Sitting on Waitemata Harbour and surrounded by beaches, islands and typically stunning New Zealand landscapes, Auckland is a city with endless options, says MICHAEL BROWN.

It’s a pretty daunting sight. There you are paddling away and minding your own business when a frigate pulls up on your right shoulder and speeds past like it’s in a passing lane. If you were in a vessel of a similar size, it would be OK, but when your mode of transport happens to be a two-metre long piece of narrow plastic also known as a kayak, the New Zealand Navy’s finest doesn’t seem quite as non-threatening and washed up as most people like to think.

This close encounter is an everyday occurrence in Auckland, where yachts, ferries, kayaks and even frigates compete for space on Waitemata Harbour while Kiwis indulge in their outdoor culture. It’s just another highlight on the seven-kilometre journey, you might say, when kayaking from the eastern suburbs of New Zealand’s largest city to the impressive volcanic cone of Rangitoto Island (literal translation: Blood Red Sky) that dominates much of Auckland’s skyline.

Within New Zealand, particularly south of the Bombay hills which traditionally mark the juncture between Auckland and the rest of the country, Auckland is often the subject of friendly ridicule. Most of it centres on the city’s supposed lack of a soul and the fact that its roads are clogged worse than a heart attack candidate’s arteries. The traffic is bad, frustratingly bad, and there are hopes the 2011 Rugby World Cup will prompt the authorities into action. And, yes, while only 1.2 million people live in Auckland, its urban sprawl physically makes it one of the biggest cities in the world. But to view it in those terms is extremely unfair (and I grew up in the South Island, so I’m not supposed to like Auckland).

There are few major cities in the world, however, where you can be sitting on a pristine beach within 10 minutes of leaving the main street or sampling world-class wine at the vineyards they were made just 30 minutes from the city centre. Add in a classy café scene boosted by the development around the arrival of the America’s Cup in 1995, the omnipresent needle-like Sky Tower and a healthy dose of the cosmopolitan (Auckland is the world’s biggest Polynesian city), and it all adds up to an enticing place to be in and around.

Sometimes, though, you just need to get away. Like New Zealand, Auckland is surrounded by the ocean and it’s therefore logical the waterways and hundreds of sandy beaches and islands become the central focus on busy summer weekends. After all, it’s not known as the City of Sails for nothing and kayaks, the occasional frigate notwithstanding, can easily find room to frolic among the thousands of yachts.

Away from the safety of the Waitemata Harbour, on the eastern and northern reaches of the city, the wild west coast is a different world and one where film directors like to dump pianos on its black sands (Jane Campion chose Karekare beach as the venue for the iconic scene in acclaimed film The Piano). Sheer cliffs overlook the rugged coastline where surfers gather to ride the good-sized waves that roll in from the Tasman Sea. Piha is a renowned surfing break and it recently hosted four of the world’s top surfers, Andy Irons, Sonny Garcia, Joel Parkinson and Mark Occhilupo.

There are an amazing 21 regional parks around Auckland, all within 15km-90km of the city centre. The Waitakere Ranges, less than an hour’s drive west of the city, is one of the largest of these and its 18,000 hectares are home to hundreds of kilometres of walking and mountainbiking tracks within the dense native bush. Add in diving at Goat Island, swimming with dolphins, sailing, skydiving, canyoning, bungee jumping and walking down the notorious Karangahape Road, complete with its dancing queens, and Auckland is almost rivalling Queenstown as the adventure capital of an adrenaline-charged country.

It’s a completely different pace of life on Great Barrier Island, situated 88km from the mainland but easily reached by both ferries and by flying. While Rangitoto and Waiheke Islands are the most visited in the Hauraki Gulf, Great Barrier Island gives an idea of what life was like more than 50 years ago. The population of little more than 1000 live an alternative lifestyle considering there is no supermarket, no electricity supply (only generators), no drainage (septic tanks), roads are largely unsealed and there are no banks, ATMs or street lights. There are also no opossums (an introduced marsupial), meaning the native flora and fauna enjoy a similarly trouble-free existence as the small population.

Auckland is undoubtedly a major metropolis with all the trimmings of a modern city, but it’s also one with a difference. If by chance boredom does take over, simply jump in a kayak and track down the nearest frigate – it’s certainly one way to get the heart pumping.