First-timers visiting Auckland are sometimes surprised by the prevalence of the Māori language on street signs, in the media and among the local population. The revival in recent years has been so successful that Māori language classes are inundated, and even foreign giants like Disney are dubbing favourites like Frozen, The Lion King and Moana.
There’s even a debate about changing the name New Zealand to Aotearoa – it’s traditional name. Many believe the effect would be detrimental – somehow “100% Aotearoa” doesn’t quite have the same ring as the country’s famous advertising slogan.
That said, the uniqueness of the country’s cultural heritage is a definite plus. And the movement is now moving to the kitchens.
We are breakfasting at Homeland, a cooking school, produce shop and restaurant that calls itself an embassy for Aotearoa and the Pacific.
Chef Peter Gordon runs this outpost in Auckland’s docklands. The hugely successful international restaurateur and chef is a passionate advocate of Māori fare. He has taken the food around the world for 30 years and has now settled at his “embassy” to pass on the knowledge.
On the menu this morning is hangi pork belly – it’s cooked by burying it with heated rocks – fried banana and date tamarind puree. Or our choice: paua, a Zealand species of large edible sea snails, in cream on ciabatta bread. It’s delicious and different. Think abalone puree on toast.
Gordon is of Māori and Scottish descent, and happily talks us through the menu. He is excited by the fact that Homeland’s learning kitchen is booked out by corporates keen to master Māori cooking techniques.
He has his own producers, and helps others get to market. We leave with a stash of goodies, including Niue Honey, from the tropical forests of the tiny South Pacific island, and golden turmeric latte mix.
The Land of the Long White Cloud may be only a three-hour flight away, but New Zealand is gloriously different. Australia may be 29 times larger, but New Zealand is every bit as fascinating and culturally diverse. And culinarily diverse.
We’re staying at the oh-so-trendy SO/ Auckland hotel in the harbourside Britomart district. It’s slap in the middle of a trove of designer shops and new-wave eateries. The foyer is filled with sequined mannequins and black sofas hanging upside down. Our suite is designer cutting-edge, with black-marble bathrooms so dark I need the bedside lights to shave.
Window shopping in the laneways, where Karen Walker and Kate Sylvester rub shoulder pads with Tiffany, Gucci and Dior, is a great way to while away some time.
But we’re here to try out the latest in food and wine.
Set in Auckland’s take on Asian hawker-style street markets, Ahi is a restaurant that is determined to use local produce to create something different. There is duck pie, venison, speared fish and New Zealand eel.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what arrives on the plates. Brilliant concoctions like chicken scallops, shaped like the seafood and with a similar texture surrounded by cauliflower and mushrooms.
Our steamed cod with crispy battered green lipped muscles and home- grown vegetables is delicious. Service is brisk and friendly, with small plates for a few dollars. We tried the local Malaya pinot noir – absolutely delicious.
The following morning, we set off for Waiheke Island, which is also known as Wine Island, a 40-minute ferry ride from the city centre.
Waiheke packs 20 vineyards into just 92 kilometres, and most of its 9,700-odd inhabitants work in the wineries, restaurants and holiday homes.
You can hike, bike or kayak your way around the coastline, or slide across the valleys on a zip line.
Our host, Jenny McDonald, has been running Ananda Tours for 20 years and knows every inch of the island. Waiheke’s specialty is big reds. They are rich, luscious and flavoursome.
We try Stonyridge; its Larose 1987 was voted the best red ever, and its ripe plums, berry fruits and vanilla flavours make it the most collectable wine in New Zealand.
Sadly, as winemaker Martin Pickering tells us as we sit outside his cellar door happily trying his favourites, just 9.5 hectares and a determination to produce only high quality wines means there isn’t much of it. That’s why the 2019 vintage costs AUD$338 a bottle.
We are happy to confirm it is truly delicious. You can buy it through its own fan club – En Primeur – at Stonyridge.com. And you can get it delivered in Australia.
We lunch at Mudbrick, a stunning winery and restaurant with views of the Hauraki Gulf and the Auckland skyline. We can see why wedding parties have marked this out as a must.
We feast on oysters from a farm on the Te Matuku Marine Reserve at the south-east corner of the island, and cod with poached zucchini and soar apple.
Mudbrick cellar door manager Bob Scott enthusiastically takes us through the winery’s chardonnay, syrah, merlot/cabernet/petit verdot/malbec and the 2020 Velvet blend. He’s a veteran and loves the delicious flavours of the Waiheke wines.
On the way back to the ferry, we stop by a stunning house and studio built by American abstract painter Gabriella Lewenz. She and her husband built this amazing Tuscan-style villa, and found a mudbrick maker to complete it.
These are the stories that make New Zealand such a fascinating destination.
Next day, we drive north to visit the Brick Bay sculpture trail, built by one of New Zealand’s richest families as an outdoor exhibition and sales room.
After a platter of dips, meats and local olives, we adjourn to the nearby Sculptureum, home to the eclectic but absorbing collection of Anthony and Sandra Grant, two lawyers who simply collected and collected and collected.
Back in town, we dine at the QT Hotel’s Esther. Here, New Zealand dining is at another level.
Executive chef Sean Connolly and his team serve up an amalgam of gorgeous Mediterranean fare: portobello mushrooms and labneh in chilli oil and gnocchi sardi and Tasmanian octopus ragu.
The fabulous flavours explode in your mouth. We can’t resist Sean’s steak tartare and fries, and we’re mightily tempted by the duck tortellini.
Esther is warm, comforting and packed with happy patrons. We round off the evening at the hotel’s rooftop bar, where the manager kindly opens the roof so we can glimpse Auckland’s famous Sky Tower with its pink lights, and gives us a welcome glass of champagne.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently suggested that Australia and New Zealand belong on the same holiday itinerary because they are so similar.
She couldn’t be more wrong. Our all-to-brief Auckland food safari proved that.
The SO/ Auckland hotel was fabulously central, had harbour views and a Bentley on the forecourt. The pool and gym were utterly cool. Our suite cost around AUD$760, including breakfast. Book at all.accor.com
Our tour: An Ananda tour of Waiheke Island starts at AUD$195. We loved the tiny community of Waiheke, and the wines of Stonyridge were outstanding. See ananda.co.nz.
Something different: The Sculptureum in Matakana is a truly eclectic collection of artworks from one of the country’s top lawyers. It has three sculpture gardens, six art rooms, a vineyard, two restaurants and a bar. See sculptureum.nz.
Deals: For specials on trips to Auckland and surrounds, see book.exploretravel.com.au.