How To Spend It

Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in Auckland with Keith Mills

The Air Miles founder and Team Origin principal steers Francesca Fearon around the City of Sails.

June 19 2009
Francesca Fearon

“Dubbed the City of Sails, Auckland is a great maritime port, and the best way to arrive is on the water, into Waitemata Harbour from the Hauraki Gulf to the east. The city sits at the meeting point of two seas, sheltered from the prevailing winds by a string of islands including the extinct Rangitoto volcano and the Coromandel Peninsula. This shelter provides perfect conditions for sailing, whether you’re on a small yacht or a big America’s Cup boat. There has been a debate in New Zealand for years about whether or not they should dig a canal to link the two seas. Commercially the benefits would be enormous, but nobody can find the money for it.

For me the waterfront is very much the heart of the city, though you can see the sea from practically every building in the city. Walk down almost any street and at the end there’ll be a view of the ocean, with the sun on the water and a boat going past; that’s what makes it such a special place, especially for a sailor. It’s an attractive town – at least, parts of it are – in its own right, but it’s the surrounding scenery and the water that make it stunning. It really is an outward-looking place.

Hosting the America’s Cups in 1998 and 2003 transformed Auckland from the visitor’s perspective and regenerated the harbour in particular. Viaduct Harbour is where all the teams had their bases, and when New Zealand lost the Cup in 2003 the bases were redeveloped into bars, restaurants and apartments, leaving behind a brilliantly attractive waterfront. In the evening it is absolutely humming. It really is the place to be, with all the restaurants and bars providing views across the water.

One of the best is Euro Bar at Princes Wharf, which overlooks the Maritime Museum. It is a large bar and restaurant – modern, very light and buzzy, with an open kitchen you look into from the restaurant. Seafood and fish are the specialities here, as they tend to be across the country: the soft shell crabs are delicious, as is the whole snapper cooked with garlic, lemon and spring onions, washed down with local New Zealand wine. We took Ben Ainslie, Team Origin’s helmsman, there for his birthday. Another great fish restaurant I enjoy is the Harbourside Grill in the Auckland Ferry Building, especially at lunchtime. It has a very large balcony from which you can take in the buzz of the harbour. While for something lighter, the Waterfront Café down in the Viaduct yacht basin is always worth trying.

Most of the places I go to are quite casual. For something more formal, however, it’s worth heading to the award-winning French Café, which is a 15-minute drive away. It’s set in an extremely unremarkable building and if you didn’t know it was there you wouldn’t bother paying it any attention. Inside it’s all classic white-tablecloth French minimalism, but the nouvelle-cuisine-influenced food is exceptional, the lamb in particular. But then in New Zealand they say there are 4m people and 40m sheep!

Back around the harbour there are lots of bars where sailors congregate after a day’s racing, such as O’Hagan’s Irish Bar and the Portside Bar on Halsey Street. Queen Street is the main thoroughfare where you will find designer shops such as Louis Vuitton and Prada, as well as good jewellery shops, such as Partridge Jewellers, selling high-quality South Sea pearls. The marine shops, however, are just behind The Westin hotel, near the fish market on Lighter Quay, which is also worth a visit. In the past I used always to stay at the Hilton. Now, though, I opt for the Westin, not least for its fabulous outlook over the water.

Further into town, Ponsonby is a lively bohemian area of restored Victorian villas and shops selling antiques from Europe and Asia, trendy fashion and jewellery boutiques, galleries and cafés. New Zealanders enjoy their café culture. The ambience reminds me of the Lanes in Brighton. I enjoy wandering around galleries and nearly bought a painting on my latest trip, ironically by a British artist, in the Jonathan Grant Galleries on Parnell. Parnell is a long road with a mix of fashion, jewellery and antiques shops housed in chintzy 1930s buildings.

There’s a lot in the city to detain you. The Sky Tower, the tallest man-made structure in the country, which stands on the corner of Victoria and Federal Streets, is a sight you shouldn’t miss. From its observation deck, more than 300m above the ground, you can see for about 80km on a clear day. But it would be a shame to spend a weekend here and not venture out to the islands such as Rangitoto and Waiheke, which is famous for its wineries. The helicopter trips are fantastic; you fly low up and down the coastline, which is very dramatic. And there’s also a ferry service. But it’s more fun to charter a yacht so that you can explore independently.

Last time I was here – for the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series last February (an event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Australia II putting an end to America’s 132-year domination of the race) – I chartered a boat from Edmiston which was moored in Viaduct Harbour. We motored up to Kawau Island one evening and fished for snapper off the back of the boat. It’s an exceptionally beautiful stretch of coast: lush, green, mountainous and sparsely populated, with lots of deserted bays in which to anchor. It is on the edge of a marine park and the water, which is blue and smooth, is teeming with fish.

Whether you’re interested in game fishing or just hoping to catch something for your dinner, the fishing is exceptional. In fact, all forms of water sport are popular: the water-skiing and kite-boarding here are fantastic because the water is so flat, though it tends to be quite chilly because it is so deep – it can be bracing to swim in.

I’ve really got to know Auckland because of my love of sailing. I learnt to sail on a Wayfarer as a child but it wasn’t until I took three months off to take part in a leg of the Clipper Round the World Race in 1998-9 that I began to think about the America’s Cup. I had been working hard for 30 years in advertising, marketing and as founder of the Air Miles scheme, and I decided that I needed more balance in my life. In some ways, the trip was a bit of a midlife crisis; when you are so exhausted, wet, cold and miserable you really have to dig deep and you learn a lot about yourself. I came back from the trip determined to be more involved in sport and less in business.

During 2003 I watched GBR Challenge competing in Auckland for the 31st America’s Cup with a lot of interest, and while it was a great effort, it was clear that the British campaign started quite late and there hadn’t been enough time to put the optimum boat and crew together. So when it was over, I was determined to see if I could make it happen, and last year we announced Team Origin’s bid for the 34th America’s Cup. Most of the crew had previous America’s Cup experience and three of them – Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson – are Olympic gold medallists, but they had never sailed together on an America’s Cup boat until we came here for the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series. The impact we made was pretty substantial, but then I am motivated by ridiculous challenges (I was international president and CEO of London 2012 when we won the Olympic bid).

But Auckland is equally a great place from which to watch sailing. Two of the best vantage points are North Head and Bastion Point, which sticks out like a sore thumb when you are on the water. It is a sacred place to the Maori and the park is a magical place to go for walks, while North Head, an old volcano, was originally used by the Maori as a defence position and has beautiful views over the Gulf.

They might describe sailing as the sport of billionaires, but what is great here is that anyone can enjoy an America’s Cup experience, as the former grand prix yachts NZL 40 and NZL 41 now take groups out sailing in the harbour. They go out two or three times a day and we would watch them sailing past. This really is a spectacular place to sail. Added to which, the Kiwis are great hosts – hospitable and very laid back.”