2016-12-30 07:40:25
Frugal Traveler: Discovering Auckland’s Charms (and Idioms)

We were chugging along up State Highway 1: Robyn Goulevitch was in the driver’s seat, I was in the passenger seat (which is on the left in New Zealand, remember), and a sweet but very impatient dog named Tobi was in the back. On the North Island, which is shaped a bit like a bird’s head, we were moving slowly toward the tip of the beak.

Robyn, or Bob, as she likes to be called, is an energetic middle-aged woman who grew up on a farm north of Auckland and knows the land well. She was throwing more information my way than I could wrap my head around. “There’s a Norfolk pine,” she said. “Radiata pine.” “Totara tree.” “Native flax.” “Gum tree.” She extolled the beautiful, salt-extracting mangroves we saw on the way. Myna birds did not get off so easily (“they’re rubbish,” she said). We finally came to a crest and stopped for a moment, taking in a great view of Whangarei, New Zealand’s northernmost city.

“Whangarei is gorgeous,” I said, and Bob gently corrected my pronunciation: In Maori, the “wh” is aspirated, almost approaching an “f” sound. It was the first of many lessons learned during my stay in and around Auckland: Kiwis are extraordinarily hospitable; the natural beauty of New Zealand is second to none; and while Auckland has some worthwhile sights, it’s important get out of town. Lounging on beaches, hiking through vineyards and sampling some great wines await the adventurous traveler. Was it possible to do this cheaply in an expensive part of the world? With some creativity, and some help from Bob, my wallet barely felt the strain.

My stay with Bob, who was renting a room in her house for $68 a night through Airbnb, got things off on the right foot. Her house was homey and spacious, with large, colorful paintings adorning the walls and a big, open courtyard in the middle. Bob gave me the code to the gate’s mechanical punch pad (a common sight in New Zealand and Australia) and showed me to my simple room with its comfortable bed. It was an ideal home base, situated between downtown and busy Ponsonby Road, which has loads of restaurants and shops. And best of all, in Bob I ended up getting a companion and something of a cultural guide — all included in the price of my lodging.

I headed toward Ponsonby on Franklin Road, a cute thoroughfare that is inundated with lights and Christmas decorations every year. (I would avoid driving on or around it in December. Seriously, the traffic is crazy.) Traditional icicle lights, LEDs and dancing Santas projected onto green screens greet the throngs of pedestrians. I soon found myself in Ponsonby Central, an attractive indoor/outdoor market that features restaurants, cafes and shops.

Hungry, I went into Foxtrot Parlour and picked up a Thai chicken hand pie (11 New Zealand dollars, about $8). The outside crust was flaky, and inside, big chunks of chicken were swimming in a mildly spiced Thai curry. Things were off to a pretty good start — this was no Claytons pie. (If something was “Claytons” in New Zealand, Bob had explained, it was fake or a poor substitution — a slang term based on a nonalcoholic drink packaged to resemble whisky.)

I did notice, however, that I was severely lacking in cash. Fortunately, Foxtrot Parlour takes credit cards. As a foreigner, be prepared to sign nearly all of your receipts and have your signature checked against the card.

Which leads to a couple of logistical notes. I went down Ponsonby to a Westpac bank branch and exchanged $100 into New Zealand dollars. The exchange rate was around $1.40 to the New Zealand dollar, but I did not receive as much as I expected. The reason: There was a $5 fee and less-than-favorable rate for buying American currency. I would advise travelers whose banks reimburse foreign A.T.M. fees (like this Schwab checking account) to consider using the A.T.M. instead of exchanging in person. At the very least, it will save time — the bureaucracy of signing up in the Westpac system and having my passport copied in order to exchange some money put me “in a ratty,” as Bob would call a bad mood. Phones and data are blessedly less complex. When I landed, I went right to a Vodafone kiosk and bought a SIM card with three gigabytes of data with 200 minutes for 49 dollars. Make sure your phone is unlocked before traveling, and you can pop in the new card.

Ponsonby and nearby Karangahape (helpfully known to locals as K Road) are two of the main drags in Auckland, with many of the city’s popular cafes and nightspots. I stopped into Merge Cafe, which may not be glamorous but has a higher mission: The money generated by its inexpensive meals and drinks (lunch is available from 4 dollars) goes toward social programs dedicated to fighting homelessness in Auckland.

Auckland is a good walking city, and I enjoyed forays through Western Park and Victoria Park, where I was able to sit for a while and watch cricket teams practicing on the lawn, and down to the waterfront wharves near Queen Elizabeth Square. One evening, I headed to the Night Noodle Market in Victoria Park, a pop-up food festival featuring cuisine from Asian nations, some live entertainment and a bustling atmosphere. The food was a mixed bag (I had one of the worst pad thais I have ever eaten; you might say it was Claytons), but there were winners, including a spicy curry laksa with fish cake, noodles and prawns, all for 15 dollars.

The area near Quay and Hobson Streets by the water is a hub of activity and, while somewhat touristy, it’s a fun place to take in the harbor views and do some ship-watching — boating is a way of life in New Zealand. Also on the waterfront was the New Zealand Maritime Museum, with a 20-dollar admission and some beautiful model ships, like the Maunganui and the RMS Aorangi.

But I was aiming to head out of town. I found the Fullers Ferry desk and bought a 36-dollar round-trip ticket to nearby Waiheke Island, which one of Bob’s neighbors had recommended as a worthy day trip.

After an enjoyable 35-minute ride (a great way to get a look at the Auckland skyline, including its hulking, omnipresent Sky Tower), our ferry docked on the western end of the island. I climbed aboard a bus waiting near the terminal (3 dollars) and we began crawling along Oceanview Road, through the artsy town of Oneroa, toward the heart of the island. When the driver yelled, “Vineyards,” 15 or 20 minutes later, it seemed as good a time as any to step off.

I followed a sign that advertised Te Motu Vineyard as a short walk up a gravel road. (Or a “metal road,” as Bob said it was referred to here. “But why is it called a metal road,” I asked, “when it’s not made of metal?” “Well, there’s probably some metal in there,” she said.) When I reached the top of a small hill, I could see acres of green hills and rows of perfectly spaced, well-manicured vines. It was a hot, bright day. Once I reached Te Motu, I sat in its outdoor patio area and sampled five wines for 20 dollars, including a couple of spicy merlots and the flagship wine, a big, rich cabernet blend.

From there, I had a choice: head back or follow a narrow, grassy trail north toward the beach. I chose the latter, heading down a steep, rocky path, surrounded by verdant fields, until I came to a wooden bridge spanning a small creek. By the time I reached the top of the next hill, despite the great view, those five samples of wine were taking hold and I was positively Peter Jones-ed. (Exhausted, that is.)

Eventually I reached Obsidian Vineyard, where I encountered another instance of Kiwi hospitality. I had arrived too late in the afternoon for a tasting, but Natasha, one of the workers, was kind and apologetic and offered free samples of a couple of its white wines, including a juicy pinot gris. (A five-wine sampling at Obsidian, incidentally, is 10 dollars.) Onetangi beach awaited, with incredible views of the ocean from the appropriately named Seaview Drive.

The best beach, though, was one I visited with Bob and Tobi, after our trip to Whangarei. (Whangarei had a couple of fun activities — I thoroughly enjoyed Claphams National Clock Museum and its collection of timepieces.) Uretiti beach, a prodigiously wide shelf of white sand flanked by a grassy dune, is officially a “naturist” beach — a euphemism for nude — that also happened to be gorgeous and nearly empty. (We saw only one naked person, an older man, while we were on the beach. Bob snickered, “Should call this ‘Ure-doodle’ beach instead.”) There were a few joggers and a couple of people fishing directly from the beach, but it was otherwise peaceful, punctuated only by the dull roar of lapping waves and Tobi’s occasional yaps.

On the drive home, Bob was schooling me again in all things Kiwi: “Pop your clogs” means “to die an untimely death.” “Boob tube” is a sports bra (she was fascinated when I told her the phrase means “television” in the States). Weary travelers can become jaded travelers, and my visit with Bob reimpressed upon me the value of hospitality and kindness. Her willingness to share her knowledge and her home reminded me that travel is about meeting people and trying to bridge vast distances through the simple act of communication.

There were, of course, exceptions: “I’m going up the boohai in a matchbox to shoot pukekos” was an idiom lost on me no matter how many times Bob explained it.