The Maori were good at naming places, their liltingly guttural language lending a musicality to prosaic geography. Thus the ‘land of the long white cloud’ is their Aotearoa, and Auckland’s encircling harbours are Waitemata (sparkling water), Manukau (wading birds) and the Hauraki (north wind) Gulf. These three stretches of water almost sever the North Island in two, their protected harbours giving New Zealand’s first city its raison d’être as well as its ‘City of Sails’ moniker.

Skimming across Waitemata Harbour in an America’s Cup yacht, I can confirm that the water is indeed sparkling. You couldn’t call it’s blue – and it’s not green either. It’s an unusual blend of turquoise and grey that gives a pseudo tropical appearance, but the chilly wind is an insistent reminder of the city’s temperate climate. The canvas above me is stretched tighter than leopard print on Katie Price, and the yacht is heeling at a thrilling angle. The rigging creaks and groans against the 24 tonnes of this seagoing racing machine, but the broad grin of the skipper and his crew show us that this is what she was built for.

In fact Auckland has hosted the America’s Cup twice, in 2000 and 2003, after Team NZ took home the coveted trophy – the oldest in sporting history. With its sheltered waters, reliable wind and gorgeous backdrop, Waitemata Harbour was a popular venue for the event. The upmarket bars and restaurants of Viaduct Quay owe their existence to the buzz it created.

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Rising behind any panorama of the city skyline is the unmistakable conical outline of Rangitoto, the most recent of Auckland’s 50-odd volcanoes to announce its presence. It erupted about 600 years ago, much to the consternation of the Maori living on next door Motutapu Island, and has been cooling off ever since.

It’s actually still quite warm. As I puff up the relentlessly sloping track to the crater a thin film of sweat forms on my brow, mingling with my sunscreen to trickle down my temples in greasy rivulets – prompting an acne outbreak for the next week and a half. Still, the view from the top is sublime, that tantalisingly tropical water punctuated by emerald green islands, and backed by the steel span of the Harbour Bridge and the Sky Tower’s spire. If it’s true that you can see Rangitoto from anywhere in Auckland, it’s also true that you can see the whole of Auckland spread before you from Rangitoto’s summit.

The volcano is home to the world’s largest pohutukawa forest – that gnarled Kiwi evergreen with distinctive crimson blossoms. These hardy trees, sprouting up from the bare grey scoria, offer protection for the ferns, orchids, manuka bushes and other flowering plants that have gradually colonised the island since its dramatic birth. Conservation projects are in place to protect the fragile environment as it evolves.

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Tiritiri Matangi and Waiheke Island

Another island nature reserve, Tiritiri Matangi is a haven for native New Zealand wildlife. It’s administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in conjunction with a dedicated group of volunteers, who provide guided walks of the island’s trails.

On arrival we’re met by the DOC ranger, who offers a rundown of the island’s rules (leave only footprints, don’t feed the birds) as well as a comprehensive list of the many species we may encounter: trilling bell birds, stitchbirds, saddlebacks, the unfortunately named whiteheads, even penguins and kiwis (though they’re nocturnal). Sure enough, we’re soon surrounded by birdsong as soon as we hit the boardwalk.

Over lunch I get chatting to Greg, the visitor centre’s resident takahe. He’s quite a character – about the size of a chicken, blue, and determinedly interested in the contents of my backpack. Even though I explain my lunch box contains nothing of interest, he insists on taking a look for himself. He’s so charming I would happily have shared my crisps with him, but for the ranger’s warning.

Later on I amble back to the wharf via the network of scenic tracks, following the island’s grassy backbone before plunging into the thick native forest. Popping out at the shore, the trail then winds past the limpid bay at Hobbs Beach, where I can’t resist dipping my toes in the frigid water.

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The cream of the island crop is Waiheke, an idyllic, sun-drenched paradise just 35 minutes by ferry from the CBD. Here rich Aucklanders who own beach houses rub shoulders with the arty, hippy types who had the sense to invest in real estate when they could afford it. There’s an art trail, a wine trail, cycle tracks in olive groves and footpaths among the vines, or you can simply lie back on a white sandy beach and enjoy the view. What you absolutely must do, though, is eat and drink. Waiheke’s wine is legendary, and many of the estates also run excellent restaurants. A fun way to get around is hiring a scooter from the ferry wharf, but it’s just as easy to take a tour.

I plumped for the Wine on Waiheke trip, lured by the promise of “world-class wine tastings”. It doesn’t disappoint. At Stonyridge, where the vines snuggle into a golden-hued valley, Dana explains Waiheke owes its viticultural success to the twin blessings of nutrient-rich volcanic soil and a hot, dry microclimate, protected from winter chills and rainy squalls in the shadow of the other Gulf islands. Later on at Mudbrick, Bob leads us – ever-so-slightly tipsy now – to the crest of the sunny clifftop, pointing out the different grapes (Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay) as we climb.

From the top a staggering vista opens up, sweeping across Waitemata Harbour from the city to Rangitoto. It’s the ideal spot to ponder that ephemeral blue-greeness of the Gulf’s water, which I’m still struggling to describe. That night, in a slack moment, I look it up on the Dulux colour chart.

They call it ‘Hauraki’.

The damage & the details: 

Sail NZ (Freephone: 0800 397 567) offers two-hour America’s Cup sailing experiences from $155.

Fullers (Ph: 09 367 9111) operates ferry services to Rangitoto ($26) and Waiheke Island ($33.50), where they also offer tours of the island and its vineyards such as Wine on Waiheke ($115). 

360 Discovery Cruises (Freephone: 0800 360 3472) runs a harbour cruise network visiting Rangitoto and other islands ($32), as well as the official service to Tiritiri Matangi ($66).

Photo: Tourism New Zealand