Today we finally left Auckland after our first week and a half in New Zealand. As we drove south down the motorway (New Zealandese for highway) towards Hamilton (our next destination) I had some time to reflect on the city we were leaving behind. I didn’t really need to do much reflection though. I thought Auckland was a pretty great place right from the get go.
My initial impression of Auckland was that it was the biggest Chinatown I’d ever been to. I first noticed it in the airport, where many of the signs were bilingual in English and Chinese. We left the airport on a bus that dropped us off on Queen Street. Queen Street is the main drag in the CBD (central business district) and if you’re a tourist in Auckland you’ll probably end up here at some point.
As we walked down the street I saw more Chinese restaurants and shops than I have since last June, when I was still living in China. Of course we took the opportunity over the next week and a half to sample some of the Chinese restaurants and they were pretty authentic. It was like being back in China again but way more expensive. At one point Alana pointed out that we paid ~60元 each for fried rice. In China we could get fried rice for as little as 10元 each, maybe less depending on where you were. It didn’t stop at the restaurants though. As I might have guessed from the airport signs, Auckland seems to have a large number of Chinese immigrants and to be a pretty popular tourist destination for Chinese people. I’ve heard more Mandarin being spoken in the past week and a half than I did in the last seven months living in the US.
I have to admit that calling Auckland a Chinatown is doing a disservice to all the other Asian countries that were represented there. Our first night in town we ate dinner at the Ponsonby International food court. It was a building near where we were staying that was lined with little food stalls selling budget friendly meals from China, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and a few others. I almost thought the Ponsonby Asian food court would have been a better name, but there was an Italian place tucked away in one corner.
We spent time in two different neighborhoods, Grey Lynn and Sandringham. Both were very pleasant and quiet for being in the biggest city in the country. This brings me to my second observation about Auckland: it doesn’t really feel like a big city. And with a population of just around 1.5 million I suppose it isn’t a big city by most standards. The city itself is fairly spread out, and, aside from the CBD, feels more like a bunch of interconnected suburbs.
Auckland also lacks the hustle and bustle of many of its larger big city brethren. Everything moves at a pretty slow, relaxed pace. Many shops and restaurants close down around 5:30-6:00 in the evening. One day we were in a big shopping mall out on the edge of town that closed at 6pm, except on Friday and Saturday when it stayed open to 8. This seems like a far cry from other cities I’ve visited that have a strong 24/7 up all night vibe.
All of the buildings were fairly low. Most houses were only one story. This made for plenty of nice views of the Auckland Sky Tower, the tallest free standing structure in the southern hemisphere. There was also lots of green space all around.
Before we got there I had heard (via Alana) that word on the street is that Auckland isn’t really that great of a place to be. It’s just a big, dirty, crowded city, and your precious time in New Zealand is better spent elsewhere. I suppose in a country known for its pristine wilderness Auckland might seem like a dull spot, but I think that anyone who says Auckland is big or dirty or crowded has never lived in a really big, dirty, or crowded city. On a whole I was impressed with how small, clean, and sparsely populated it was.
The only downside I can think of is that it is quite expensive compared to the places we normally travel. We’re typically spending around $20-30 a night on accommodations and a meal in a restaurant costs about the same. This was a harsh wake up compared to our most recent trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand where our accommodation was about $200 for the whole month and you could eat out for only a couple bucks. But in spite of the cost I really enjoyed Auckland and am looking forward to our next trip back!