Auckland Sky Tower, New Zealand

We spent much of the afternoon on our first day in New Zealand at the Auckland Sky Tower. The tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere rises 328-meters (1,076 feet) over the Auckland skyline. It’s a concrete and composite structure built for Harrah’s Entertainment as part of the SKYCITY casino and event center owned by New Zealand-based SKYCITY Entertainment Group. Although the tower opened in August 1997 to some concern over its potential impact as part of the city’s first (and still only) casino, it has since become a fixture in Auckland.

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Aesthetically spartan with a concrete gray façade and conventional design, the tower has nonetheless become an iconic symbol of Auckland. It’s beautiful at night lit up by flood lights with a rotating rainbow of colors.

2013_12_20 NZ Auckland IMG_1506-12013_12_20 NZ Auckland IMG_1600-1Visitors enter through the SKYCITY lobby and queue up for the glass elevators that take them up to the Observation Deck on the 51st floor. When we visited at Christmastime, the foyer was bedecked with festive Yuletide decorations and a giant Christmas tree. It was one of the few times during our summer trip Down Under that we were reminded of the holiday.

2013_12_20 NZ Auckland IMG_1430-1Riding the elevator to the Sky Tower’s Observation Deck is an adventure in and of itself with the elevator floor made of steel and transparent glass. It’s a long way down but a lot of fun to watch the elevator shaft pass underneath like a theme park ride. For those who are acrophobic, not so much. The Observation Deck’s perimeter with some of the best views of Auckland also has transparent glass underfoot, so watch out!

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New Zealand’s only revolving restaurant, Orbit, lies two floors higher, and on the top floor is the SkyDeck, where intrepid visitors can walk on the SkyWalk around the pergola or take the SkyJump, a one-way, bunjee-jump like trip down the tower. We weren’t brave enough to go for it but enjoyed watching others take the plunge.

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Perhaps most rewarding are the incredible views of the city from the Auckland Sky Tower. It’s so high that one can see beyond the city limits. If you’re only in Auckland for a short time at the start or end of your trip to New Zealand, the Sky Tower is a great way to see it all.

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Auckland, New Zealand

My family and I started our journey through New Zealand in its largest city, Auckland. We wondered if we should pass it by after landing at the airport to save time for other attractions on the North and South Island until I reminded myself, “You’re not going to stop in New Zealand’s biggest city? Why in the world wouldn’t you?”

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That was enough for me. We added another day to our itinerary with an overnight stop in Auckland and made due with a few hours of touring after our plane touched down at noon. The more I learned about the Northland Region from Auckland to the North Cape on New Zealand’s northwestern peninsula, the more I wanted to stay longer and explore the area. But it wasn’t meant to be. Our almost three-week driving itinerary was already crowded with daily stops from Auckland to Christchurch and everywhere in between. The Northland would have to wait for another trip, and Auckland, unfortunately, was relegated to a brief stop. The city merited more than half a day to take in the sights, but we were hard pressed to expand our schedule or steal time from another location.

With an estimated population of 1.5 million residents living in the Auckland metropolitan area in a country of just 4.5 million, the city boasted roughly one third of New Zealand’s inhabitants. Its capital, Wellington, and the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch, promised more opportunities to acquaint ourselves with the urban side of this largely rural island nation. Still, with all due respect to other Kiwi cities, Auckland seemed to be the most “happening” place in Middle Earth. Little wonder considering that it placed a close third to Vienna, Austria and Zurich, Switzerland in the Mercer 2014 Quality of Living rankings. Day or night, Auckland is a lovely city.

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Auckland, or Tāmaki Makaurau or Ākarana as it’s known in the Māori language, packed more geographic and cultural diversity into a mid-sized city than its international peers. A stop at a Down Under grocery store chain for some staples introduced us to the melding of cultures in Auckland, from tourists on holiday to Chinese exchange students enrolled in Kiwi colleges to families hailing from the far-flung islands of Polynesia. Embracing the Pacific Ocean on an isthmus between the Tasman Sea and the Waitemata Harbour, Auckland is one of the few cities with two ports. It’s as if its front and back doors are open to visitors.

The bevy of attractions and entertainment options in Auckland made us choose our destinations with care. With our truncated schedule, out went popular but far-flung sites such as Rangitoto Island, a volcanic island in the Hauraki Gulf offering excellent hiking and great views of the city (pictured below).

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Nixed were favorite tourist places outside Auckland proper such as Devonport (above, in the foreground), a beautiful seaside neighborhood across Waitemata Harbour from downtown (and hometown of the singer Lorde). Gone were the Bridge Climb and Bungy on Auckland Harbour Bridge (below).

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Out went visits to the popular hilltop parks atop old volcanoes like Mt. Eden (second photo below) and One Tree Hill (third photo below).

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Instead, we headed to the Auckland Sky Tower in the center for great views of the city. If we couldn’t see it all on the ground, we were determined to take it in from the air – sans bungee jumping from the tower.

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Our afternoon spent at the Sky Tower turned to nightfall with two visits before and after dinner at a nearby café. The sunset over Auckland was brilliant as the last rays painted the hills golden and shimmered on Waitemata Harbour. As darkness descended, the teeming lights of humanity came to life in a mesmerizing glow.

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Many New Zealand visitors stop in Auckland on their way to connecting flights, recreational vehicles, or car rentals that will whisk them away to their dream destinations. If only they stayed a while. The city is a gem worth exploring in its own right – if only long enough to enjoy a stunning sunset over the Tasman Sea.

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New Zealand, or Aotearoa in the Maori language, is a place of incredible beauty. Like a string of pearls, its two main islands, the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui in Maori) and South Island (Te Waipounamu) are surrounded by braids of smaller islands that extend for thousands of miles. Forged by an age-old clash between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates of the earth’s crust, New Zealand has unique geographical features found nowhere else in the world yet may remind visitors of familiar locales because of the human hands that sculpted the land into what it is today. Isolated, New Zealand might seem like it’s at the end of the world, isolated in the southern Pacific Ocean and hours away by plane from its closest neighbors. Yet the country is close to home with a diverse society and a multi-cultural heritage influenced not only by the native Maori and the British who once ruled New Zealand but by everyone who has been there, from seafarers and immigrants to tourists. Kiwis, as the New Zealanders call themselves, are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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Hobbiton on New Zealand’s North Island

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A geyser at sunset in Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island

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Aoraki / Mt. Cook on New Zealand’s South Island

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Punakaiki / Pancake Rocks on New Zealand’s South Island

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