Auckland: Far Away But A Bit Too Close To Home

Our first glimpse of Auckland after an all-night flight.

Our first tour of Auckland after an all-night flight.

We woke up in Auckland and watched Auckland wake itself up at around 5:30 a.m. Wednesday after an all-night flight from Santiago. Killing time until we could check into an apartment, we walked all around a virtually empty harbor and central business district.

Looking over the water, the sunrise in a gray sky revealed a historic sailing ship and massive cruise line that were docked near a beautifully preserved Edwardian-era ferry building. Looking back at the city, the cluster of high rises showcased a neon-lit space needle that stood out like a spiky Christmas tree topper.

I felt disoriented not just by the time change but also by a bit of déjà vu, as though I had spent time in this area or somewhere just like it before. Then I got it: Auckland didn’t feel like the hub of a foreign country as much as it felt like a hybrid of San Francisco and Seattle.

Our first glimpse of the Auckland Ferry Building, seen while strolling a walkway not unlike San Francisco's Embarcadero.

The Auckland Ferry Building, seen while strolling on a walkway not unlike San Francisco's Embarcadero.

Auckland's version of the Space Needle is called the Sky Tower.

Auckland's version of the Space Needle is called the Sky Tower.

We said a bittersweet adios to Latin America last Monday, excited to head Down Under but truly sad to leave the landscape and culture of Patagonia. The plane left at close to midnight and we lost Tuesday by crossing the date line, so we all felt a bit out of sorts when we landed in New Zealand before the crack of dawn on Wednesday. It didn’t help that every time a voice in the airport announced “Auckland,” it sounded exactly like “Oakland”! I managed to thoroughly confuse the kids by telling them that their friends in California were “three hours ahead but yesterday,” but they finally understood the time change when I clarified that New Zealand is 21 hours ahead of California.

Kyle and Colly with their luggage at the Santiago airport. (I'm so glad they can carry all their own things!)

Kyle and Colly with their luggage at the Santiago airport. (I'm so glad they can carry all their own luggage!)

When we reached the lobby of the apartment high rise where we’re spending four nights, we suddenly felt assaulted by Christmas as we confronted a gaudy display of seasonal decor and piped-in carols. We all felt taken aback by the in-your-face signs Christmas and consumerism, since we hadn’t seen much evidence of the approaching holiday in Argentina and Chile, and we certainly didn’t feel it, given the early-summer weather and the long distance from our church.

Goodbye empanadas, hello meat pies!

Goodbye empanadas, hello meat pies!

Then it was time to hit the streets and get to know the city. We ducked into a cafe as soon as we found one open and let Kyle sample the country’s quintessential dish: meat pie. Then we found a mini mart to buy a jar of peanut butter (which was impossible to find in Latin America) and other groceries. As high-end shops and coffee bars began to open, I couldn’t ignore the similarities to the Bay Area. Cafés served precious salads with ingredients like roasted beets and goat cheese, and trendy Thai, sushi and even Mexican eateries were everywhere. Shoppers could take their pick of designer labels and aromatherapy products.

Later, when we found ourselves sipping Starbucks and waiting to see a movie in the ultramodern Sky Tower Center, which has a rocket-shaped elevator that makes it feel like Tomorrowland, I reflected on how we had come half a world away to feel like we were in San Francisco’s Metreon. It wasn’t really what I expected — or wanted.

But once we discovered the city’s gorgeous park, called the Auckland Domain, and its treasure chest, the Auckland Museum, we started to feel more connected to — and interested in — our new destination. The museum provides a fantastic introduction to the country’s natural history and Maori culture. The next day we were impressed by the handcrafted Maori and British sailing vessels in the Maritime Museum.

Where the Wild Things Are: A closeup of a Maori figure at the Auckland Museum. (Notice the resemblance to Sendak's creatrures?)

Where the Wild Things Are: A closeup of a Maori carving at the Auckland Museum. (Notice the resemblance to Sendak's creatures?)

A closeup from the Maritime Museum. We were all impressed by the craftsmanship.

A closeup from the Maritime Museum. We were all impressed by the craftsmanship.

For the most part, however, we haven’t found Auckland terribly inspiring, and we’re eager to get in our rental RV tomorrow morning and hit the road for a week. We’re heading up north to the Bay of Islands area to explore beaches, small towns and a place we’ve heard is New Zealand’s most fascinating historical and cultural site: the  Waitangi Treaty Ground, where in 1840 the Maori and British agreed to give the British Crown control.

Don’t get me wrong — after we got over the jet lag, we enjoyed these days in Auckland. There’s no denying this city is thoroughly pleasant, clean and livable, and quite a nice gateway to all that New Zealand has to offer.

I just can’t imagine Auckland would rank high as a destination in its own right.  Some might even say it’s a nice place to live but you wouldn’t want to visit there.

The kids are getting to know the kiwi!

The kids are getting to know the kiwi!

Auckland at night, as seen from our balconey.

Auckland at night, as seen from our balconey.

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