It is Auckland’s contemporary pou, a metro marker, and the city’s transcendent landmark. It’s scary how fast 20 years has zipped by, since Auckland’s skyline was first redefined by the construction of the beloved Sky Tower. I was living in Auckland at the time, hosting Newstalk ZB’s Overnight Show, and the rise of the iconic tower struck me as the coming of age of Auckland. The Queen City had found its feet as an international city.
Fast forward 20 years and I recently enjoyed an Auckland weekender to celebrate the milestone anniversary. Picking up a Thrifty rental car from the airport, I purred into the city in surprisingly short time, thanks to the recent opening of another engineering triumph – the Waterview Tunnel. Costing an eye-watering $1.4 billion, the largesse is mind-blowing, but it sure short-circuits travel time in and out of the city centre.
Twenty years on, the Sky Tower is still a record-breaking tall boy, maintaining its stature as New Zealand’s tallest man-made structure and the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Since 1997, it has entertained nearly 15 million guests, whether it’s to wine and dine, to indulge in the gut-shuddering adrenalin pursuits or simply to lap up the lofty panorama. On a clear day, the 360 degree views reach out for over 80 kilometres, to Great Barrier Island, the Waitakere Ranges and the Bombay Hills.
In addition to the tower, I took the opportunity to sample some of SkyCity’s alluring culinary offerings. For dinner, I headed to the rustic and Italian-inspired masterpiece of Gusto at the Grand. Showcasing good honest food, classic flavours and fresh seasonal ingredients, the menu is curated by celebrated chef Sean Connolly, and the dishes are designed to be shared.
With white arabescato marble, gold onyx, timber floors, stained American ash tables and Thonet chairs, the rich colours and tanned leathers pay homage to European elegance. My recommended share plate dishes include Clevedon buffalo mozzarella, heirloom tomato and basil; Cloudy Bay clams, spaghetti, garlic chill and parmesan; or how about Sardinian ravioli, potato, mint and pecorini sage butter?
The sharing and pairing and noshing continued the following day over lunch, high up on the 53rd level of the Sky Tower at the decadent roost, The Sugar Club. This is the fourth incarnation of Peter Gordon’s restaurant and the décor evokes 1930s Art Deco Italy with brass fittings, sublime tableware and stone table tops. The Fusion Cuisine menu is centred around small seasonal plates brimming with flavour, with the finest New Zealand produce blended with exotic flavours.
Our picks were spiny crayfish & Te Anau saffron linguine plus Hawkes Bay lamb rump with smoked kumara mash, bone marrow sauce and cherry tomatoes. I luxuriated for two nights at Skycity Hotel Auckland which offers stylishly appointed air-conditioned rooms and suites with free WiFi, a big flat-screen TV and an iPod docking station. For best rates and packages, head to www.skycityauckland.co.nz
Feeling suitably fortified after a tasty breakfast at Andy’s Burgers and Bar, it was time to follow in the footsteps of Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, Michael Buble and Beyonce and ascend the tower for some elevated adventure. The SkyJump and SkyWalk are both operated by A J Hackett and because I’m not really a fan of bungy jumping, I opted for the SkyWalk. This soft adventure stroll around the Sky Tower pergola, 192 metres above ground, sounded like a very relaxing notion.
But what I didn’t envisage is that the pergola doesn’t have any hand railings. So once outside, standing on the circular platform wrapped around the strutting The Sugar Club, I felt suddenly and queasily exposed with nothing but air on either side. Deep breaths, deep breaths! Despite being harnessed to an overhead safety line, I still felt hideously uncomfortable.
Summoning the fortitude to stay on-task, my fellow Skywalkers and I were led on an exhilarating encounter around the Auckland skyline, circumnavigating the walkway, while our fabulous guide snapped photos and video as we performed sky-high ledge-leaning exploits, en-route. It’s an enthralling, heart-pumping and utterly unforgettable experience. The endorphin rush left me feeling tingly for the rest of the day. www.skywalk.co.nz
Beyond the CBD, I jumped in the rental car to soak up the bayside glitz and glam along Tamaki Drive, stopping for coffees and beachfront strolls at Mission Bay and St. Heliers. For more waterfront charms, we headed over the Harbour Bridge to the well-heeled, genteel enclave of Devonport. The delightful suburb’s esplanades and parades, fringed with Victorian homes and cottages, serve up sizzling perspectives on the city skyline and across the Hauraki Gulf.
We then headed up North Head, one of the oldest of Auckland’s 50 volcanic cones, formed over 50,000 years ago. The cinematic harbourside views competed for my attention alongside the historic vestiges of North Head’s fortifications. The sweeping collection of military installations date from the late 1800s through to the Second World War. North Head’s first guns were installed here in 1870 and the battery is still there, designed to defend Rangitoto Channel, while the South Battery served as Auckland’s sentinel.
The guns never fired a shot in anger. The honeycomb of tunnels are a thrill to wander through, unleashing your inner-child. From the summit of North Head, I gazed over the golden sweep of Cheltenham Beach, the gigantic conical icon of Rangitoto Island, before perusing the historic wooden buildings of the old Armed Constabulary. Erected in 1885, this was the forerunner to the New Zealand Army.
Just two years older than the Sky Tower, I finished my Auckland weekender by taking in a Vodafone Warriors home game at Mt. Smart. They were playing the Canberra Raiders and clocked up another hapless performance, losing 36-16, in what has been a painfully wretched season. Maybe next year? The short hop to Auckland Airport was punctuated by the most exhilarating lightning storm, bringing the curtain down on a cracking weekend in the Queen City.
Treat yourself to a bumper self-drive Auckland weekender. Thrifty Car Rental offers hot deals, swift service and an excellent fleet in handy locations across the country, including Auckland Airport. Blue Chip members enjoy lightning-fast pick-ups. AA Members can save up to 30% off the all-inclusive rental rates. www.thrifty.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.