Best sign: Colon Care Centre, 639 New North Rd, Kingsland
The rest of New Zealand routinely thinks that Aucklanders are full of it but that's just not true. Many, many Aucklanders sign up to get it released at the offices of the Colon Care Centre, which advertises its personal irrigation services with the enormous roadside sign, LOOK YOUNGER AND FEEL GREAT BY "BOWEL CLEANSING". It's the quote marks that provide an extra zing. Countless motorists see it, as do passengers on the AT Western Line; it's an intimate, moist moment.
Best old ruin: Avondale Racecourse
There's a grandeur and an epic melancholy to the poor old Avondale Racecourse. It contains over a hundred years of good times, of memories of horse flesh and winning flutters, of generations of Kiwis at play – I took my godson there when he was five, we bonded over a few beers. But now the stadium doesn't have a roof, and looks kind of derelict.
Last year's report commissioned by Minister for Racing Winston Peters – yeah, that guy – has recommended it close down. Okay so it makes sense - that large green horsey oval could be used for housing - but it will be a sad day if the wreckers move in.
Avondale resident Sim Motufau was interviewed by the Herald last year, and said two wise things about the threatened closure. One, on the subject of tearing it down: "I think it's dumb." Two, on the subject of keeping it intact: "It means something to people." It looks like a church – a holy ruin.
Best island: Watchman's Island/Te Kākāwhakaara
It's cute as a button and about the same size, 600 metres from Herne Bay and seen every day by commuters on the harbour bridge. It doesn't look anything special and that's its charm – it's like an old shoe, part of the battered little furniture of Auckland life. In fact something special grows on it: a threatened native geranium, the delicate Geranium retrorsum. Imagine its secretive and discreet beauty the next time you charge across the bridge and look down upon that small, pale dot in the Waitematā.
Best obscurely located store: Dingbats, 2 Liverpool St
Certainly I love records, play them all the time, and collect New Zealand LPs purely for their cover art, but the thing I love most about this second-hand record store is its location. It's in a carpark. A carpark! A covered Wilson's carpark, downtown in that strange and unkempt urban space at the top of Queen St before it lopes up and over into that even stranger and more unkempt urban space of Upper Queen St. Real Groovy operates Dingbats, and access is either walking past the store and into an elevator to the first floor, or better yet, turning in from Liverpool St and walking into - a carpark. A carpark!
Best school: King's College, Golf Ave, Ōtāhuhu
I don't have any time for people negging on King's and putting it down as some sort of enclave of white privilege and dumb wealth. I went there twice this year, to give a speech and later to accompany a friend who gave a speech, and I was really impressed with the student body.
Certainly I mocked them over something that went viral on social media in February, when someone posted a photo of a sign at the King's tuckshop; it read, TUCKSHOP WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT $100 NOTES. I was kind of like super nervous introducing the subject and was anxious they would get all defensive and howl for my blood, but they laughed and laughed and laughed, they could take a joke, they were all g. Great kids! Also I had a hot lunch in a private room with some of the staff, and they were fun characters too. King's is awesome, full stop.
Best national day: Austrian Club National Day Dinner, Sorrento, Cornwall Park
This was where I gave another speech – reasonable rates, always entertaining – and I'm grateful to club president Tom Bichler for the invitation. My father was born in Austria. I've never felt the slightest interest in that fact. But I took my daughter to the national day dinner, and it was actually really cool to hang out with a bunch of Austrians, and sons and daughters and grandchildren of Austrians. Someone wore lederhosen and an old fellow modelled a Tyrolean hat and a teenager wore like a kind of milkmaid's dress. Everyone was very nice plus the food was good. I thought: I have discovered my people.
Best cemetery: Birkenhead cemetery, 228 Eskdale Rd
God this is a classic. You're rolling along Glenfield Rd, that rising and falling ridge on the Shore, and it's so very boring, and suburban, and noisy – and all of a sudden there's the cemetery with the deathless sign, WELCOME TO BIRKENHEAD. What a welcome! Welcome to death, more like; it's so startling, a good piece of black humour, and the cemetery actually looks very pretty.
Best train station: Manurewa
Best, because of the clean, covered walkway from the platform to the Southmall shops, and more so because of the artwork which lines the walkway walls. It was made by Maaka Potini and Alexandra Newman, artists from the two local iwi, and depicts the story of two brothers, Tamapahure and Tamapahore, who held a kite-flying competition. One of their kites was seen soaring over the area now known as Manurewa, but formerly known as Te Manu Rewa o Tama Pahore – "'the drifted away kite of Tama Pahore". The fabric walkway itself is a kind of kite.
Best theatre company: Tim Bray Theatre Company
Give this fellow a knighthood. Give this fellow anything he wants, and then give him more, because he brings joy to the world of children as the prime mover of a theatre company dedicated to putting shows on for kids these past 17 years. I saw two this year, at the Pumphouse in Takapuna, and they were infused with the kinds of qualities Bray brings to everything: high energy, brilliant ideas, and a core of sweetness. In June, he produced We're Going on a Bear Hunt. God it was good. Congrats to all who staged it, and to the cast: Stephen Papps, Calum Hughes, Benny Joy Smith, Max Easey, Jacob Hussey, Katija Luke, Peter Muller, Cooper Casey, Devon Reynolds, Dyre Romero and, oh yes, Minka Braunias.
Best new artwork: Boy Walking, Potters Park
Ronnie Van Hout's gigantic 5.6m boy romps along in Potters Park in Balmoral without a care in the world and it's such a happy, crazy, good-on-ya-mate sight. No doubt a few bores find fault with it but hey it could have been worse – Wellington has to suffer Van Hout's mutant Hand Face, glaring down all demented and creepy from the roof of the City Art Gallery. There's nothing ambiguous or threatening about Boy Walking. He's out in the fresh air, he's all good, and his size makes sense in big, reaching-for-the-sky Auckland – he's the Sky Tower on legs.
Best old artwork: Orewa on a scallop shell
This one's available to look at in a new illustrated book: Mid-Century Living, by art collector and philanthropist Christine Fernyhough. She's spent the past 30 years filling her family seaside bach at Mangiwai with more than 4000 items of Kiwiana. We're talking made-in-New Zealand calendars, frosted doors, enamel jugs, eggbeaters, furniture, rugs and all sorts of tat, but the one I love the best is a painting of Orewa on a scallop shell by poor old Len Hollobon. He was jailed for five years in 1929. Police arrested him for having sex with the novelist Frank Sargeson. In her book, Fernyhough doesn't know the scallop painter was Hollobon; she wonders if it was the work of "an amateur artist, to display on their mantelpiece". But it's the work of a skilled pro who painted countless scenic vistas on a variety of seashells, and Hollobon's 1963 Orewa shell is gorgeous to behold – a long golden beach, a few houses, no high-rises, a picture of innocence by a gay ex-con.
Best library: Davis Law Library, 13-15 Eden Crescent
It's down the road from the High Court, and part of the University of Auckland campus; it's for law students, but anyone can walk in and find a good, fascinating tome of law and read it on the premises, which has two floors and pretty comfortable seating. The staff are helpful. It's quiet and warm. I could spend all day there. I have spent all day there, sometimes awake, sometimes dozing, always happy.
Best second-hand bookstore: The Book Exchange, 8-10 Glendale Rd, Glen Eden
I should spend all day here, too. To open the front door is to enter an outpost – well, you know what West Auckland's like – of civilisation. There's coffee and organic juices and probably a few things to eat, and that's a nice bonus, but I go there for the big, comfortable armchairs and the wide range of good books. They do kids books, crime, trash, literary fiction, gardening, all the genres, and the last time I looked they had a big stack of old copies of that founding document of 20th-century civilisation in New Zealand, Landfall. You should go there at once and so should I. See you there.
Best sporting event: Mathex, Barfoot & Thompson Stadium, 203 Kohimarama Rd
This is such a baffling yet exciting annual tournament. It's staged by the Auckland Mathematics Association and proudly sponsored by Casio; Mathex is open to kids from years 7-10, as school teams from across Auckland try to solve maths problems on the floor of the stadium. When they work out the answer, a runner is despatched to run like hell to deliver the result. It's fast, it's furious, it's nerd heaven and it's a joy to behold.
Best building: Mainfreight, 2 Railway Lane, Ōtāhuhu
Take a bow, BSW architects and Dominion Construction, for their enduring 2006 masterpiece down by the railyards in Ōtāhuhu. It was a $30m development with special challenges - it was built close to fault lines – and it continues to look gleaming and thrusting, with its approximation of a ship's prow and the beautiful little globe out front. The colour job, obviously, is blue: out in that industrial wasteland of pallets and hard labour, blue means Mainfreight.
Best white sci-fi inflatable: Holcim concrete silo, Ports of Auckland
Will there even be a Ports of Auckland in the future? Love it while it's there, and reserve special adoration for Holcim's $50 million dome-shaped silo which stores cement from ships. It looks like a white sci-fi inflatable, and its outer skin is made of a membrane a bit like the one used to build The Cloud. Okay not everyone loves it. "It's an eyesore on a potentially beautiful site," Simon Wilson wrote a few years ago. That was a bit harsh and I hope he's changed his tune. He seems a reasonable fellow.
Best courthouse: Waitākere District Court, 9-11 Ratanui St, Henderson
I spent three or four weeks this year loitering around the courtrooms of these rather bland halls of justice out west. It's run very smoothly by hard-working and conscientious staff, there were some quality lawyers going about their business (I really liked the guy who makes a habit of writing a page of observations in his notebook, purely for his own pleasure), and it was a thrill to see one of New Zealand's greatest judges in action: Judge Alan Roberts, legendary for his long service on the bench in New Plymouth. He came out of retirement in January 2018 when he was made an acting district court judge. I guess his two-year stint is about to come to an end. I count myself lucky to have witnessed this singular character. He was smart, beautifully spoken, and gracious.
Best mall: Westfield Newmarket
Okay at that price (its redevelopment this year cost $780m) it would have to be pretty good but actually it's a work of art. I love malls so much that I wrote about them at length and in two parts in the Herald this year – I know, investigative journalism, right? – and it was prompted by the expansion of malls throughout Auckland. Westfield Newmarket is the most expensive, the most ambitious, the most amazing. It's got areas of light and darkness, it's got sloping floors and cute little escalators, it's got a rooftop and skybridges, oh and it's got lots of shops. Life is all very well at the beach and that but Westfield Newmarket is the most fun you can have indoors in public.
Best vegetable patch: Keri Downs Park, Redhill, Papakura
The Otu Motu Anga'ofa Society and Umataha Tongan Community Association were recently granted licenses to occupy Keri Dowms Park, where they've been growing vegetables to distribute to the community for many years. They harvest potatoes, kumara, taro, spinach, sweet corn, silver beet, cabbages; they work the land, and they put food on the table of widows, the elderly, and low-income families. Good effort, great result.
Best dormant volcano: Mt Hobson
They're all good, Auckland's 50 or so volcanic grassy knolls with their views and their kumara pits and their farm animals; Mt Hobson, though, has a particular softness about it. It's the most sensual mountain in Auckland. It's a pleasant dream, a calm voyage, a happy ending. It's romantic, it's calm, it's exquisite – it's Auckland, our city on the isthmus, our sunny, watery patch of land and shore, our safe home.