Steve Braunias compiles his annual list of the 20 best things of Auckland life.
1. Best community testing centre
There were many, many times in 2020 when you could have cut the tension with one of those long swab things used to test for Covid-19 in the upper and hitherto unexplored reaches of the human nose. Community testing centres – pop-ups, surgeries, weird medical units set up in godforsaken carparks – became the place to be seen this year. Just over 1,312,000 New Zealanders lined up for tests. They were attended to by the best health professionals in the world. Purely in terms of location, and the splendours of nature, the best testing centre was the pop-up opposite Western Springs Park on Great North Rd. A little turn-off led to a carpark with a view of the swans and geese at Western Park to the north, and the graceful, swaying pine trees at Chamberlain Park to the south; and the carpark was shaded by that same magnificent stand of pōhutukawa made famous by community activists who fought off Auckland Transport's plans to chop 'em down. The trees stayed. In our darkest hour, they provided beauty and a dappled calm.
2. Best apartments
In the future, everyone in Auckland will live in an apartment. Actually, that's complete nonsense but you know what I mean. "We need to build more apartments", reads an Auckland Council mission statement in a paper titled Accelerate the construction of homes that meet Aucklanders' changing needs and preferences. More and more apartment blocks will loom large on the landscape. All of which makes old-school Auckland apartments – typically two-storey, brick or stucco – look increasingly stylish, like lovely little petite packages. The best, and most romantic, is Endymion, on 90 Remuera Rd. Its red-brick facade features a striking mosaic of Endymion, the shepherd who Zeus granted eternal youth as well as eternal slumber, and Serena, the goddess of the moon, who woke her lover each evening. O nights at 90 Remuera Rd! Gee, it looks nice there. "A thing of beauty," as Keats wrote in his great poem Endymion, "is a joy for ever."
3. Best bus station
In the future, everyone on the North Shore will live in an apartment above a bus station… Auckland Council is looking at putting up a 359-room apartment building above the Constellation Drive bus station parking area. Commuters wouldn't have to park and ride, they could take the elevator down and ride. Nice! In the meantime, the mega bus station military complex at Constellation Drive is a wonder of engineering and blank spaces, almost dystopian in its tidiness and lack of humanity. It's epic. It's clean. It's functional. And the busses – including the double-decker Northern Express NX1 and NX2 routes, swaying and lurching over the harbour bridge – run on time.
4. Best train station
There is something dreamy and gentle about the train station at Swanson. It's the end of the Western Line and it feels like the end of Auckland - it feels like it's right on the edge and about to fall off. It's so rural there, so quiet and rustic, so seemingly far away from the roaring city. Plus the station cafe is extremely good with indoor seating and, best of all, outdoor seating right on the train platform. The romance of trains lingers on in sleepy, grassy Swanson.
5. Best music store
I dig everything about WE Classical Music at 152 Pakuranga Rd. I dig that it looks like an obscure little hut in the middle of nowhere. I dig the fact that inside it's a galaxy of sound, a solar system of music and beauty and good uses of wood. It's run by William Yu, an exponent of the yangqin (a Chinese hammered dulcimer) and his wife, Tanya, a master of the erhu (a two-stringed Chinese lute.) Instruments for sale include the seven-stringed guqin, the ancient banhu, and a bawu, a kind of horn or pipe which makes a noise described as "weeping and complaining". WE stands for West and East; verily, the twain meet at 152 Pakuranga Rd.
6. Best Diwali display
Diwali's awesome and it looked the awesomest this year at the Papatoetoe Town Hall. A specially created light and sound projection show used the town hall as a canvas to illuminate intricate Hindu temple carvings. It was created by Lakshman Anandanayagam (lights) and Previn Naidu (sound); gentlemen, take a bow. It was a total knock-out. Someone give these guys the Sky Tower to play with in 2021.
7. Best name for a chicken-themed restaurant
Aucklanders are spoiled for choice when it comes to amazing names for chicken-themed restaurants. Mt Wellington has the people's democracy of ChickHen Republic! Avondale, Belmont, Mt Roskill, Onehunga, Ōtāhuhu and Papatoetoe offer fried halal chicken at the absolutist Totally Chicken! Manukau, Māngere, Takanini and Glen Eden have the senselessly named Chicking! Henderson has the plain loco Chicken Madness! But the very best can be found at 240B Great North Rd in Glendene, home of – God this is good – Fried Chicken Headquarters.
8. Best tsunami warning system
You might think that Ōrewa, with its tepid little tide crawling on to the shore, is one of the last shores in Auckland that needs to be worried about a tsunami, but vigilance is the mother of unreasonable fear, and thus it was that seasiders at Ōrewa were treated to a full acoustic testing of two voice-capable tsunami warning sirens on November 23. The sirens were activated three times between 12pm and 12.15pm and were measured for volume and clarity from eight sites around Ōrewa. Auckland Council reports, "Staff on the ground reported the sirens were understandable and the siren tone alert itself was clearly audible from their monitoring positions." Phew! Disaster averted.
9. Best building
All true Kiwis may rejoice that in the middle of self-serving, passive, bourgeois Grey Lynn, at 204 Great North Rd, is a citadel of power and might, a temple of military intelligence and armed force – the Defence Careers Recruiting Centre. It's like a slice of the New Zealand Army HQ at Waiouru has been cut out of the Rangipo Desert and transplanted in the centre of civilian life. The long, low building, decked out in pale camouflage green, with the New Zealand flag always flying, is a graceful symbol of national pride. It also looks just really cool. Weirdly, I could only find one review on Google. Two years ago, Hugo Landman wrote, "I like being a cadet and having this place as a base is great." Well said, mate.
10. Best view
What do you see when you die? I think death looks like the sea. Resthaven Funerals in Howick has a chapel with extensive sea views and seats up to 60 people for small and intimate services. I walked past a funeral service at Resthaven not so long ago and noticed that almost everyone was staring out the window at the glittering Waitematā. I thought better of it but gee I was dying to go in.
11. Best kai village
Okay, so there's only one, but that makes the Ōtara Kai Village a leader. It's run out of a bloody big shipping container located in the Ōtara Town Centre and has provided 14,000 free meals since lockdown level 2. Kai Village project leader Lee Naniseni says, "There is massive food insecurity that happens when jobs are lost and incomes are stretched. Local residents, food banks, MSD and Foundation North jumped in to support and to meet the need with a healthy alternative to fast food." Nice.
12. Best boat
Wanting something nice to buy with that $1.2 million rattling around in your piggy bank? Right now, the most beautiful thing on water is for sale at that price: the Ranui, in the Viaduct. It was built from tōtara and kauri in 1936 at a Norwegian whaling station on Stewart Island. It served as a surveillance ship in World War II, also as an oyster boat, and as the royal yacht of Queen Salote of Tonga. It's now owned by Auckland lawyer and former Olympic sailor Richard Allen and is on the market. Go see its 23m sleek lines for yourself, and covet it.
13. Best footbridge
Auckland has some really great footbridges stretching over its network of motorways. The best is the Keith Hay footbridge, opened in February 2007, allowing access over State Highway 20 for an estimated 2000 pedestrians every day from schools in Mt Roskill. Its cable-stay bridge design is 25m above the traffic and supports 500 tonnes. It's 170m in length and has stainless steel handrails. All that strength; and yet it seems to float in the air like a ribbon, weightless.
14. Best fair
I live in Te Atatū North, but the philistines who run the night markets continually reject my request to run a bookstall. Fortunately, the more cultured and plain nicer folks who run the annual Te Atatū South fair have welcomed me with open arms these past two years. They stage a fantastic fair and the one in 2020 was held right on the cusp of New Zealand going into lockdown in March. It felt risky but it also felt triumphant, like a last hurrah, as thousands and thousands of people ambled hither and yon, buying food and crafts and lots and lots of books.
15. Best wharf
Any day now the pretty little white wooden wharf at Northcote will be fixed, and back up and running for the ferry service to resume – okay, so frustrated locals have been waiting two and a half years for the damned thing to be put right. Auckland Transport promises there's an end in sight, possibly even before Christmas. The wharf got closed down in June 2018. There was something wrong with it. But work didn't actually begin until June this year. Auckland Transport! Shame on you. There used to be 155 ferry trips to and from the wharf; it'll be a sweet, sweet day when the blue highway is restored.
16. Best food court
I'm crazy about the Queen's Court food court at 368 Queen St. It's in a shabby, narrow little arcade, like a kind of alleyway that makes you think you might be in some backstreet in, I don't know, Beijing or somewhere. Certainly, there's very little English going on. Quite a few shops are boarded up. One shop lost its door, and a homeless couple sleeps in it. Anyway, the actual food court is full of cheap, stunning meals (you will find the best pho in Auckland in Queen's Court), with nine stalls, including Brazilian, Xian, and Vietnamese. The whole place feels like a really great secret.
17. Best trees
Well yes, of course, the dear old crimson flames of the pōhutukawa are a summer classic, as red as a Santa suit, and dear to the heart of every New Zealander. But they're a little bit kind of like super dull compared to their close cousin: the yellow pōhutukawa. Yellow! God, they look amazing. They shine like gold and they're just as rare and precious. I'm told that right now there are groves in bloom at Shakespear Regional Park, Cornwall Park, and the Māngere Wastewater Treatment Plant.
18. Best shopfront statue
The shopfront statue outside the Nukualofa Takeaway on 273 Mt Smart Rd in Onehunga is a kind of cigar-store Indian: more specifically, it's a kind of cigar-store Tongan. Certainly, it's a striking advertisement for a popular and beloved takeaway that serves Pasifika treats. Two reviews on Facebook express customer satisfaction. This: "Yass beautiful kai. Loved the lamb lusipi was so good heaps of meat the taro leaves were yum no tangy taste maybe jus a lil bit more coconut cream but was so good. Highly recommend this place for your island fix." And this: "Visited for the first time as I was in need of an Island food fix, the keke was still hot! Food was fresh and hot and the otai was ifooooou." I don't precisely know what "ifooooou" means but I get the very happy picture.
19. Best mall
See you at Commercial Bay. It's so good in there, so new and clean and it smells like the $700m it cost to get it up and running in June. It's got a clever matrix of escalators and some of the best skybridges in all of Auckland, leading hither and yon in this castle of cafes, luxury items and whatnot. It doesn't have the charm of WestCity in Henderson or the spaciousness of Westfield Albany or the vile excess of Westfield Newmarket, but it's got a city vibe, and anywhere near the harbour makes the heart happy.
20. Best managed isolation and quarantine facility
There are 18 Covid hotels in Auckland, with high fencing, STAY OUT signs, army wallahs sitting out front on guard duty, and all the rest of the protocols designed to control and defeat the spread of the pandemic. They vary in quality. Bad luck if you get one set in the bleak wastelands out by the airport. Better luck if you get one of the swankier hotels downtown. But the very best is the Waipuna Hotel and Conference Centre on the shores of the Panmure Basin. Waipuna is the closest thing in Auckland to the ski resort hotel made famous in The Shining; it's a spooky and beautiful work of art, and it's perched on a grassy knoll right by the water. The quarantined can loll on the knoll in the sunshine and watch the tide fill and then empty that lovely oval. The best of Auckland is always water – our creeks, our rivers, our bays – flowing across our stunning volcanic isthmus. Auckland is the lucky city. We've got it good here, and we get the best of it every day in so many different ways.