Enough with the Sheep Jokes
One of the questions on my first drivers license test was "What do you do when you come across a flock of sheep crossing the road?"...and it wasn't April Fool's day! As irritating as the sheep jokes are to native New Zealanders, it's true that on these picturesque islands the fuzzy mammals outnumber humans 20 to one.
I've been asked more times than I can count - generally by Californians who imagine New Zealand's some idyllic paradise - why I'd want to leave my homeland. But when you add the sheep factor to an isolated local and far too much breathing room (though the country's mass is roughly that of California, Japan or Britain's, the population is a mere 3.6 million), is it any wonder the natives have island fever? By age 18 I was desperately craving a place populated by people who hadn't lived with my sister, slept with my best friend, slept with my boyfriend or seen me in diapers.
We antipodeans (those from the opposite side of the earth) also suffer from something of a Napoleon complex. A phenomenon academics refer to as the "Cultural Cringe" has long plagued both New Zealand and Australia. In layman's terms, this means we think if it's homegrown it must be shit. The stamp of our European colonizers lingers, leaving behind the odd assumption that anything British is somehow, innately, vastly superior to that emerging from our own efforts.
Seeking adventure and opportunity, young Kiwis flock to foreign lands in droves each year, with many not returning home for several years. It's virtually de rigor for 20-somethings to take off to parts unknown on their OEs (short for overseas experience). Generally they head first to London, but you'll find hordes of young New Zealanders in backpacker hostels everywhere other than the South Pacific. So many in fact that I've wondered if the census accounts for all those missing in action.
The most interesting thing about this mass exodus is that we almost invariably return, many with a newfound patriotism and appreciation for national culture. As exciting as foreign travel may be (fabulous fodder for pub-talk at any rate), the stresses of living in a truly big city make many long for their laid-back island, where spectacular scenery is commonplace and strangers say hello. Moreover, after years living abroad, on a recent visit home I was pleasantly surprised by Auckland's cosmopolitan flavor. Of course I'm convinced that it's the city, not I, that has changed.
Rose-tinted nostalgia notwithstanding, some genuine booms have occurred across several industries. At one time New Zealand filmmakers almost always released their films abroad before they screened them at home. The reason: only a film that had won an award at Cannes, or at a similarly prestigious venue, would stand a good chance against such a self-critical audience. Thank God for break-through pictures such as The Piano, Heavenly Creatures and my own personal favorite, Lee Tamahori's brilliant adaptation of Alan Duff's novel "Once Were Warriors," which brought New Zealand film to the world's attention and made Kiwis deservedly proud. National television also prospered, with the local filming of Zena, Hercules and Young Hercules, alongside admirable efforts to encourage local productions by New Zealand On Air.
While the country's only produced a limited number of world-famous musicians -- Crowded House, Split Enz, Chris Knox and The Chills all hail from New Zealand, not Australia, thank you very much -- many music aficionados associate the country with a small, but thriving, underground scene. The Auckland-based label Flying Nun is widely respected for its production of alternative bands.
On the literary front, what was once a rather stark landscape is now a far more vivid, colorful scene. Janet Frame, Keri Hulme, Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson are among a number of writers who have left their mark on the world, and their visual counterparts haven't exactly been left in the dust either.
The cumulative result of all these successes is a country that's finally shaking its ancestral history and forging an identity of its own. The land that was long known as "The Little England in the South Seas" has acclimatized to its reality as an oceanic island, flavored as much by its indigenous Maori and Polynesian residents as by its European descendants. Add to this the country's silver fjords, moist rain forests and endless miles of butter beach -- over 100 around Auckland alone - and New Zealand emerges as more than just a great place to visit
WINING AND DINING AUCKLAND STYLE
It's definitely not merely the arts and entertainment industries that've flourished in Auckland. Twenty years ago the city's center had more generic pubs and fish and chip joints than restaurants or bars, and there existed a bland English reticence about "exotic" foods.
Thankfully this mentality seems to have all but faded, particularly with the rising popularity of Pacific Rim cuisine, where sultry flavors of the Mediterranean meet Asian spice and saltwater fresh seafood. New Zealand cuisine melds these flavors with Italian and French influences, and the results are often spectacular. Auckland now boasts more than 900 restaurants, some of which rival those of any metropolis.
But as a native Aucklander, it's not the swanky harbor-side restaurants I long for, but rather the chic comfortable cloisters of the city's more casual eateries - in particular those establishments that manage to harmoniously meld the low-key atmosphere of a local bar or cafe with the gastronomic pleasures of a good restaurant. Here, eating falls along a blissfully relaxed continuum: you can drink a cappuccino and read the morning paper, grab a cocktail before hitting the clubs or sit down with six friends for a full-scale feast... all in one mellow place with a relatively low price tag.
So, rather than direct you to the tourist traps, here's a list of few places where the locals like to hang out. Note that New Zealanders refer to appetizers as entrees and entrees as mains, and that hours are often listed as "until late." This nebulous term can mean anywhere from midnight to four a.m., a linguistic idiosyncrasy reflective of New Zealanders' casual attitude toward time. Suffice it to say, a Kiwi should never pair up with a German!
(Please Note: At the time this article was written, the exchange rate was $2 N.Z. for $1 U.S. All prices for restaurants are in N.Z. dollars.)
K-road to Auckland locals, Karangahape Road's the thriving center of an eclectic district, with strip bars, fish shops and greasy take-outs bumping up against stylish eateries. Ongoing efforts to gentrify the street have floundered, as bohemian cafes and porn shops continue to subsist alongside a spanking new Starbucks.
169 Karangahape Road, 307-0508
Verona's large shimmering copper sign, dark red walls and black-clad clientele denote it as one of the city's hipper hang-outs. In addition to rich, creamy coffee and a fully stocked bar, Verona offers an eclectic organic menu. Crisp eggplant fritters drizzled with a delicate green herb sauce, or squid ink spaghetti with seared calamari, roast tomato, preserved lemon, capers and roquette pair perfectly with any of the delicious sauvignon blancs or chardonnays on the menu.
65 Pitt Street (Corner K-Road), 377-0472
Mexico meets the South Pacific in a most delightful way at Habanero. The Bubble and Speak is infinitely more tasty than its often bland English counterpart. Here crispy pan-fried mash vegetables and spicy chorizo are topped with a mild chipotle aioli and a tangy habanero relish ($13.50). And the fully stocked bar features a vast selection of domestic and international wines.
256 Karangahape Road, 302-2677
The mouthwatering meals served at this somewhat grimy establishment are deserving of their saucy titles. Brazil's sassy menu includes such selections as "The Savory Pancake, rolled on the glossy firm thighs of half-naked French people with chicken, mushrooms and French herbs" ($10). Pinball machines, DJs and Internet access (limited terminals, but one of the lowest rates in town) are just added bonuses. This is the best place to nurse a hangover.
472 Karangahape Road, 379-3100
The Christian owner of this non-profit used to give anyone off the street a job - until money and turn-tables started disappearing. Nevertheless, much of the Lost Angel's efforts and proceeds still go toward helping disadvantaged members of the community. Shine your halo while pleasing your stomach because the menu, while limited, is satisfying and dirt cheap. Delicious huge bowls of hot chocolate ($3.80) are sinfully good, and the pizzas (set toppings include pumpkin, eggplant and feta, or ham and pineapple) are generously large ($13). Best value? Scrummy toasted sandwiches ($1.80).
315 Queen Street, 303-4405
Manifesto offers a wide array of delicious wines, from reasonably priced local reds ($24 a bottle and up) to costly French Champagne (upwards of $100), as well as a sophisticated, sedate atmosphere. The menu's limited but contains some tasty tapas nonetheless. Try the mussels with parsley and parmesan, or the spicy Mediterranean sausages flavored with tangy capers ($5). Both Manifesto and Merchant Mezze (below) are ideal places to grab a quick bite before an opera, play or symphony at the nearby Town Hall or Aotearoa Cultural Center.
Corner of Queen Street and Mayoral Drive, 307-0349
Oriental rugs, warmly painted walls and a potbelly stove set the scene at this relaxed Middle Eastern cafe. The blackboard menu runs the gamut from light snacks (such as tricolor tapenade of rich olive spread, creamy aioli and red pepper dip) to generous meals. Recommended: Moroccan lamb keffa balls with potatoes and tomato salsa ($11.50). Sip a delicious kir (blackberry Cassis with sauvignon blanc) on a tree-lined patio and watch the downtown scene stroll by.
97-103 Anzac Avenue, 303-0393
Located down-wind of Auckland University, this sleek concrete and mirrored cafe serves organic vegetables and free-range eggs. The eclectic menu runs the gamut from all-day breakfasts to spicy miso soup with baby corn and coriander ($11.50) to Indian-style corn cakes served with spinach, cucumber and tomato raita ($10.50).
Perhaps the best place in town to people watch and just hang out, Ponsonby is brimming with colorful stores, sidewalk cafes and stylish bars.
150 Ponsonby Road, 360-1710
With its outdoor tables, long-white-apron-clad staff and cell-phone-yapping clientele, SPQR has the air of a European cafe. The Italian-influenced cuisine is delicious and the wine list impressive. Follow penne of roast pumpkin, feta, spinach, snowpeas and asparagus with the more Kiwiesque rice pudding with caramelized bananas. Sultry specialty cocktails like the Horny Monkey (banana liquer, Kahlua, Baileys and cream) or the Slapper (chocolate vodka, Frangelico, strawberries and cream) will help ease the pain of the steep prices.
80 Ponsonby Road, 376-3695
A small, elegant cafe decorated with renaissance artwork, large candelabras and mosaic tiles, Byzantium dishes up innovative, tasty meals and aromatic coffee. The overflowing focaccia sandwiches are a bargain at $5 to $6. Selections include feta, tomato, red pepper, spring onion and olive paste, or brie with avocado, mayonnaise, rocket and plum sauce.
DON'T STOP AT SAUVIGNON BLANC
New Zealand's wine industry was more or less ignored well into the eighties. Then sauvignon blanc from Cloudy Bay, a Marlborough region vineyard, caught the attention of critics worldwide. In the years since, New Zealand wines have scored consistently high in international competitions. Equally appealing is their affordable pricing, approximately two out of three New Zealand wines in the U.S. market are priced below $20.
The country's still primarily known for its silky sauvignon blancs, in which bright flavors ranging from lime, grapefruit, pears and sweet peas, to the oddly odorous asparagus, are rounded out with florals and highlighted with herbs. A heady passion fruit aroma is often the giveaway of a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, as is the tart flavor of gooseberry - a fruit not often found in the United States.
Along with Cloudy Bay, a number of vineyards offer excellent whites...among them Babich, Gibbston Valley, Goldwater, Jackson, Te Mata, Villa Maria and Chancellor. Varietal characteristics vary according to climatic shifts north to south. Auckland produces soft fig-scented chardonnays, Gisborne is known for its tropical bouquets, and Hawkes Bay has gained fame for its use of ripe grapefruit. From the cooler climate of the South Island comes riesling, fragrant with peaches, apricots and apples.
However, I can't truly speak to these most-worshipped of all wines, because to me even the most exquisite white can't hold a candle to the warm glow of a good red. During my poor student years I spent countless hours sipping cheap reds in dark BYOs, maddening the staff by ordering garlic bread and water for four, and becoming a connoisseur of budget blush.
While New Zealand's cabs, merlots and pinot noirs may not receive the same accolades as their white counterparts, their high quality is finally beginning to get noticed. The North Island is the primary producer of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, both rich with plum, blackberry and vanilla oak. The majority of quality pinot noir also hails from here, but note that the Matinborough region of the North Island has enjoyed some lovely successes with this notoriously difficult grape. These inexpensive reds are remarkably drinkable.
A QUICK GUIDE TO NEW ZEALANDISMS
There are many colloquialisms - both slang and words of British or Australian origin - that may befuddle American tourists. This quick guide should help avoid embarrassing situations.
Don't feel your face for zits if a Kiwi tells you you're "spot on," you're simply being told that you're completely right. Avoid dodgy (sketchy) characters, or you may end up with guts for garters (in big trouble). Ask for a fanny pack and you might get your face slapped because a fanny is, well, a vagina. Conversely, what New Zealanders call the bush is the more literal meaning of a forest. If someone says he wants to bonk you, you're about to get lucky, but someone who says they've done bugger all has, disappointingly enough, been doing nothing. Last but not least, if you're told that it's your shout, you'd better buy the next round of drinks.
To dial internationally, call 011-649 and then the local number. Within New Zealand, Auckland numbers are prefaced with 09. (Prices are in N.Z. dollars)
Auckland Central Backpackers
9 Fort Street
Popular with backpackers, it's conveniently located in the heart of downtown. Cheap, clean and an ideal place to meet friendly young locals and travelers. Singles, twin/doubles and shared rooms from $14 per person per night.
Auckland Downtown Backpackers
6 Constitution Hill
Phone: 303-4768 or 800/366-1444
Also located in the city's center, with shared rooms and doubles from $15 to $45 per night. Features include airport shuttle, laundry, and outdoor deck and BBQ areas.
2 Franklin Road
A lovely old Victorian located in the heart of Ponsonby. Rates from $17 per night, $12 per person for a tent site. Internet access, and BBQ and picnic area.
Herne Bay Bed & Breakfast
4 Shelly Beach Road
Herne Bay, Auckland
Offers rooms and serviced apartments in an Edwardian mansion overlooking Auckland Harbor. Shared facility rooms to fully serviced apartments priced at $60 to $130 per night.
The Great Ponsonby B&B
30 Ponsonby Terrace
Turn of the century villa within walking distance of Ponsonby Road. Rooms and studios approximately $130 to $210 per night.
83 Valley Road
Gorgeous 90-year-old Kauri villa B&B in the pleasant and peaceful Mt. Eden suburb. Single and double rooms at $70 to $110 per night.
4- & 5-STAR HOTELS
Corner of Mayoral Drive and Vincent Street
P.O. Box 5917, Wellesley Street
Contemporary atrium-style hotel located in downtown Auckland with stunning views of the cityscape. Prices from $400 to $2,000 per night.
Hyatt Regency Auckland
Corner of Princes Street and Waterloo Quadrant
P.O. Box 3938
Auckland City (Central)
Upscale hotel located near central business district, with stunning harbor views. Meeting facilities make it popular among business travelers. From $250 per night.