(Australian Associated Press)
New Zealand is already a hotspot for Aussie travellers.
It’s a land of majestic mountains, adrenaline sports, fine dining and Hobbits.
But while many Australians fire up a camper and spend weeks traversing to the country’s every corner, less often do they head across the ditch for a quick weekend getaway.
We can’t understand why.
Take Auckland – a harbour city rivalling Sydney’s beauty that is less than four hours’ flight away.
In addition to its picturesque volcanic hills and sparkling waters, an Auckland weekend allows visitors to explore cosmopolitan festivals, taste Waiheke Island’s wines and rattle down forested tracks on a mountain bike.
And that’s just the short list. So where should an Auckland getaway start?
Britomart is a revitalised waterfront district in the heart of town. Stop in a hotel here and you can enjoy farmers’ markets and live music in the company of foodies, bearded hipsters and fashionistas.
A fort and trading hub in colonial Auckland’s early years, Britomart’s warehouses were charmingly restored in the 2000s, bringing with them pedestrian walkways, boutique eateries and retail outlets.
We ambled about trying sweet cakes at Milse dessert shop, bread rolls at Amano bakery and gnocchi and tempura at Ortolana and Ebisu restaurants.
Ortolana’s Tuscan spinach and ricotta gnocchi Verdi was deliciously light and Ebisu’s trays of sashimi, miso glazed eggplant and tempura, yummy.
But it was when Ebisu’s desserts rolled out that the girls in our group really fell into raptures, their spoons dancing a ballet as they scooped at green tea ice cream, raspberry coulis and tiramisu.
Yet Britomart also has another charm: it’s centrally located. And that means it’s just a five-minute stroll to the Waiheke Island ferries and a day of wine tasting.
Sydney may have its stunning harbour, but Auckland has Waiheke Island.
A 40-minute ferry ride from the city, Waiheke is home to around 8000 residents, award-winning wineries and gorgeous beaches and scenery.
Across the island, tourists can take on fishing charters, sunbathe on beaches, mount horses, shoot at clay targets, kayak in blue waters, gorge on oysters and smile through countless other activities.
It’s an appeal that is becoming famous, with Lonely Planet naming Waiheke the world’s fifth best region to visit in 2016. Conde Nast Traveler called it the globe’s fourth best island.
We spent the morning following Walking By Nature’s Gabrielle Young through the Onetangi Reserve.
A quintessential fit, friendly Kiwi who sails the Pacific Ocean and tramps the Southern Alps in her spare time, she showed us grand kauri trees, hundreds of years old, and pointed out the calls of rare kaka parrots.
After lining our tummies with lunch by the beach, we then set about sampling the local drops as Around Waiheke Tours owner and colourful chatterbox Graeme Ransom shuttled us to three picturesque wineries.
What makes Waiheke’s wines special, he explained, is not just their flavour and quality, but the fact few are ever exported.
It means tasting them is an experience you can only have at the island’s cellar doors.
That is, unless you buy a few to take away like we did.
Auckland has a calendar packed with event and festivals unique to the city. We managed to get to three events in one February weekend.
This included joining hordes of Chinese New year crowds feasting on dumplings and strolling through the Auckland Domain park to view brilliantly made lanterns depicting everything from dragons to Chinese peasant’s houses.
The day after the Lantern Festival, we joined the LGBT community for the Big Gay Out, which has the added flavour of seeing New Zealand’s leading politicians dressed in bright outfits, before finally spending the night bopping at a Latin dance festival.
If you do miss one of its many festivals, Auckland’s museum and gallery are also well worth a visit.
Not only can you get an introduction to Maori culture but the museum allows you to thoroughly frighten yourself by learning about the more than 50 volcanoes lying beneath the city and threatening to blow their tops.
New Zealand is renowned for its adventure sports but don’t think you have to head far from Auckland to get your thrills.
We ripped through Woodhill Mountain Bike Park’s single tracks, which are just 40 minutes from the city and include bike hire and beginner, advanced and even a jumps track.
Despite being busy with families, we still found plenty of space to kick up the dirt downhill.
For those keener to make a splash, nearby Muriwai Beach has a surf school where you can spend two hours falling off waves alongside a cosmopolitan mix of travellers, before grabbing a beer on the way home at Hallertau brewery.
If this sounds too hardcore, try grabbing a ferry to Devonport where Magic Broomstick Tours run gentle segway tours past the suburb’s historic houses and up to former fort fortifications on the volcanic hills overlooking the harbour.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Airlines connecting Australia to New Zealand include Air New Zealand, Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin Australia.
Fullers (www.fullers.co.nz) operates ferries to Waiheke Island from downtown Auckland and sells all-day bus passes (a practical way to see the island).
STAYING THERE: Britomart is well supplied with accommodation options, but we had an enjoyable stay at Auckland’s Adina Auckland apartments operated by TFE Hotels. Prices start from $A185 for a studio apartment (tfehotels.com).
PLAYING THERE: Milse (milse.co.nz), Amano (amano.nz), Ortolana (ortolana.co.nz) and Ebisu (ebisu.co.nz) are all located in Britomart.
Gabrielle Young leads Walking By Nature tours (walkingbynature.nz), while Greame Ransom leads Around Waiheke Tours (aroundwaiheke.co.nz).
Check Auckland listings sites for details of festivals and events and view the Auckland Museum (aucklandmuseum.com) and Auckland Art Gallery (aucklandartgallery.com) websites for more information.
Woodhill Mountain Bike Park (bikeparks.co.nz) has bikes available for hire, Hallertau Brewery is open seven days (hallertau.co.nz) and Magic BroomstickTours (magicbroomsticktours.co.nz) operates in Devonport.
* The writer travelled as a guest of TFE Hotels.