There's nothing like hitting the hometown hard to rediscover Auckland's charm, writes Verity Johnson.
After four years away in Melbourne, I was now the person who started everything with, "That's cool but in Melbourne...". Everyone kept saying that Auckland had finally got its act together.
After trying everything to convince me, my exasperated friends issued a challenge.
"Verity, tourists love this city," they said. "Maybe you should just try doing what they do."
Could having a "weekend away" in my hometown be the solution? It was worth a try.
10am: Auckland Museum — school trip destination for every kid ever — was my first stop. Instead of going inside, I wandered into the Winter Gardens. It was clearly built by someone with a Jane Austen crush. You can laugh at the pretentious statues, drink in the fragrant heat of the glass houses and stroll through prettiness.
2pm: The Sky Tower I couldn't avoid that omnipresent concrete spear, so I decided to go to The Sugar Club for lunch, hoping it would breathe life into the Sky Tower experience. My God. It was a four-hour culinary orgasm. The Gatsby-eque decor is elegant, the views are sensational and the crab and saffron linguine deserves its own TV show. This is not lunch. This is where I want to be buried.
6pm: Glass Goose It was time to start the night at Melbourne-esque rooftop bar Glass Goose. It catches the eye of any wandering tourist — perched like a glittering peacock above Gloria Jeans on Federal St. The scandalously up-skirt view of the Sky Tower made you feel like a Real Big City Type. And eating duck fat potatoes under in-mood lighting psychs you up to go.
8pm: Where can you go at 8pm? Where gets you in the mood so early? Men Of Steel is NZ's only male strip club. It sticks to its motto of "tease, not sleaze" in a way that turns a potentially sad, greasy night into a hilarious party starter. The audience has already formed an an impromptu dance floor by 9pm.
10pm: Casino Every visitor ends up in the Casino and so do we. The swanky Twenty One bar has enough generic glitter to tempt you in. Crucially, unlike a lot of local bars, it's got space to dance. Also being at the Casino means it's full of out-of-town-ers who want a good night but don't know where to get one. So although it's initially quiet, it's the perfect place to start the dance floor. And sure enough, we're so buzzed from Men of Steel that within 15 minutes of us grooving, every envious hoverer has joined in.
12am: Poutine Twenty One peaks at midnight, and it's that time when all you want is Maccas. Luckily The Fed across the road is serving till 1am. It serves the bizarre sounding but totally addictive poutine (fries stacked with gravy and cheese) as well as hot dogs, the notorious roast chicken sandwich and a staggeringly good pie.
Conch You can't do a Big Smoke weekend without drinking mush from a jar in some Ponsonby eatery. I swap the irritatingly Ever-Instagram-Ready Ponsonby Central for Conch. Its Latino junk-shop vibe is relaxing, the staff are charming, and the burritos soothe hangovers. Its hipsters and expensive shabby chic makes it every bit the Ponsonby cliche you want. But its laid-back charm saves it from being pretentious.
1pm: Pt Erin Take the track down to the little park facing the Auckland Harbour Bridge. It's surprisingly spacious, and connected to a whole string of little parks running directly alongside the motorway behind the soundproof wall. (Which actually works, by the the way.) It's weirdly relaxing to stroll in greenery next to roaring cars with the ocean sparkling in the background.
4pm: Chuan Spa Need to recover from last night? Head to the city's best secret oasis, The Langham's Chuan Spa. The best deal is to pay $55 (it's cheaper on weekdays) to use the spa's general facilities. It's a quiet Sunday evening so I can hog the outdoor salt water pool, jacuzzi, sensational snail shower, steam room, ice bath and night-scape rooftop view of Auckland. The generic luxury makes you feel curiously anonymous and free. You could be a Miami gangster's girlfriend or paddling under the tropic stars.
7pm: Masu Being nestled next to Sky City Grand Hotel probably makes Masu the most touristy of all Auckland restaurants. But its food is legendary. The atmosphere is buzzing, the service is razor-sharp and the open grill is mesmerising. Sometimes tourist hot spots have the Disney Effect, when everyone there wants to have a good time. Masu has it. I order five tiny types of sashimi and an elfin portion of kebabs. It's flawless. (But I do hit up Denny's afterwards for curly fries.)
So ... did it work? Maybe it's just the attitude of being open and eager for enjoyment but Auckland impressed me this weekend. It no longer feels like Sydney for beginners. I rediscovered its own, concrete-y charm.