Sick of driving in Auckland's traffic, Elisabeth Easther explores Auckland by train and finds, wherever you choose to get off, there's always plenty to do.
Many of us dream of the day this super city and its furthest reaches are all connected by rail. Underground, overground wombling free, actually probably not free, but I'm happy to pay for getting on track.
Could this be more than just a beautiful dream?
Some people say that when more of us use trains, more services will become available. Hoping to reverse the railways' fortunes for the better, I upped my rail use to learn what can be found beyond the rails.
Train services resumed in Onehunga in 2010 after an absence of 37 years and patronage is growing all the time. The station isn't a thing of beauty but it's functional and has new toilets (which are handy). It's as far as you can go on this line.
If you take your bike, there are a couple of nice rides to contemplate. Either head for the Waikaraka Coastal Cycleway, 4km of loveliness, or roll over the old Mangere Bridge to lovely farms at Ambury Regional Park. Right now that makes for a grand day out, especially if you time your visit to coincide with one of the park's regular special events — feeding the lambs and calves.
The Onehunga Heritage Walk is a gentle option for history buffs, and can be completed in about an hour. The area is also spoiled for playgrounds: Jellicoe Park is tops for fun, and the township is filled with curiosities.
There are interesting markets on Saturday mornings and lots of good food and cafes too.
Take your bike, if you're that way inclined, as the cycling round here is fabulous. Old Waitakere City was one of the first to embrace off-road cycle paths, and the train trip alone is a pleasure, a very pleasant 50 minutes of trundling.
From Britomart to Henderson, you'll pass stations sporting elegant heritage murals, and many modern space-age stations too (hello, Mt Albert).
The sculptures in Olympic Park just before New Lynn station were so wild I nearly pulled on the emergency brake so as to take a longer look. Disembarking at Henderson Station (the piped classical music is a nice touch), I zipped up the escalator and headed left, out past the council chambers. A bit of a look for the cycle signs, and I was on to the Twin Streams Cycleways.
What a revelation. Why, I asked myself, have we never ridden here before. Broad boardwalks, native birds, butterflies, horses, immaculate gardens — it's the countryside tucked in beside the urban sprawl. First we headed towards Henderson Valley Rd, which is a very pleasant, mostly flat, paved ride through paradise. You can carry on up to Palm Heights or head back and go towards Ranui. Or if you've had enough, make a beeline for Corban Art Estate for a cuppa and a look around.
Depending where you came from, and if you're feeling super frisky, follow the mostly off-road trails through Tui Glen Reserve to McCormick Green to the North Western Cycleway, going in at Te Atatu.
This made for quite a ride but the kilometres will fly by. A reasonable level of fitness is essential for the longer route.
The trip from Britomart to Orakei Station isn't very long but it sure is fetching. Exiting through Britomart's rainbow lights in the train, before long you'll have sea views along one side, little dinghies all stacked up, boats bobbing at their moorings. Then you're over the causeway and before you know it, you'll be at Orakei.
We took our bikes with us, but walking would have been better because there are a lot of stairs. And the Orakei Basin loop is currently even more challenging, as part of the boardwalk is temporarily closed because some idiots lit a fire halfway along it. But it makes a grand walk anyway. Start the loop away from the fire and follow your nose, past a couple of items of public art, waterski jumps, a pa site and plenty of building sites too. The salty marsh aroma is clearly a pleasure for canines and plenty of dogs, large and small, were there taking their owners for walks.
The basin is also home to Orakei Sea Scouts, Auckland Waterski Club and is popular with owners of remote control model yachts.
For a slightly longer trek from Orakei Station, try the Hobson Bay Walkway, which starts just past Palmers Garden Centre by the bottom field of St Kentigern's School. And if you're feeling weary, perfectly placed halfway along is the Shore Road Cafe, excellent for a refuel.
Okay, so it's not a train journey but ferries are a lovely way to travel, and taking your bike on the ferry is much much easier than trains. Once in Devonport, well, you could tootle round there for the day.
But you didn't cart your bike over the water for decoration, so head for the Green Route, a 6km mostly off-road cycleway. It will take you all the way to Northboro Reserve in Belmont (officially it carries on to Esmonde Rd, but that resembles a thundering motorway more than a beachside ramble).
Set off early enough and be sure to leave the track at Eversleigh Rd, as you might find Little and Friday (the original) still have a doughnut with your name on it.
At the Devonport end, this whole route also includes Stanley Park, Narrow Neck and Cheltenham — all these spots are so very pretty.
Stock up on supplies at any one of a number of eateries, stop at a beach and congratulate yourself on choosing such a fine destination for a day out before returning to the ferry and making your way home.
Travelling with bikes
Every time we travelled we found railway staff couldn't have been more helpful or friendly.It doesn't cost extra to take a bike on a train or ferry but do be aware, your being allowed to take it on board is at staff discretion (which is sometimes space-related, but sometimes, staff mood-related, I'm told). So cross your fingers, smile and hope for the best. Every time we travelled we found railway staff couldn't have been more helpful or friendly.
Word to the wise
Sadly, Auckland Transport doesn't seem to welcome weekend excursionists, as sometimes train services are suspended in weekends for track servicing. They are then replaced by a bus service which, of course, doesn't take bikes. This'll scupper your cycle plans so do check with Maxx online or by phone before setting off. Better safe than sorry.
Going the distance
We tried, we really did, to test the limits of the rails for our weekend excursions. But the trains run only as far as Papakura to the south (not Pukekohe) and, once you're there, there is not a lot of sightseeing in town. A confident on-road rider could head off to examine the flat farm land (and burgeoning suburbs) of Karaka, with coffee stops, or jump off at Manurewa and head off to the Botanic Gardens or Clevedon and beyond. Be aware, too, that on the western line trains terminate at Henderson on a Sunday (Saturdays they go to Swanson and Waitakere). Again, a vigorous, confident road rider could then head through the hills and bush to the west coast beaches. We would not recommend the country roads rides for children or inexperienced cyclists.
There are many different ways to pay for trains, if you don't have a Hop card. A family travel pass provides unlimited train bus and ferry travel on certain services. Available after 9am on weekdays and anytime weekends and public holidays. Family = 1 adult and up to 5 children or 2 adults and up to 4 children travelling together. These passes are available only from ticket offices at Britomart, New Lynn, Newmarket and Papakura and can also be purchased in advance.
A Discover rail/bus/ferry pass is for unlimited travel on most services (excludes Great Barrier, Waiheke and Half Moon Bay Ferries). Single tickets per stage can also be purchased. Tickets must be bought before boarding.
Helpful website: maxx.co.nz; click on timetables.