Travel: A little goes a very long way

Air New Zealand yesterday unveiled the silliest fares yet to Auckland. Sue Gaisford reveals what the bargain-seeker will find
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Five minutes earlier, I'd never even met Dave Ferguson. Now, I couldn't keep my hands off him. I was hanging on for dear life, speeding down the middle lane of a busy motorway and making for the hills.

There are many ways of zipping around Auckland but the most exhilarating is to "Ride the Legend". Dave's customised Harley-Davidson is a registered taxi, but you wouldn't guess it. The machine has bulging purple tanks streaked with broken veins - or, I suppose, forked lightning. It has studded, strapped panniers and a high pillion, so that the passenger can see right over Dave's shaggy, grizzled head - if she dares to open her eyes and stop concentrating on keeping head attached to neck in the aggressive wind.

Eventually, up in the Waitakiri Ranges to the west of the city, we paused. Around us, virgin rainforest dripped and splashed, and huge tree ferns fought for light. The city sprawled below, extending for miles. Auckland is the biggest Polynesian city in the world in terms of its cosmopolitan population, and also vast in area - probably because everyone lives on the ground floor, in little gaudy, tin-roofed bungalows, each with its quarter-acre plot. And everywhere there is water. The tide pushes in, Pacific on one side, Tasman Sea on the other, splashing into creeks and inlets, breaking into rocky coves, creaming down long, inviting beaches.

At the city centre the Sky Tower points elegantly towards the firmament. Though Auckland's graceful harbour bridge is shorter than Sydney's, its tower is a significant 6ft taller, giving New Zealand an edge over big brother Australia. And this is all set to be a competitive year. While Sydney braces itself for the Olympics, Auckland is just starting the opening rounds of the America's Cup. With unconvincing nonchalance, Kiwis call this comically curvaceous 1851 trophy "the Auld Mug", but they keep it under armed guard, in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. The battle for its retention will be fierce and protracted, keeping hotels comfortably full of yachtsmen, crew and spectators well into the third millennium.

And New Zealand, so close to the International Date Line, will be the first substantial country to greet that dawn. Dave and his friends have already been booked for New Year's Eve. Twenty Harleys are to be used that night, to transport performers through the crowds, to and from the huge shindigs currently being planned. Nobody knows for sure who will be coming but, if the rumour is true, Bob Dylan himself may be sitting, that night, where I nervously perched - an awesome thought.

If you can travel ahead of the big event, then you can benefit from some absurdly good fares. Yesterday discount travel agents cut London-Auckland fares on Air New Zealand to between pounds 299 and pounds 640 for travel before July, depending on age.

Once over your jet lag, you can set off to walk from coast to coast. As Auckland straddles an isthmus, this is not an enormous undertaking. Theoretically, the walk is 13km or four lazy hours long.

You begin at the ferry building on Waitemata Harbour and follow discreet little signs, hoping eventually to reach Onehunga Beach on the west coast. Two problems: one, that those signs are often so discreet as to be invisible; the other, that there are so many distractions.

I made steady progress to Emily Place and into the lively university area around Princes Street, where a Tom Jones impersonator was drawing unusually large crowds. The first detour came at Albert Park, presided over by the familiar, dumpy figure of Queen Victoria. Here, a quaint, weather-boarded park-keeper's cottage houses the eclectic bric-a-brac and framed profundities donated to a grateful nation by a philanthropist called Bruce Wilkinson.

The best-laid walking plans came totally agley in the Domain. This huge green space in the very centre of the city epitomises a country whose past is being confronted, accepted and conscientiously redefined. Abandon the track and wander through ancient, wooded gullies, past the oldest bowling club in Australasia, into a tea-shop that won prizes in an Ideal Home competition of 1910. In the winter gardens, the voluptuous, carnivorous pitcher plant traps unwary insects, and the spiky prongs of the spider- orchid spiral towards the glassy roof. You could be in Edwardian Kew.

On Pukekawa - Maori for "sour, infertile hill of bitter memories" - stands the massive War Memorial Museum. You can enjoy a Maori greeting and study the Waitangi Treaty of 1840, which ceded sovereignty to the English and is still being renegotiated today. On the top floor, military history is vividly and movingly displayed. New Zealanders have been heroic in the defence of what many see as the mother country; at least one boy soldier survived the crawling furnace of Gallipoli only to die in the mud of the Somme.

Falling way behind schedule and losing determination, I wandered aimlessly across the huge grassy space where thousands of Aucklanders enjoy free concerts on summer evenings, towards the far side and the Garden for the Blind. This charming little alley contains raised beds of soft, rabbit- ear plants, fragrant lavender, pungent mint, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. That reminded me: outside the international airport, a road called Tom Pearce Lane seemed to lead straight to Widdecombe Fair. Now we were back at Scarborough... I'd lost the plot, and the pathway.

Auckland is a windy, bright, spacious modern city, with soaring skyscrapers, handsome old buildings and wooden cottages. But its most remarkable and delightful quality is the unfailing courtesy of its residents. It is the friendliest city in the world. The Auckland artist and enameller Mary Barker puts it down to distance. "We're three hours' flying-time from Fiji," she says, "and even further from everywhere else. We feel very grateful that people take the trouble to come and see us."

It was a real pleasure, Mary.

Fact File

Getting there: Sue Gaisford paid pounds 980 to fly to Auckland on Qantas earlier this month. If only she had waited: Air New Zealand (0181-741 2299), the only airline with direct flights from the UK these days, has just slashed fares for travel from Heathrow to Auckland via Los Angeles. For travel from 5 April to 30 June, the most you will pay is pounds 682 return, buying direct.

If you book through a discount agent such as Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322), the maximum fare falls to pounds 640. This applies to travellers aged 12-49 inclusive; the older you get, the lower the fares: pounds 610 for those aged 50-59, pounds 505 for 60-69s, pounds 399 for people between 70 and 79, and a startling pounds 299 for octogenarians. (these fares are through discount agents). Stopovers in LA area allowed in both directions.Accommodation in Auckland: Sue Gaisford recommends the Parnell district: "very villagey and with some lovely cafes and shops, near the centre". The Parnell Village Motor Lodge and the Parnell Inn are both good value, at less than pounds 40 per night.

Diversion from Auckland:

Waiheke island - an hour across the harbour via the old Lady Wakehurst ferry (pounds 4), or 35 mins in a Fuller's jetfoil (pounds 8) - is a rural idyll, with many well-marked "tramping tracks" and plenty of vineyards. The best-known is Stoneleigh; in addition, the Mudbrick Vineyard at Church Bay Road, Oneroa is well worth a visit and has an excellent restaurant.

More information: New Zealand tourism, Haymarket, London SW1Y 4TQ (0839 300900).

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