Parnell is enjoying a renaissance thanks to its retailers and galleries, writes Sarah Daniell.
Looking out from the balcony on the fifth floor of the Quality Hotel Parnell, my eyes settle first on the foreground: patchwork rooftops of tiles and corrugated iron, service entrances of grand homes, pergolas, small kitchen gardens. Some kids are playing swingball on a small lawn. An old lady with a watering can moves slowly around her flowers. Look just beyond the houses, and there are enormous lush trees planted long ago and a pathway to a park. Beyond the treeline are cranes and shipping containers at the port. Then the Waitemata, already teaming with boats at barely 8am.
Walk out the door of our room, and there is the Auckland Museum peaking above the trees in Pukekawa — the Domain — my favourite building in Auckland city, but which I never think of as being in Parnell. I think of it as existing entirely in its own world.
In every direction, it seems, there is something surprising and extraordinary to look at. But we're hungry and fortunately we don't have to go far.
The hotel's dining room is just across the carpark and we sit outside in the sun and order a coffee and a cooked breakfast. The menu is new, they tell us. Kumara rosti is crunchy under soft poached eggs. Inside the dining room there is wood panelling, soft carpet, tables covered in white cloths and silver covers over stewed fruit and preserves. A grand staircase leads to conference rooms, where there's a seminar on how to "grow" your personal wealth. On the walls, there are fantastic old black and white photographs which show how it once looked around here, in Auckland's oldest suburb.
It's a holiday weekend and while Parnell is like a scene from The Quiet Earth, the hotel is teeming with guests. Parnell village, which was developed in the 70s, transitioned from a bohemian hangout to ritzy retail and eating establishments in the pre-crash bubble era. Lots of people dressed in white and boat shoes. Then Parnell appeared to lie down and rest for a while, on its chintz-covered laurels, while the rest of Auckland became more diverse and interesting. But Parnell is said to be enjoying a renaissance, thanks to hipster restaurant owners, a more diverse and eclectic collection of retailers and galleries.
From our base, it's a short stroll to Parnell Baths and the Parnell Rose Gardens. But after breakfast, we head to La Cigale market. The place is heaving. We get smoked salmon and some good cheese for later and hike back up the hill and through a park to the hotel. The only other people out walking seem to be backpackers looking for a lodge.
Don't ask me, this weekend I'm a tourist, too.
We wander back up the hill to St Stephens Rd, and through the grounds of the dilapidated mansions next to Holy Trinity Cathedral. The windows are boarded up. They're a shambles, which seems absurd, wedged as they are among such opulence and prosperity. In a suburb where the gentry landed; where the average house price this year is $1,191,929. We sit for a while in the sun and talk about who might have lived here — and why have they been allowed to fall apart. Turns out they were, in fact, once home to young male university students in the 60s and also for Anglican priests. All the town's fathers lived in Parnell.
Just over the road, there's a restored villa that might once have housed captains of industry or a bishop, but which now is a place to pause, restore, and reflect.
In the shadow of the Anglican church we are about to have a religious experience of our own. A "couple's massage" at Forme Day Spa. We're herded into a warm, softly lit room, where we are given sarongs and told to undress and lie down "in our own time". The only sound is the occasional whispered query from our therapists, who sound as though they're talking through a filter of velvet gauze: "is that the right amount of pressure?" "Too much?" We drift off into our own private bliss, alone and together.
When it's time to leave, we float back along the warm street, in the late afternoon sun, towards the hotel where we will catch the lift to the fifth floor to our room, with its spectacular view across a suburb we don't know, in a city that is our home.
STAY: QUALITY HOTEL PARNELL
10-20 Gladstone Rd, Parnell
(09) 303 3789
You might be going to a gig at the nearby Vector Arena, or out for a meal in Parnell Village. Or you may decide just to stay in your room and stare at the magnificent views over the harbour. The four-star hotel was originally bought by philanthropist and entrepreneur Norman Barry in the 60s and his idea was to create a community rather than simply turn a profit. His altruistic philosophy abides and the Norman Barry Foundation donates part of the profits from the hotel to organisations such as the Liggins Institute. They support science and innovation. If this doesn't make you feel good, the cooked breakfast will. Best enjoyed out in the sun, or if the weather says no, cosy up inside where it feels like you've time travelled to the early 1900s, to a plush-but-homely dining room.
DINE: WOODPECKER HILL
196 Parnell Rd
Phone: (09) 309 5055
We are greeted warmly and seated quickly. "Smokin'" is their cooking style — flamed, grilled, smoked, Texas barbecue-meets-chilli, spice and street style freshness. The decor is fantastic and the service is superb. Informed but relaxed.
It's all about sharing here, and we had four dishes, starting with the kingfish, and ending with the 14-hour smoked beef brisket, cooked with green chilli, lemongrass, galangal. Compulsory: order a cocktail. They know what they're doing here.
SHOP: LA CIGALE MARKET
69 St Georges Bay Rd, Parnell
(09) 366 9361
Settle in and people watch while you have a good strong coffee, or forage for cheese, bread, dumplings, pickles or dips. All you'll need for a picnic at Pukekawa, or the Domain.
TREAT YOURSELF: PARNELL DAY SPA
4 St Stephens Ave, Parnell
(09) 377 9274
A couple's massage is a surprisingly bonding experience, without even having to say anything to each other. We're shown seats, offered herbal tea, and asked to fill out forms — how much water do you drink every day? How much alcohol? How much exercise? Are you "sandalwood" or "patchouli"? How much do you edit your lifestyle on forms on a scale of one to 10? The answer is 10.
Not that you'll be admiring them, face down on a massage table, but the enormous treatment room has gorgeous ornate plaster ceilings and a claw foot bath for a VIP soak.
Compulsory: Ask for a "Detox Shot" — in a cup, not in the arm — before you head out the door.