They call Auckland the City of Sails: City of Gales more like. Having boarded the plane in Christchurch in brilliant sunshine, we were told by the pilot (rather too gleefully, I thought) that it was ‘flipping hosing it down’ in Auckland and that the landing there was likely to be bumpy. ‘You’d be far better off staying here, folks,’ he added. ‘I mean, what’s to do in Auckland?’
It was undeniably choppy as we made our descent and the weather on the ground was grim: rain alternating with hail. And as for the wind — it would have done justice to Auckland’s great rival, the capital itself, ‘Windy Wellington’.
Auckland gets its nautical nickname thanks to the number of yachts (most per capita in the world) that bob about in its harbours, bays and along its beaches. Locals have a passion for the sea, and the ocean seems to sweep the city into a watery embrace.
The skyline is dominated by the 1,076-ft Sky Tower from which, on a clear day, one can see for over 50 miles. During my visit it was more like 50 yards. Nevertheless, with just 24 hours to kill in town, I had vowed to get my adrenaline pumping by doing the celebrated Skyjump. Midlife crisis? What midlife crisis?
I presented myself to an annoyingly young, tough, fit and gung-ho chap who asked me to pick out a jump suit. I would be fitted into a harness, he explained, and then attached to an unbreakable mountaineer’s cord, after which I would hurl myself off.
‘Airtime is approximately 16 seconds,’ he continued breezily. ‘And you will be plummeting at around 85km an hour.’ Hang on, I whimpered, I thought it was a controlled, rather leisurely descent.
‘Well yes, it slows down as you reach the ground so that you land gently, but you’ve got to plummet first.’
I had a quick ponder. I was 47 years old, with an adoring wife and children all dependent on my financial support, erratic and meagre though it was. I didn’t need to do this.
I handed the cerise nylon jump suit back to my embryonic All Black, explaining that if it wasn’t for the weather, I’d do it like a shot. He wordlessly handed me a T-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon chicken and the legend ‘Too Chicken To Jump’ or some such nonsense. I flung it back in his face, manfully choosing to ignore his sotto voce ‘cluck, cluck, cluck’.
I restored my spirits with a hugely uplifting lunch round the corner at the Grove. Indeed, I would say that my main course alone (of caramelised pork belly, crayfish tail, pumpkin purée, rhubarb and sage butterscotch) merited the trip from London. Well, that and the choice of 30 wonderful Kiwi wines by the glass.
In the afternoon I attempted a postprandial stroll round the Auckland Domain, a vast park created on an extinct volcano in 1840. At its heart lies the Auckland War Memorial Museum, into which I was finally driven by the rain. And what a spectacular place it is! Built in 1929 to commemorate the 7,300 Aucklanders who perished in the first world war (out of a total of 17,000 New Zealand fatalities), it is a fascinating mix, both of architectural styles and exhibits, and I was completely engrossed.
There were galleries devoted to natural history, the Maoris, the Pacific Islands, contemporary costume and design and, of course, war. I learned so much. I had no idea, for example, that New Zealanders fought in the Boer War but, following the cry ‘Where Britain Goes We Go,’ 6,500 Kiwi volunteers sailed for South Africa (each providing his own uniform and horse, and receiving only their rifles from a grateful British government).
And in WWI, New Zealand sent more troops per head of population than any other country — 100,000 (half of whom were killed or wounded) from a population of just 1million. The exquisitely laid out galleries were crammed with uniforms, weapons, artefacts, video installations, mock-up trenches and even a Japanese Zero aeroplane (appropriated and flown home by an enterprising Kiwi who had found it with the keys in).
I was so absorbed that I was the last to leave the museum. I rounded off the day with another tip-top meal, this time in Peter Gordon’s place, Dine, and then went in search of strong drink and late night jazz in Parnell.
What’s to do in Auckland? Plenty, even for a chicken like me.
Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph.