After driving 196 km from Waitomo Caves, we finally arrived at NZ's largest city, Auckland. The sun was about to go down for the day and we wanted to catch the sunset from the top of Mount Eden. Watching the sky turn crimson and twinkling lights come on across the sprawling city would certainly be magical.
We arrived at the summit of Mount Eden at 2000 hrs on 16 December 2019. Although the sun was due to set at 2036 hrs that day, it was a pity we couldn't stay to watch it because there was a sign which warned that the car park gate would be locked at 2030 hrs in summer (1900 hrs in winter)! Not sure if they enforce the rules strictly though, as there were still cars driving towards the peak as we were leaving.
We did, however, manage to see the crater of Mount Eden (a dormant volcano) and enjoy a bird eye's view of Auckland. The iconic Sky Tower was clearly visible in the distance, and I told the family we were heading there next as our hotel was in that vicinity.
Our hotel for the following 2 nights was The Heritage Auckland. The Singapore flag flew proudly alongside the NZ flag at the top of our hotel. I thought for a second: "Wow. What a warm welcome!" It was only afterwards that I found out that The Heritage Group was majority owned by the Singaporean Tang family (part of the CK Tang family).
The hotel was housed in a heritage building. Its lobby was renovated and modern, but the rooms could do with some updating. We stayed in the deluxe room with 2 double beds and it was huge. There was a small pantry in the room too. Guests also had the use of an indoor and outdoor swimming pool and hot-tub. Buffet breakfast in the morning was good. Not as memorable as the first 2 Novotels of our trip, but definitely adequate.
It was almost 2200 hrs by the time we sorted out our check in and moved our luggage into our rooms. We hadn't had dinner yet. Most eateries were shut by then, but I knew of a late night ramen joint within walking distance from the hotel - Ichiban Japanese Restaurant. We hadn't had ramen in a while, and everyone was craving it. If you like your ramen spicy, this authentic ramen restaurant serves a wicked bowl! The chashu was tender and fragrant. Right up there amongst the best.
Walking around downtown Auckland late at night was the first time we saw the unsavoury side of NZ. I had read that drugs were a problem there, but until then, we had not witnessed anything which substantiated those reports. The homeless gathered on some of the streets with their blankets and they discussed their drug-of-choice openly. Such may be commonplace in many western cities, but certainly not so in Singapore, where the death penalty awaits drug traffickers.
The following morning, we took advantage of our last hours of having a vehicle to visit areas a little further from the city centre. Our first stop was the Auckland Fish Market in the Wynyard Quarter. This place came highly recommended online. Their website said they were open from 0700 to 2100 hrs. I was under the impression that it would be a busy marketplace, best visited in the morning, but I was completely wrong. It looked nothing like a market; more like a collection of eateries, some housed in a food court and others in their own restaurant space. When we got there at 0930 hrs, there was only one stall in the foodcourt selling fresh seafood which was open, and the prices were exorbitant. Definitely a tourist trap. We left the place in under 15 mins.
Dove Myer Robinson Park (also known as Parnell Rose Garden) was our next destination. Tucked in a quiet corner of Auckland, we had the beautiful rose garden all to themselves. They have up to 5,000 colourful roses blooming in the summer. Definitely deserves much more attention than the so-called fish market!
We passed the University of Auckland's campus, then alighted at Auckland Town Hall, which was right by Aotea Square. It was time for Hubby to return the bus to Hertz at the airport. The rest of us spent the next few hours exploring the city centre on foot. We checked out the shops along the main shopping belt of Queen Street, ventured into SkyCity Auckland casino to watch gamblers place their bets, and tried to see if anyone was bungy-jumping off the Sky Tower (but there was none).
We met up with Hubby again at 1300 hrs at Angus Steak House. Touted as having the biggest and best steaks in town, we couldn't think of a better place to sink our teeth into quality NZ meat before our vacation came to an end. Our group ordered various cuts of steak, a rack of lamb and pork chop. The friendly chef cooked everything to perfection before our eyes . The meat was tender, juicy and pink in the centre; just the way we liked it. Angus had a lunch special sirloin steak. Prices were very reasonable, especially when the mains all came along with free flow sides from the salad bar.
For the remainder of the afternoon, we ramped up our purchase of souvenirs, relaxed in the hotel pool, and strolled along the pretty waterfront promenade. We contemplated having dinner at the waterfront, but none of the restaurants tickled our fancy. The family preferred something Asian.
In the end, we settled for the BBQ Duck Cafe at Swanson Street. GoogleMaps list a different outlet. This outlet cannot be found on GoogleMaps, but it's just round the corner from the 24-hr Burger King along Queen Street. Roast duck rice, yangchow fried rice, beef fried noodles and jumbo shrimps on a bed of crispy noodles were some of what we had. Good food. Giant portions. With satisfied bellies and wide grins across everyone's face, we returned to our hotel.
If our memories of Auckland had ended there, it would have been perfect. Unfortunately, it wasn't so. We had booked transfers to the airport by Super Shuttle via Klook. The next day, we waited at the hotel lobby for the pick up at 1130 hrs but none arrived. The concierge advised us to wait a little longer before calling the shuttle service. At 1145 hrs, when they were still not there, the concierge made the call, only to find out that they had missed out our booking.
The concierge rang for 2 taxis instead, and they pulled up shortly. The 2 cabs travelled together to the airport. Things were fine until our driver (Gurmeet) suddenly switched off the meter 3/4 way through the journey. We were puzzled by his action and asked him why he had turned off the meter. He pointed to the second cab and kept saying: "Same same. I charge same same." Hubby had glanced at the meter just before he turned it off and it was about NZ$35.00 at that time. When we reached the airport, Gurmeet demanded NZ$80.00 per taxi. At the 3/4 point, it was only about NZ$35.00, so the metered fare couldn't have cost that much. We took a look at the meter of the other taxi and realised that it had been switched off too! The 2 Punjabi-speaking drivers were in cahoots! They held our luggage hostage and refused to open the trunk until we made payment. Cash only, they insisted.
Prior to our trip, we had attended a free seminar on migration to NZ held at ANZ Bank. The migration agents and bankers spoke about the skills NZ was looking out for, millions which investors have to park, etc. Sounded like quite a lot of hoops potential Singaporean migrants have to jump through to receive permanent residency. And the NZ government lets in unscrupulous rubbish like these? Those horrible thugs really left an ugly stain on our memories of Auckland.