WHY GO NOW?
New Zealand's largest city is the gateway to the land of Peter Jackson, delectable pinot noir and indomitable rugby teams. Yet Auckland is an attractive sub-tropical destination in itself for sun-starved Brits in January. Its 1 million people include more Pacific Island inhabitants than live in the island nations themselves; a substantial, politically active Maori community; and a large number of recent immigrants from the Far East and South Africa. This mix of cultures will be out in force tomorrow night (31 Dec) from 7pm, when the Aotea Centre (1) hosts a free New Year's outdoor festival, First Night.
The only direct flights from the UK to Auckland are on Air New Zealand (08000 284 149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk), from Heathrow via Los Angeles or Hong Kong. Singapore Airlines (08448 002 380; www.singaporeair.com) offers one-stop services from Heathrow and Manchester via its home base. Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow via Dubai.
From Auckland airport, the Airbus leaves from outside the international terminal every 20 minutes and costs NZ$15 (£5.30) single, NZ$22 (£7.80) return. The bus takes about an hour, and stops at most major hotels and backpackers' hostels. A taxi into the city centre will cost at least $50 (£18).
Right underneath the city's iconic Sky Tower, the Sky City Grand Hotel (2) at 90 Federal Street (00 64 9 363 6000; www.skycitygrand.co.nz) matches European style with American service in a serene environment; the gym and pool area are especially impressive. It has doubles from NZ$210 (£75); buffet breakfast is an extra NZ$18.50 (£6.50).
A decade ago, anyone venturing to the dockside location of the Auckland Hilton (3) ( www.hilton.co.nz; 00 64 9 978 2000) would have found a down-at-heel, neglected site. But this dramatic structure, perched on a wharf with water on three sides, has transformed the area. A double room costs NZ$461 (£163); breakfast is NZ$27 (£9.50). Budget travellers can opt for an upmarket hostel, Base Backpackers (4) at 16 Fort Street (00 64 9 300 9999; www.basebackpackers.com), where dorm-beds start at NZ$25 (£9), excluding breakfast.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
This sprawling, low-rise city is centred around an 11km-wide volcanic isthmus. At its centre is Queen Street, running down from Karangahape Road to the ferry terminal. North of this is the 1959 Harbour Bridge, linking the city to the North Shore, and to the far west are the Waitakere Ranges, locus of several vineyards and the surf beaches where The Piano was filmed. A bus service known as the Link takes in an hour-long circuit of most of the city centre, Ponsonby Road, Parnell, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Broadway Newmarket. It runs 6am-11.30pm weekdays, 7am-11.30pm weekends, every 10-15 minutes; NZ$1.50 (50p) per ride. Otherwise, the City Circuit is a free hop-on, hop-off service on a more limited route around the centre. For more information, see www.newzealand.com.
TAKE A VIEW
Shrug off the remnants of your jet lag with an exhilarating 90-minute climb over, under and around the Harbour Bridge. Run by those extreme sport madmen at AJ Hackett (00 64 9 361 2000; www.ajhackett.co.nz), you could even go for adrenalin gold by bungying off the bridge towards the murky waters of the Waitemata Harbour. A climb costs NZ$65 (£23); the combined bungy and climb is NZ$130 (£46).
The top New Zealand fashion designers are to be found in the tangle of streets behind Queen Street. Leader of the pack is Madonna's favourite, Karen Walker (5) at 15 O'Connell Street (00 64 9 309 6299), as well as Zambesi (6) on the corner of Vulcan Lane and O'Connell Street (00 64 9 303 1701) and Kate Sylvester (7) at 47 High Street (00 64 9 307 3282). Ponsonby Road also has an array of independent fashion, music and homeware shops.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Among the profusion of hole-in-the-wall Oriental joints downtown, Ichiban (8) at 17 Albert Street (00 64 9 303 4372) is the real deal. Full of Japanese and Korean students, it specialises in huge bowls of ramen from NZ$10 (£3.50) and teriyaki eel on rice (NZ$12/£4.25); otherwise, turn to one of the special menus - such as "Japanese No 1 noodle meal" - plastered to the walls. It is open noon to midnight daily; takeaway also available.
TAKE A RIDE
For an insight into life aboard a racing yacht, join the crew at SailNZ (00 64 9 359 5987; www.sailnewzealand.co.nz). At Viaduct Harbour (9), you board NZL 40, a former America's Cup training boat. A two-hour sail costs NZ$135 (£48).
SPQR (10) (00 64 9 360 1710; www.spqrnz.co.nz) at No 150 is a chic Ponsonby Road institution frequented by media, film and other creative types. It serves café fare and an impressive selection of (mostly) New Zealand wines. Open daily till 2am.
DINNER WITH THE LOCALS
In Viaduct Harbour (5), Soul (00 64 9 356 7249; www.soulsearch.co.nz) serves up top-notch Kiwi food and wine - the hapuku (a meaty local fish) and St Clair sauvignon blanc, in particular, are a match made in heaven.
Prego (11) is a popular Italian restaurant at 226 Ponsonby Road (00 64 9 376 3095).
Peter Gordon put fusion-style cuisine on the map with his Providores restaurant in London. His new venture, Dine, at the SkyCity Grand Hotel (2) (00 64 9 363 7030; www.skycitygrand.co.nz), has already won numerous awards.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Holy Trinity Cathedral (12) ( www.holy-trinity.org.nz; 00 64 9 303 9500) in the chichi suburb of Parnell is an intriguing conglomeration of architectural styles. The neo-Gothic chancel was built between 1958 and 1973, while the nave was constructed in the Nineties, and features stained glass by the Kiwi artist Shane Cotton. Adjacent to the main building is the beautiful wooden Gothic Revival church of St Mary's. Eucharist is celebrated at 9.30am, with a choral evensong at 5pm.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Queen Street is a bit of a ghost-town early on Sundays, but Sheinkin (13) at 3 Lorne Street (00 64 9 303 4301) is open from 7.30am at weekends. Toasted bagels with jam start from $NZ4.50 (£1.60); cooked breakfast from NZ$8.50 (£3).
Arrive early or be prepared to wait for a table at Benediction (14) at 30 St Benedict Street (00 64 9 309 5001) in Newton, the hip heartland of the music industry. This airy, family-friendly café in a split-level stables conversion has fantastic smoothies and legendary "flat whites" - a stronger, less frothy cappuccino variant; breakfast dishes start from NZ$8.50.
High on a hill within the vast parkland of the Auckland Domain, the Auckland War Memorial Museum (15) (00 64 9 309 0443; www.aucklandmuseum.co.nz) is the repository of the world's largest collection of Maori taonga (treasured artefacts). For an authentic introduction to the legends, genealogy and society of the indigenous people of New Zealand, you can attend a performance of traditional song and dance. From January to March, this is held daily outside the Maori gallery at 11am, noon, 1.30pm and 2.30pm (three times daily the rest of the year). You can book ahead on 00 64 9 306 7048; admission NZ$15 (£5.30). The museum itself is free.
ICING ON THE CAKE
In terms of wine, New Zealand is known more for its sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, but on Waiheke Island, a laid-back yet chic former hippie colony only 35 minutes from downtown Auckland, the climate, terrain and winemakers have combined to produce some fine Bordeaux-style wine. The ferry company Fullers (00 64 9 367 9111; www.fullers.co.nz) runs a guided tour to three of the island's wineries and an olive plantation. The NZ$90 (£32) trip departs most days at 11am, depending on demand, from Pier Two (16) of the ferry terminal on Quay Street, returning at 4pm.Reuse content