First things first, where to get my caffeine fix? Kiwis put a lot of stock in their coffee and from what I experienced this isn't just hype. Over my five day stay I became attached to two in particular. Remedy on Wellesley and Alleluya Bar & Cafe in St Kevin's Arcade.
Remedy: Charmingly compact, this laid back setup features music to mellow your morning in a space where kitsch is key. Focusing on doing the basics well, it's an inviting place to make yourself comfortable and flick through something from the book swap.
Alleluya Bar & Cafe: Beautifully dishevelled and scattered with mismatched furniture below a glass ceiling, when things get overcast, this is a great place to hold up and watch the clouds bluster past the Sky Tower. The food isn't mind-blowing, but the setting and staff more than make up for it.
Just a 40 minute ferry ride from Auckland Ferry Terminal, Waiheke island is home to 8,000 people, 30 vineyards and numerous camera-friendly beaches. Teaming up with a fellow backpacker from my hostel, I paid $55 for a return ferry ride, 1.5 hour island tour and unlimited bus use on the island. After a refreshing boat ride over, we climbed on a tour bus with an extremely cheerful local at the wheel. The tour worked well as a Waiheke intro and, as the 2nd biggest of 40 islands in the Hauraki Gulf, it was handy to be driven around the key spots before being left to our own devices.
Not purely about the wine, we also got the chance to check out the quaint parade on Ocean View Road, patterned with colourful shop fronts and even more colourful locals. Whilst making our way back to the ferry, it crossed my mind that this would be an ideal place to rent a beach house with a large group, grab a bus pass and see how many of Waiheke's vineyards you can tick off over a weekend.
Rising up incongruously from its urban surroundings, Mt Eden is Auckland city's highest volcano at just under 200m. Walking from downtown takes about 45 minutes and once you reach the summit you're rewarded with panoramic views of New Zealand's largest city. It's also hard to miss the giant, 50m deep crater that tops it. Dormant? I bloody hope so. Otherwise this is an odd place to build a suburb.
I'm not sure if it's the views or the head spins that I enjoy most about being high up, but the Sky Tower has both at 186m straight up. I must have been up there for two hours as I lapped the tower, spotting rainbows, volcanoes and city landmarks. It didn't hurt that some dramatic weather was rolling by, interspersed with sunny bursts and downpours. At $28 it's the best view in town and features a simple cafe/bar and Skywalk/abseiling options for those who want to really take their vertigo for a spin.
Finally, wandering at will was consistently rewarding. Small lanes make a web of the larger streets and lead you through charming parks, past boutique shops and, often times, into rustic restaurants. Real Groovy, a blast from the past record store, is an easy distance from the elegant op shops of Karangahape Road and from there Albert Park, with the adjacent University Clock Tower, is just a brief stroll up Mayoral Drive. Even without a map, you'd probably stumble across these places regardless, including a trip to Halsey Street Wharf, where some reclaimed industrial space lies in wait for hungry foreigners who've worked up an appetite.
With vantage points galore and some keen eating spots, you'd be able to comfortably cover Auckland's highlights in three days. Anymore and you'll probably want to head further afield to Rotarua or the north shore beaches, rather than retrace your steps downtown. As cities go, it's modest and won't be a culinary jackpot, but what it does, it does well with the unique addition of 50 or so volcanoes in varying states of activity.