Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New Zealand's appeal: How 'Hobbit Land' took me completely by surprise

I won't make the supreme blunder of trying to speak for all of my uninformed fellow Americans, but I'd always imagined that New Zealand was merely an extension of Australia, a poor man's Oz. (Come on, didn't you, too?) A sort of Canada to Australia's United States. Uruguay to Argentina. Wales to England and maybe even Scotland, too.

At best, it was a country rich and beautiful enough to have hosted the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I'll never watch but appreciate because it helped Annie Lennox score a Best Original Song Academy Award). At worst, it was the place that spawned the public-relations nightmare known as Russell Crowe and according to an Australian acquaintance, has been dubbed (perhaps pejoratively) "Hobbit Land" by the Aussies.

It took only three days in Auckland on NZ's north island to turn my thinking around. I had as much fun out on the town (specifically, at Family Bar on Karangahape Road, which, as gay-friendly drags go, is to Auckland what Oxford Street is to Sydney) on Friday night as I've ever had in Melbourne or Sydney, so by Saturday morning, I already was kind of crushing hard.

Saturday was rainy, and were it not for the fact that I spent it in the excellent company of my new Australian friend Guy (he's from a small Queensland town called Chinchilla -- population: 3,681, according to Wikipedia, and the Melon Capital of Australia -- which is four hours outside of Brisbane), I may have backtracked in my high estimation of the city. Not even the dreadfully dreary The Hangover Part II -- which we saw to get out of the rain and for me to research my upcoming planned trip to Bangkok -- could ruin my excellent first impression. A former New Zealand colleague of mine had described the Central Business District, where I stayed in a sprawling two-bedroom apartment with a wrap-around balcony and where we saw the movie, as a "soulless architectural hodgepodge," and although I don't disagree, I fell for it, too.

But it was really Sunday that got me uttering the L word to Auckland and, by extension, New Zealand. My good old Kiwi friend Melanie, whom I hadn't seen since going to her wedding in London seven years ago, took me to lunch in Mission Bay. Mel, her 2-year-old daughter Joni and I dined al fresco at a lovely restaurant on the beach. Melanie explained that Auckland is a city built on volcanoes, which accounts for its hilly beauty, and which, had I done my normal extensive pre-travel research, wouldn't have been such an unexpected treat.

As far as its metropolitan appeal, it's not right up there with other cities I've lived in -- New York, Buenos Aires -- but three months in Melbourne have taught me to appreciate the placid beauty of suburbanish life just outside the bustling CBD. I'm not making any promises, but if I ever move back to New York City, I actually might consider living in Brooklyn. Queens, though, remains off the table!

I wasn't expecting so much cultural diversity or great food. (If you ever find yourself in Auckland's CBD, get thee to De Niro Ristorante -- no relation to Robert -- located in Elliott Stables, which is like an upscale food court without the mall, and order the chicken and potato cannelloni.) I'd read that Auckland has the world's largest Polynesian population, but I really had to see it to believe it. In spots, it has a Pacific Island feel that took me completely by surprise. On the complete opposite end of the cultural and visual spectrum, Devonport on the North Shore almost felt like a quaint English town with gorgeous rolling hills. I would have stuck around longer there, but I suspected that had I climbed the green green grass of the centerpiece hill, I might not have wanted to come back down.

All in all, Auckland -- and New Zealand -- was an unexpected thrill. (The only glaring downside: the rationing of Wi-Fi, which, I suppose, either means that Kiwis will do anything for an extra buck, or they've got better things to do than spend all day surfing the Internet.) It was like a blind date you grudgingly go on, with no-to-low expectations. But surprise! You wake up sort of head over heels and find yourself -- miracle of miracles! -- actually looking forward to date No. 2. I'll be back!
Post a Comment