New Zealand has lived up to its reputation as the Land Of The Long White Cloud. Correction. It surpasses that reputation. We land in Auckland amid relentless howling rain, so fierce it could buff the grey off a battleship. Our arrival unintentionally coincides with that of Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, and surprise, surprise, we travel in tandem for a day or two.
Bishop kicks off her Auckland tour dining at the home of her Kiwi counterpart, Winston Peters, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern popping by for an informal introduction. And by informal, I mean informal. Ardern, riding nose-bleed high in opinion polls, is wearing what could only be described as Kiwi Casual – super skinny jeans, a crumpled shirt, and Allbirds loafers, shoes often mistaken for comfy slippers… for the aged. I’m not being a style snob. According to the New Zealand Herald, Ardern later makes a ‘slightly shame-faced mention’ of her outfit but confesses she has come direct from the Labour Party’s ‘summer camp’.
Fashion aside, for those of us who follow politics, the meeting is pregnant with possibilities. Several months previously Bishop raged that the Australian government might not be able to trust Ardern’s Labour Party after it had a hand in revealing the first Barnaby Joyce fiasco, the one about his dual New Zealand citizenship (this was before the Barnababy scandal). All drama is averted, however, and the next morning Bishop admits her introduction to Ardern was held in ‘very pleasant circumstances’. When asked about the PM’s footwear, Australia’s most stylish politician says: ‘I had shoe envy’. A diplomatic white lie. Five Pinocchios.
Two things stand out in Auckland. One; it’s boom time. The city is on the build. Cranes and construction abound on almost every block in the central city isthmus: hotels, convention centres, rail, housing, luxury apartment and commercial blocks. And that’s just the sexy stuff. The build is unprecedented. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be causing massive headaches, even at the Britomart station, nor does it seem to be making the locals cranky. Take note Gladys Berejiklian and Daniel Andrews. There is a better way.
The second thing that stands out in New Zealand’s biggest city is the food: it has incredible restaurants. Kiwis are fiercely patriotic, particularly when it comes to the All Blacks and Silver Ferns, but when it comes to food they take patriotism to a new level. The produce is all local, regardless of cuisine. You almost expect each new dish to arrive with an accompanying haka. We try Italian (at Baduzzi, which boasts ‘food of the people’, but really tastes like an angel crying on your tongue, to borrow from Paul Hogan), Middle Eastern (Ima), Japanese (Ebisu), modern Kiwi (Amano), and for breakfast three exquisite cafes (The Store, St Mary’s, and Ortolana). The food scene here makes Sydney’s look like Sleepy Hollow.
But we haven’t flown across The Ditch just to eat. Rather, we’re going to a wedding of a Kiwi Millennial who’s tying the knot with a handsome Brit who lives in Gibraltar. Very international. Once more we travel in tandem with our Foreign Minister. Bishop, like us, heads for Waiheke Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from the main wharf, though unlike us, she’s going to talk trade and regional stability with Peters and fellow politicians. It’s nice to see the pictures of the two foreign ministers battling the breeze on the poop deck of the ferry, Kiwi Casual.
Waiheke is stunning, home to about 8,000 people and 30 vineyards and cellar doors. Our bride and groom are tying the knot at the Cable Bay Winery, which sits on the top of a hill with gun-barrel views across the harbour. I’m a sucker for a wedding. I was hooked early. Mum was a seamstress and her specialty was wedding dresses. My childhood memories are of sitting at her feet watching in awe as she fitted bespoke gowns on excited brides. When I moved to New York as a foreign correspondent, my love for weddings grew thanks to the Vows section in the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Clever, observant, sharp-eyed journalism, not only for romantics.
Millennials do things differently from my Generation Xers. The bride has three attendants who look almost as gorgeous as the bride, having been spared the ‘meringue’ frock forced on generations of earlier bridesmaids. The groom has one best man, a hilarious Brit who could have been ripped from the pages of P.G. Wodehouse and laments that the groom forgot to order him a suit. Still, Dickie scrubs up OK. The mother of the bride makes an extraordinary speech, leaving guests reeling twixt laughter and tears; the groom reveals he fell in love at first sight with his new wife, a towering beauty of exquisite character; and the bridesmaids each deliver messages of friendship rich and raw, with decency, loyalty and family as central motifs. The world will be okay in the hands of these Millennials.
Post wedding, back in Auckland, it remains wet. We seek shelter in the gorgeous old Occidental pub for a gypsy jazz band session with a group called Twistin’ The Swing. It is an afternoon of surprises. The barman is a dead ringer for Ron Weasley, the band are talented hipsters with Mona Lisa smiles (and they’re all blokes), and an extraordinary moment occurs when random locals take to the dance floor with a free-wheeling version of 1940s swing dancing. For choreography, they could rival Fred and Ginger, but for style – they’re all dressed like their beloved PM: Kiwi Casual.