North vs South: Battle for Auckland's best suburb

By Danielle Wright, Dionne Christian

A change is as good as a rest, but, as Dionne Christian and Danielle Wright find out, you don't always need to travel out of town - across town sometimes works too.

Dionne Christian (left) and Dani Wright meet in Birkenhead to compare nots on Auckland's north and south. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Dionne Christian (left) and Dani Wright meet in Birkenhead to compare nots on Auckland's north and south. Photo / Sarah Ivey

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY

With an English husband hell-bent on living near a beach, we ended up with a home in a leafy North Shore suburb when we moved to Auckland 11 years ago. It's changed a lot since then and, more and more, I wonder if I'm living in the wrong suburb.

Now's my chance to find out, as my editor invites me to swap 'burbs with a colleague from South Auckland. And so it was that we tested rural charm in Clevedon, a holiday atmosphere in Maraetai Beach and the natural beauty of the Hunua Ranges.

Our first stop, though, is Ardmore Airport, in all its faded glory appeal. We drive past blokarters sharing the tarmac with helicopters, and hobby planes dwarfed by giant Boeings in the distance. Although the airport looks deserted, peering into the windows of some of the 90 tenants' buildings, we see people behind every glass panel, waiting for aircraft to land or lessons to begin.

There's also a pilot shop selling retro badges, bomber jackets, Warbird socks, thick training manuals and even a signed American Eagle Squadron framed photograph for $100.

For my husband, Gavin, who has a helicopter pilot's licence and grew up on RAF camps across Europe, it's the ideal way to spend a morning. It's both relaxing and exciting to watch the industrious individuals passionately learning to fly.

Our kids finally drag their dad away and we head to Clevedon, probably best-known for its iconic farmers' market, though I can't help thinking of the Clevedonaires, Manukau's first pop group, who hailed from here.

No doubt some of the vintage gear displayed at the entrance to the Clevedon Village Market was worn at one of their many gigs across South Auckland dancehalls in the 1960s. Our children love looking at all the vintage jewellery and there's even a red handbag shaped like a pair of lips.

Further into the hall we spot fair trade products, knitted cardigans, jams and preserves, homemade soaps in the shape of cupcakes, wooden toys and old boots painted in bright colours, re-purposed as pot-plant holders.

We buy 40 marbles for $2 from a lady concerned that both children have little bags to carry them in. At the park nearby they make friends with local kids much more easily than they do at playgrounds near our home - it just seems a lot more relaxed and friendly here.

We drive past a cobbler's workshop, the "dead centre" of town (the cemetery) and later Woodzone, a woodworking shop, on our way to Maraetai Beach. Vintage cars are making the most of weekend drives through country roads and we spot kids on dirt-bikes tackling a steep paddock, as parents look on anxiously.

Pulling up to the carpark at Maraetai Beach wharf, we notice a group of boys with their shirts off, leaning proudly on their shiny car.

"Look, there's One Direction," says our three-year-old daughter, thankfully not loud enough for them to hear.

On a sunny day, Maraetai beach is definitely the local place to strut your stuff and there are plenty of cafes set up for people-watching and pinot. I imagine it's always been like this, since it was developed as Maraetai Beach Estate in 1923, when wealthy Auckland families would sail here for their holidays or buy a waterfront section for just £295.

After a walk along the wharf, we head to the playground opposite the beach, and nearby we see the boating club, built in the early 1950s. It's the ideal location to set sail for Waiheke Island, beckoning us just out of reach on the horizon.

Before we head back to the Shore, we're on one last mission: to Hunua Falls. The rushing water of this 30m waterfall can be heard as soon as you enter the carpark - it's an easy two-minute walk and a great way to end the suburb swap.

In South Auckland, we found a way of life that seemed gone forever - friendly communities, untouched beauty and a world of contrasts. It gave us a new perspective on Auckland and our place in it. We will be back for more but, like all travel, it also made us appreciate home.

Dani's picks

* Clevedon Coast Oysters' shop sign reads: "Best oysters in NZ, we're not bluffing!" 914 Clevedon Kawakawa Bay Rd, open Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 9am-2pm.

The less well-known Clevedon Village Market, Clevedon Village Hall, Sundays 10am-3pm.

* Maraetai Wharf Cafe, 231 Maraetai Drive, Maraetai Beach. To blend in, don't forget your motorcycle helmet.

SHORE THING

Memories of a childhood spent partly on the North Shore: rummaging round the car to find 20c to pay the harbour bridge toll, the rope swing at Dad's ramshackle old bach overlooking Northcote's Onepoto Domain, the annual Takapuna Pumphouse picnic and running wild on the vacant lot next to my grandparents' house in Forrest Hill.

It's years since I spent much time on the Shore. Dad's dilapidated old house is now a funky waterfront pad, the vacant lot in Forrest Hill is a suburb and I don't know if they still have the Pumphouse picnic. So when I got the chance to "suburb swap" with fellow Weekend Life writer Dani Wright, it was too good an opportunity to turn down - a bit like being given a ticket to travel home after decades away.

We - Nana, Miss Seven, Miss Three, Bicharn-the-bichon frise and I - started our adventure on an uncharacteristically warm and sunny spring Saturday. No bridge toll to pay these days, but a lot more traffic on Onewa Rd.

First stop was Cafe Bonjour on Queen St, Northcote Point. We might as well have been in Paris given the atmosphere and the food here, which includes one of the most unusual breakfast offerings: french onion soup, omelette and something sweet from the large range of tempting pastries and little cakes. There was certainly nothing like this when Dad lived on Onewa Rd.

After refuelling at Cafe Bonjour, we drove under the bridge so the girls could get a new view of it. Miss Seven said it was scary (and I didn't even tell her about the time we found two dead rats under there), noisy and dark. We then headed to Little Shoal Bay and discovered a whizzy new kids' playground, where the girls spent some time before they were convinced to come down and walk along the beach to the boats, including a couple of boats with pirate flags.

From Little Shoal Bay, we drove along Maritime Terrace to Birkenhead which, like Northcote Point, seems to have embraced its heritage and come into its own. Happily, our visit coincided with the Birkenhead Artisan Market, where we enjoyed looking at the arts and crafts for sale. We were also impressed with the nearby Next Door Gallery and I'll be back to buy myself an early Christmas present.

There's no shortage of cafes to choose from, but we picked - on Dani's recommendation - Ravenhill Cafe, housed in a converted butchers' shop. The food was great but, better still when you've got hungry kids, the service was prompt and efficient. There was even a bowl of water for Miss Bicharn, who delighted in meeting other small dogs. Everywhere we looked were smart-looking pooches of the bichon (we met five others in one morning), shih tzu, spaniel and terrier variety. I wish dogs were as welcome in other parts of Auckland as they seem to be on the North Shore.

The following weekend we were back on the Shore; this time to visit Bayswater Marina, which didn't exist when I was a kid. Had it done, we would have persuaded Dad to do a lot more of what we did this day: wandering along the marine walkway over the water and fishing from it. It really does make you feel as if you're walking on water.

We didn't catch a fish, much to the disappointment of Miss Three, who spent the drive from Bayswater to Devonport lamenting the lack of a pet "indoor" fish (apparently the six in the pond in our garden don't count).

I'd forgotten how much I love Devonport, with its boutique shops, cafes, galleries, waterfront parks and beach walks. Its attractions have been added to by the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum, which o pened in 2010 in a new and expanded site on Torpedo Bay, in a 19th century submarine mining station. The museum is open daily and it's free. Permanent and special exhibitions tell the story of the Navy's role in the development of our military and wider identity. There's even a chance to dress up in old navy uniforms.

So, a balmy afternoon in Devonport: pizza at Manuka Cafe, a spend-up at Evergreen Books - surely the best bookstore in Auckland - a look around Art By The Sea gallery and a visit to the Navy Museum followed by a walk along the beach. If I and the family were feeling energetic, we could have marched to the top of Mt Victoria for a panoramic view of the city. But we weren't.

That ticks the box as a perfect day for me.

Dionne's picks

* Cafe Bonjour: 143 Queen St, Northcote.

* Ravenhill Cafe: 98 Hinemoa St, Birkenhead.

* Bayswater Marina: off Lake Rd and down Bayswater Avenue.

* Torpedo Bay Navy Museum: 64 King Edward Parade, Torpedo Bay.

- NZ Herald

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