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What to do in Auckland if you're a local who wants the tourist experience

“SkyWalkers” take in a sunset view across the city,  from the giddy heights of Auckland’s Sky Tower

After living in Auckland for almost 25 years, Pamela Wade decides to reacquaint herself with the city where she still feels like a stranger.

Oh, I’ll never be an Aucklander,” I’ve said, often. “I’m a Christchurch girl. Mainlander, through and through.”

But when I recently realised that I’ve now lived on the narrowest bit of this green and lumpy island for as long as I lived in my home town, it seemed time for a rethink. Particularly since, on my last visit back, I got lost in my old suburb because, post-earthquakes, it doesn’t really exist anymore.

Not that I haven’t regularly got lost here, too. When I lived on the North Shore, the central city was separate from my daily life – the Auckland Harbour Bridge a mental as well as physical symbol of detachment. Going to town always felt like a bit of an expedition. So, I decided to make a proper job of exploring, and get the place straight in my head at last.

Read: 50 things to do in Auckland for under $20 

Strapped into harnesses, 192m above the central city, a group on the SkyWalk experience lean out over the void.

My plan was picky. I don’t do shopping, sport or nightlife, but I do like to eat, be outdoors, gladden the eye, and learn things. Fun is always good, too.

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For a literal overview, I began with the Sky Tower. Not tamely going up to the glassed-in observation deck, mind: in explorer mode, and also in an unflattering orange boilersuit, I tackled the SkyWalk. This is where you strap into a harness and step onto The Ledge. A scant metre across, it’s a ring around the widest part of the tower where intrepid SkyWalkers are encouraged to entrust their lives to the cables and lean out over the void at an angle of 45 degrees, the better to appreciate the 192 metres to the ground.

More riveting than the scurrying Lilliputians so far below, though, was the 360-degree view of the city and its surrounds. It’s undeniably spectacular, and especially so with no glass in the way. Hills, highways and harbour, beaches, bush and bridge, islands and airport: it was all laid out like a map, and from that height appeared equally flat.

Originally from the UK, Elle Armon-Jones (second from left) launched her Big Foody tours of Auckland in 2009.  Highlights on the four-hour Tastebud Tour include speciality Italian food store Sabato and the Auckland Fish Market.

Down on the ground, though, there are hills; I needed to fuel up for my exploration. Big Foody’s Elle Armon-Jones took me on a Tastebud Tour: more than four hours of enthusiastic nibbling around the city.

We started with a farmer’s market, of which the city has many, but not all as authentically artisan-produced as the one tucked behind Parnell’s Jubilee Building. Amanda’s pigs forage in the bush; Jan makes her nut brittle from freshly picked macadamias; Sonja’s chicken and kumara pie was almost good enough to make up for not tasting her strudel.

Robyn at Sabato’s fine foods, our next stop, knew the names of the cows whose milk makes Cwymglyn Farmhouse Cheese. She gave us the recipe for Parmesan-rind crackling, and identified the addictive ingredient of hard cheeses (it’s the tyrosine crystals). There was an entire wall of balsamic vinegars; there were also truffle-flavoured beer, crisps and chocolate. We browsed, we tasted, we were educated. Finally, we flitted through the Auckland Fish Market, the auction room’s daily frenzy over, and valiantly attempted to demolish a seafood platter on the waterfront in the humming Viaduct Quarter.

It turns out, for working off calories, an electric bike is useless. Skimming with Power to the Pedal’s Eddie Jack along the city’s cycleways – and pressing a button for extra power going up Grafton Gully – I got very little exercise, but I had enormous fun. Detouring briefly along the bright-pink Lightpath, our main focus was the inner circle of K’ Rd, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and Wynyard Quarter. I learned about the 50,000 people displaced in the mid-60s for the inner-city motorway – imagine trying that today – and discovered the glories of both St Kevin’s Arcade and the avenue of plane trees on Hakanoa St. We saw Ponsonby’s busy and quiet faces, considered the tale of a murderer called Gunn, glided past some rugby, and admired more gorgeous old villas than you could shake a property valuation at.

Architecture was to become a theme. Attempting to defibrillate some sort of intellectual life – also long-abandoned in Christchurch – I next attacked a few art galleries. It did not go well. Despite the professional enthusiasm of my Auckland Art Gallery guide, we struck an obstacle in almost the first room.

Confronted, in every sense, by a Colin McCahon piece that was messy, black and ugly, I ventured my middlebrow opinion that it was a bit of a con. “I know what you mean,” she whispered conspiratorially. Then she rallied, quoting wall texts and artist statements. But, as we passed through the modern-art galleries, passing works made from road surfaces, torn fabric and lametta tinsel, her conviction faltered.

The redeveloped Auckland Art Gallery is a stunning blend of old and new.

We both relaxed when we got to the more traditional art, especially the gallery of gorgeous Goldies – but, for me, more than anything else it was the elegant 1887 building that made the deepest impression.

It was the same at Pah Homestead: the current exhibition displayed unappealing modern works inside a historic Italianate stately home with knee-high skirting boards, marble fireplaces, stained glass and killer views. I liked the downstairs loo better than any of the art I saw on display.

Nevertheless, I persisted. I went to Titirangi, to visit Colin McCahon’s house, tucked into the bush. Little more than a bach, with his daughters’ bunks downstairs open to the predations of mozzies and possums, it has cupboards full of information on his life and work. One of them is pasted with newspaper reviews from the 1950s, heavily featuring the words “crude” and “ugly”.

Perhaps I am just a child of my time, I thought with dismay, as I admired McCahon’s inventiveness in using No. 8 knitting needles to make a plate rack. Then I went to the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in the pretty village, where I hated the exhibition of creepy photos, loved the stylish staircase, embraced my middlebrow and officially gave up on modern art.

Not on culture, though. Theatre was next, and I eased in, with West Side Story at the Civic Theatre. Actually, nobody has ever eased into the Civic. The decor is astonishing.

Looking down on the stairway at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery

On a tour, I learned it began life as a movie palace, designed to make its patrons feel like royalty. Back in 1929, that meant exotica such as elephants (someone counted: 414 in all), Buddhas, salamanders and Abyssinian panthers; pillars and arches, chandeliers and torches; and quantities of gold. Not real gold, naturally: this was the Depression. It was built in 33 weeks and all that marble is really just painted plaster. Still, it’s a splendid, and rare, example of an Atmospheric Theatre, the auditorium’s twinkling ceiling with its occasional shooting stars a challenging act to follow for the terrestrial stars onstage.

The American cast of West Side Story was not intimidated. They sang and danced with such focus and energy that even the family seated behind me, noisily excited about just having bought a house at auction for $1.6 million, was eventually distracted and stood at the end to applaud with everyone else.

Looking up to the ceiling of the gloriously opulent Civic Theatre (below), which first opened in 1929.

The audience at the new and strikingly modern ASB Waterfront Theatre was much more cerebral. The play here was an Auckland Theatre Company production, When Sun and Moon Collide, by New Zealand playwright Briar Grace-Smith: a murder-mystery set in a tearoom, literally and metaphorically dark, but relieved by mince pies and “Ten Guitars”. There were themes and threads, hits and misses, and lots of meat for deep discussion afterwards.

There was none of that after Silo Theatre’s production of Hudson & Halls Live! – it was much jollier: cheerful, relaxed, funny, clever and colourful. And that was just the audience. The play was good too, assured and deftly balancing hilarity with sadness.

A resident sheep takes the high ground on One Tree Hill.

Brain revived, it was time to go back outside. I went to Cornwall Park, meeting retired greyhounds, friendly walkers, lost tourists and many sheep, and climbed a muddy track up One Tree Hill. From the top, I surveyed the city again: green and blue, leafy and concrete, busy and empty.

This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.