There's a rabbit in Auckland's Botanic Gardens. Probably that's not unusual. What's a little more unexpected about this buck-toothed fella is that he's 3m tall and absorbed in texting his mates on his cellphone. It's a primary-coloured, hallucinogenic moment in an otherwise serene walk through some 64ha of gardens, tucked hard up against Auckland's southern motorway at Manurewa.
Once you're inside the garden gates, though, and through the beautifully airy Huakaiwaka Visitor Centre, you could be anywhere. There is no sight or sound of the motorway, or much else of the city. Here you can easily spend an afternoon wandering the several kilometres of trails, along with dog walkers, joggers and picnicking families engaged in epic cricket games on the grass.
Around and through it all are more than 10,000 plants beautifully laid out in a series of gardens connected by walking paths. There are New Zealand native plants, edible gardens, more rose varieties than you would have previously thought possible, as well as endangered, pretty, colourful and just plain weird plants.
And until February 14 you can also admire some rather less organic "plants" - the 20-odd sculptures that make up the second Stoneleigh Marlborough Sculpture in the Gardens exhibition. Which explains the rabbit.
He's named Teenage Text Bunny, he's hewn from heart macrocarpa and he's the work of Rotorua artist Jamie Pickernell. He's joined in the gardens by a diverse range of works from well-known and emerging New Zealand artists making up the sculpture trail.
There's the elegant, bronze, laser-cut birds of Bing Dawe's Wishing for St Francis, the elegant steel and glass reeds of Colleen Priest-Ryan's Caught in the Act of Losing You, the hypnotic billowing of Gaye Jurisich's Screen - a curtain of green plastic strips hovering over the stream, the optical illusion of Russell Beck's bright yellow MC Escher-like Ascension - and the charming chimes of Phil Neary's Listen and Learn ... the list goes on. Each piece is wildly different from the last and often, even when following the numbered guide and well-marked trail, they'll sneak up on you from behind a rose bush or tree.
There are other sculptures in the gardens, too - purchased by Friends of the Garden from the last sculpture trail collection in 2007. If you have the kids with you, take a detour through the walled Potter Children's Garden which is filled with different activities and tells the story of the kereru and the puriri tree.
But even if you're without the kids, aren't interested in sculpture and hate gardening, the botanic gardens is an inviting space to spend an afternoon. Grab a coffee from the bustling Cafe Miro at the visitor centre, wander a while, then park yourself under a tree to enjoy some rare peace and quiet in the middle of the country's largest city.
If you go
* Auckland Botanic Gardens is open 8am to 8pm in summer (the visitor centre closes at 5pm on weekends, 4.30pm weekdays).
* Stoneleigh Sculpture in the Gardens guides cost $5 and are worth buying if you want to see all the works and learn more about them. The trail takes about an hour to wander around but allow plenty of time to explore the rest of the gardens. The exhibition runs until February 14. Other works from the contributing artists are on display at the visitor centre.
* The garden paths are easy to navigate and most are suitable for wheelchairs. There are also sturdy wheelchairs available for loan from the visitor centre. Guided walks depart from the visitor centre on some days, or you can take the Wiri Rambler, a small tractor that tows carriages of passengers through the gardens. Dogs on leashes are welcome; there are also several "leash-free" dog areas.
If you're a sculpture fan and find yourself near Omaha, head to Brick Bay winery for a 2km winding trail taking in some 25-30 sculptures. The easy walk across farmland, winery and through bush takes about an hour. And you can reward yourself with a chilled wine and a light meal in the beautiful Brick Bay Glasshouse at the end of it. We recommend the rose.