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NEW ZEALAND

A toast to Auckland wines

New Zealand's largest city is an ideal jumping off point for sampling the country's growing reputation for wines.

November 29, 2009|By Rosemary McClure

Reporting from Auckland, New Zealand — Bungee jump off a bridge, careen through wild rapids, float on a river through the blackness of a subterranean cave.

"If you can dream it, we have it," the Kiwis say.

There's no doubt about it: New Zealand offers a great escape, a misty dreamland of tranquil fiords, rugged peaks, frosty glaciers, turquoise alpine lakes and verdant rain forests.

But with its wines now ranked alongside some of the world's best, New Zealand also offers visitors a grape escape as well -- a first-class wine destination where travelers can find pleasure year-round in hundreds of tasting rooms. Given the choice of plunging off a cliff tethered by an elastic band or whiling away the day sipping fine wines, many people -- including me -- would choose the latter.

As a friend once said, "Wine is my favorite grown-up adventure."

Happily, that alternative is available and growing exponentially. New Zealand now has more than 540 wineries, some producing internationally known wines. Its Sauvignon Blanc has achieved worldwide acclaim, and its Pinot Noir is gaining ground in America and Britain.

When to go? Seasons are reversed Down Under, so it is now spring, heading for summer. Tasting rooms are open throughout the year, but warmer weather means you can taste at outdoor patios rather than indoor cellars.

The best place to start? Auckland, the arrival point for most visitors from the United States. It's an ideal place to get your bearings, adjust to the 21-hour time difference and learn to appreciate New Zealand wines before moving south to the country's better-known wine and tourist regions.

During a recent trip, I sampled Auckland's wines, met its people, admired its scenery and raised a toast to the city -- a toast that lasted five days.

With more than 1.3 million residents, Auckland qualifies as New Zealand's largest city; nearly one-third of the nation calls it home. But urban development hasn't diminished its charms.

It still has a small-town flavor, clean streets and a relatively low crime rate. Or, as Auckland Mayor John Banks told me, "We offer Midwestern friendliness with downtown U.S. sophistication."

That's not the only reason U.S. residents should visit Auckland, said Banks, a former radio talk-show host. "We offer great value for the money spent. And we're only one-night's sleep away from LAX."

I had to agree with him about value: The U.S. dollar buys a lot; it's worth $1.34 in New Zealand currency. But I wasn't so sure about the one-night's sleep business. I stayed up watching movies most of the night on my 13-hour flight from LAX to Auckland.

When I emerged from the airport, I rushed to Viaduct Harbour, a snazzy downtown marina that was rebuilt for New Zealand's defense of the America's Cup race in 2000. I had booked a two-hour cruise with Sail NZ, which advertises "the ultimate sailing experience" aboard an America's Cup yacht. I didn't want to be late ( www.sailnz.com).

As the sleek racer screamed across Auckland's Waitemata Harbour, I hung on tight. The yacht was heeling at a crazy angle and spraying saltwater in my face. But the trip did the two things I'd intended: It kept me from falling asleep and gave me a spectacular view of the city.

Set between two harbors, Auckland is built around volcanoes, with lava cones providing hilly green islands amid a concrete landscape. Striking views greet travelers, whether they're on land or sea. But the water offers more than photo opportunities here; it's the lifeblood of Auckland, which has been nicknamed the "City of Sails."

When they're not working, Kiwis go sailing; one out of five owns a boat. Auckland has one of the largest yacht marinas in the Southern Hemisphere: Westhaven, with 2,000 slips.

Boating isn't the only popular recreational activity here, however. Kiwis love the outdoors. Adventurous souls who don't like the water find plenty of other diversions to amuse them: rain forests, mountain ranges and the many islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

And, of course, there's always bungee jumping. As we raced through the harbor on the America's Cup yacht, I noticed jumpers flying off a bridge; they were bungee jumping, the captain said. They fall about 130 feet and can request an optional "water touch" element if they wish.

But my favorite Auckland bungee experience (and this is just watching from afar, you understand) occurred later that day at Sky Tower, which dominates the city's skyline. The iconic 1,076-foot tower and Sky City complex contains a casino, revolving restaurants and a Sky Deck that offers a 360-degree view of the region. I was standing at the edge of the deck admiring the view when a body shot by me headed straight down. A bungee jumper, I realized, getting a high-octane adrenaline fix by jumping from the tower. The fall: 630 feet; the speed: nearly 60 mph.

That night I collapsed in my bed and slept soundly with only a single falling-from-the-sky dream disrupting my sleep.

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