failure to win, well, anything, for nearly 50 years has caused me as much consternation as our little island’s inability to produce a homegrown champion at the world’s premier grass tennis tournament. Year after gut-wrenching year, I spent my formative summers cheering on the latest young pretender to Fred Perry’s immortal racket, from Jeremy Bates to Tim ‘Tiger’ Henman, but always with an increasing sense of resignation to the belief that Britain would never against produce a Wimbledon men’s champion. Even when Murray himself roared onto the scene in the middle of the last decade and emerged from that gawky teenage frame to be, you know, a little bit good, it seemed inconceivable that this lanky lad from Dunblaine could ever topple the then twin towers of tennis greatness, Federer and Rafael Nadal.
So to miss the moment when a Brit – at long long last – actually won Wimbledon was just a little disappointing. Especially when it happened to coincide with some of the finest summer weather the UK has seen in many a year and all my friends back home are basking in London parks with carelessly sunburnt shoulders and a smog of barbecue smoke filling the evening air. I try to remind myself that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and for every weekend of glorious sunshine in England, there are ten more when the sky is so washed out you wouldn’t notice if you went colour blind. At the very least I can comfort myself with the thought that living in New Zealand means I’ll be spared the British press’ cringe factor fawning over the imminent birth of our future monarch. Good luck Will and Kate, you’re going to need it!