The gateway to the North Island, including the world-famous geysers and mountains of the Central Plateau and the less well-known Northland, and home to more than one-third of New Zealand's population - including the world's largest Polynesian settlement, Auckland has become a vibrant and cosmopolitan city that refuses to give up its laid-back attitude.Straddling a narrow isthmus between two large harbours, the Waitemata (Maori for "sparkling waters") to the east and Manukau to the west, the city has countless beaches and parks - but Auckland is as much about the surroundings into which the city flows seamlessly. Auckland Region has 1,613 kilometres of coastline (and that's without counting the islands of the Hauraki Gulf) and 26 regional parks that cover more than 40,000 hectares.
Built on top of a wharf jutting 330 metres into the harbour, the Hilton looks like a giant white cruise ship. The glass-walled rooms all have balconies and great views; although you're only 500 metres from the Central Business District (CBD) you could be a world away. The buzz of Viaduct Harbour is right on the doorstep (from NZ$272 [Dh700], www.hilton.co.nz/auckland, 00 64 9 978 2000).
Hotel DeBrett is smack in the middle of the CBD. It has been part of downtown Auckland's historic and social fabric since a hotel was first built on the site in 1841. In its newest incarnation (it was gutted and renovated about 18 months ago) it's a funky retro-modern retreat (from NZ$290 [Dh748], www.hoteldebrett.com, 00 64 9 925 9000).If you love music and great food, Mollies is a total treat. A mix of boho chic, antiques and artsy contemporary touches, the sprawling house has a wonderful view of the harbour. The opera-loving owners, Frances Wilson and Stephen Fitzgerald, host regular pre-dinner recitals. The drawback: it's tiny (13 suites), so fills up fast during high season (from NZ$613 [Dh1,580], www.mollies.co.nz, 00 64 9 376 3489).
Get a bird's-eye view. My favourite is from the top of Mount Eden (Maungawhau); it's on the edge of the city centre, and as you drive up, you'll probably make your first acquaintance with New Zealand sheep, which graze on the hillside. The view from Skytower is even more impressive - albeit the touristy option. With the harbour and hills (including 48 extinct volcanoes) as orientation points, it's hard to lose your bearings: uphill generally means away from the harbour/centre; downhill the opposite. Relatively low traffic volumes make it an easy city to drive around and, since public transport is patchy and the city sprawls, it's better to rent a car.
Aucklanders are generally very gregarious and still endearingly curious about "overseas visitors", so drop in at a local cafe anywhere off the tourist track and simply strike up a conversation. Good areas include easy-to-reach suburbs such as Herne Bay, Ponsonby, Mount Eden, Mission Bay and, on the North Shore, Takapuna. Head for the strip of local shops and pick any cafe.If it's rugby season, go to a match and start chatting with your neighbours in the stands; if you don't know the rules they will soon explain them. And for something completely different, if you love gospel singing catch a Sunday service at one of the Polynesian churches.
Skip the main drag (Queen Street): it really is a drag. In the CBD head instead for Chancery Lane, High Street and the little lanes off it. Here you will find the boutiques of leading New Zealand designers such as Kate Sylvester, Workshop and World. Newmarket has plenty of chic stores but, again, I prefer going just off the main street: Nuffield Street's boutiques include those of Karen Walker, Alannah Hill and Trelise Cooper. Ponsonby Road is great for art, crafts, gifts and a smattering of edgy fashion. Parnell Road has become touristy yet remains charming, and is home to several chic interiors and fashion boutiques. Essenze at 285 Parnell Road is a great source of fine Kiwi product by the likes of David Trubridge and Peter Collis.
Aucklanders are among the world's greatest foodies and the plethora of world-class restaurants is testament to that. Even at the top end of the market, "formal" is a relative term: you won't find European-style stuffiness here. Pick up a copy of the foodies' bible, Cuisine magazine (www.cuisine.co.nz), for inspiration.You needn't go upmarket to be sure of good food but The French Cafe (210 Symonds Street, 00 64 9 377 1911; NZ$41 [Dh107] for a main course) is a must. Its unsalubrious address on the inner city fringe hasn't prevented it from becoming an icon of Auckland dining over the 18 years of its existence.
But singling out The French Cafe is unfair to the likes of Clooney (33 Sale St, Freemans Bay, 00 64 9 358 1702), with cool surroundings and to-die-for food (main courses from NZ$42; Dh110); Soul Bar & Bistro (Viaduct Harbour, 00 64 9 356 7249), with a fabulously fresh, mostly seafood menu (main courses from NZ$35; Dh92); and Vinnies (166 Jervois Road, Herne Bay, 00 64 9 376 5597), which is relaxed and unpretentious, with great local art on the walls (main courses from NZ$38; Dh99).
Starbucks: Auckland is full of non-chain coffee bars, supplied by boutique roasteries, which serve superb coffee. Driving through "Spaghetti Junction" between 5 and 6pm: it's the main north-south motorway artery but during the afternoon rush hour the only pasta it resembles is the tangled gloop you get when you overcook your spag, having also forgotten to stir it.And don't even think of asking where the kangaroos and koalas are; New Zealanders will forgive almost anything except having their country mistaken for Australia.
Getting out on to the water: the harbour, gulf and islands are the essence of this city. (With the world's highest per capita boat ownership, it has produced countless world-class sailors - among other feats, winning the America's Cup twice.) There are countless ways of getting afloat, ferry being the easiest (www.fullers.co.nz): make a day of it on Waiheke (check out the beaches then enjoy a long, lazy lunch at Te Whau Vineyard Restaurant, with gorgeous city views); take the 12-minute commuter ferry to Devonport, on the North Shore, an arty community where the pace kicks back three notches; or visit Rangitoto, one of the city's best-known emblems ("a squashed Mount Fuji"), which was formed by a volcanic eruption just 700 years ago. Alternatively, sail as a crew member on one of New Zealand's former America's Cup yachts (www.explorenz.co.nz/sailnz, 00 64 9 359 5987).
The west coast: in stark contrast to the gentle eastern bays, it's a stretch of wild and unruly black sand beaches - famous equally for surfing (especially Piha) and as the location of the film The Piano (Karekare). The drive there is beautiful, too, through the untamed native forest of the Waitakere Range.An insight into Maori culture: Auckland War Memorial Museum has significant collections of Maori artefacts and organises daily cultural performances (www.aucklandmuseum.com).