One of the coolest things about heading to Auckland is how we got there: on the newest edition to aviation greatness, the A380. The largest passenger airliner in the world, the A380 made its maiden flight on April 27, 2005 from Toulouse, France, and made its first commercial flight on October 25, 2007 from Singapore to Sydney with Singapore Airlines.
In addition to Singapore, it’s now flown by only 4 other airlines worldwide: Air France, Emirates, Qantas and Lufthansa. Emirates conveniently operates a flight between Sydney and Auckland and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. (Since U.S. carriers won’t be flying it anytime soon, I figure you have to take these chances when you can.)
A couple of interesting facts about the A380:
- The Wright Brothers’ first flight was shorter than the A380’s wingspan.
- Airbus couldn’t find a plant big enough to build the plane, so it was built in bits in Wales, Germany, Spain and France and shipped it to an assembly in Toulouse, France.
So we headed to the airport in Sydney early Thursday morning excited not just to get to Auckland but for the “A380 experience.”
The steel behemoth dwarfed the jetway(s) as it rolled into the gate about an hour before our departure time. Normally, this would be plenty of time to turn around an aircraft for an on-time departure. However, apparently the A380 takes quite a bit of time to service. Minutes after its arrival at the gate, the agent announced that boarding would be delayed about 50 minutes while they cleaned and catered the plane.
Eventually, we boarded and got our first look inside the massive aircraft. The first thing that strikes you is the ceiling height. You can stand fully upright in a window seat with room to spare. And the Lakers could do jumping jacks in the aisles. Of course, since Shannon and I are both on a budget on this trip, we had coach seats. So, unfortunately we didn’t get to see the upstairs of the plane where they keep all the good seats – business class and first class “suites.” In fact, we never saw anyone from our gate even go up the stairs so I can only assume that A) there were no biz passengers on our flight or B) they board at a different gate upstairs. Seems impossible that there was no one sitting upstairs so I’m going to assume the answer is “B” since there were separate jetways for the upper level (something the 747 double-decker does not have).
We did, however, have excellent coach seats – very first row in the bulkhead right behind the cockpit. Further enhancing our experience was the fact that the middle seat between us was open. The A380 can accommodate up to 853 passengers in an all-coach configuration. The Emirates version has the standard 3-class seating arrangement that accommodates 570. One very cool techie feature was the external camera system that let you watch everything from your luggage being loaded to takeoff as if you were strapped to the nose of the plane – safely from the comfort of your seat. Mesmerizing, actually.
Once we took off, it was time to check out the rest of the A380’s features. Even the coach seats have 10’ video screens with tons of entertainment options and power ports. Emirates also serves a full 3-course meal in coach with actual silverware (you don’t see that very often anymore!). So, overall, our 3-hour flight to Auckland was extremely pleasant – better than some of my domestic 1st class flights. Now I just need to figure out how to get a ticket upstairs next time.
But enough about our flight…on to Auckland!
Arrival at the Altitude Sky Deck
We arrived mid-afternoon and hopped the AirBus into town for the short walk to the apartment. I was super excited to see the apartment I’d rented through Apartments in Auckland (2013 update: this company no longer rents this particular apartment but I believe it can still be rented by another service, search online by the apartment name).
I spent weeks looking at options and sending availability requests before stumbling upon what appeared to be a spectacular deal on an apartment called the “Altitude Sky Deck” (the penthouse apartment in the Altitude building). From the pictures, it was so perfect it seemed too good to be true. I was just sure there would be something wrong with it.
I guess I should have had more faith because it was even more amazing than I could have imagined. Two bedrooms, one bath, full kitchen, living room, washer & dryer and the piece de resistance, an enormous wrap-around deck with stunning views of the harbor and the Sky Tower…and even a hot tub. All for the ridiculous price of $85 US a night. I was so excited that I’d be here for 9 nights I could barely contain myself. People, if you are planning a trip to Auckland, rent this apartment. It is to die for.
By the time I finished the walk-thru with the rental agent we had just enough time to head over to the grocery store for provisions (i.e. wine) before sunset. We enjoyed a fabulous sunset from the deck before heading over to my favorite restaurant on Princes’ Wharf for dinner. After a delicious dinner of New Zealand green-lipped mussels and sauvignon blanc we stopped into Danny Doolan’s pub for a nightcap and promptly made friends with all of the Irish bartenders. It was lots of fun and would become our nightime hangout for the week.
Still not quite adjusted to the time difference in this part of the world, we called it a night pretty early. We were also anxious to try out the hot tub since we both still had aching legs from all the walking/bridge climbing in Sydney. It was awesome to soak in the hot tub with the sparkling lights of the city down below and this quickly became a nightly event. After all, neither of us has a hot tub at home so we figured we should enjoy it while we could!
Day 2 – Whale & Dolphin Safari
The next day we had big plans, a 4-hour dolphin and whale watching safari that we’d gotten a steal on thanks to New Zealand’s version of Groupon called “Grab One.” It is at this point that I’d like to share my 2 new favorite travel tips with you all.
Travel Tip #1 – Twitter
Not just for social interaction, Twitter can be useful for finding travel deals and information. A few weeks before we left, I started “following” tourism bureaus, etc for some of the cities/islands I’d be travelling to. Mostly just to see what was going on in the cities and get a feel for where to go and what to do. About a week before our flight, it paid off. The Auckland site I was following tweeted a deal for the dolphin and whale safari we’d already found online and had planned to do through a site called “GrabOne”. I’d never heard of Grab One but it turned out to be the Auckland version of Groupon.
Most people have probably heard of Groupon.com but, if you haven’t, it’s a free e-mail subscription for a particular city (you choose the city) where they e-mail you daily deals for things in that city. It can be anything from restaurants to spas to art classes and they are usually at least 60% off. The dolphin/whale safari was usually $150NZ but we got it through this offer for $49NZ – what a deal! Which leads me to…
Travel Tip #2 – Groupon
Living in Atlanta, I have subscribed to Groupon.com for a while now and there have definitely been some good deals. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to sign up for Groupon in cities I plan to travel to but I’ll be doing it from now on for sure. Groupon operates in cities all over the US and in Europe and there seem to be comparable services worldwide. It’s worth looking up. And when you get home, just cancel the e-mails and you’ll stop getting them. I actually found it fun to see what the deal was each day in Auckland prior to our departure. I learned about a lot of new places within the city that I’d never heard of before.
So, we headed out on the whale watching trip on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Though it was a lovely boat ride, for the first 3 hours we pretty much cruised around aimlessly searching for dolphins or whales and not finding anything. Now, I’ve only been whale-watching twice (Maui and Cabo – both during high season) but both times we found whales quickly and they were everywhere, it was really exciting! Not this time.
But just when I was thanking my lucky stars that I only paid $49 for this, we finally came across hundreds of dolphins who came straight to us and swam alongside the boat (I’ve included some video of that with the photo gallery this week – it was awesome). Unfortunately, we only had a few minutes with them before it was time to turn back. The company did give us a free lifetime voucher to try the cruise again sometime. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to use it.
Day 3 – Wine on Waiheke
On Saturday, we started out the day with a trip up the to the observation deck of the Sky Tower. Coming in at 1,076 ft tall, Auckland’s famous Sky Tower is the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere. And since it’s in New Zealand – land of bungy jumping – you have a number of options for your Sky Tower experience. You can choose the Sky Jump (a 16 second base wire jump), the Sky Walk (a railing-less walk around the upper deck) or even the Vertigo Climb (up the tower mast to the crow’s nest). Obviously, Shannon and I opted for the glass elevator up to the observation deck and a quick walk across the glass partitions in the floor – scary enough for me!
That afternoon, we took advantage of another Grab One deal, a roundtrip ferry ticket to Waiheke Island for just $10NZ (normally $32). I’d been to Auckland 3 times and never even heard of Waiheke Island so this was just one more example of why signing up for Grab One was a brilliant idea. About 40 minutes away by ferry, the stunning island of Waiheke boasts beautiful beaches, vineyards, art galleries and quaint seaside villages. We took advantage of another perfect weather day and decided to walk from town to town instead of taking the bus.
From the main town of Oneroa, we walked down to the beach and across volcanic rocks to the next beach before making the hike to the center of the island and the hillside vineyards. We tasted wines and had lunch at the Stonyridge Vineyard before ending our tour of the island at Onetangi Beach and taking the bus back to the ferry terminal. By the end of the day we’d walked at least 10 miles. Thank God for the hot tub!
That night we headed out for dinner and to watch the major rugby match on TV, the Australia Wallabies versus the hometown New Zealand All Blacks. Now, the All Blacks are super cool and I’ll tell you why. Before the start of each match, the entire team performs an ancient Maori war dance called the “haka.” I don’t want to overstate this, but, the haka just might be the single most awesome thing in all of international sport. (You can watch video of it on the All Blacks website.) As a sports fan, there is nothing like watching this in a crowded bar with a bunch of New Zealanders who fall silent when it starts like it’s their national anthem. It would have been awesome to see it live at a match.
As the night progressed, the All Blacks prevailed over Australia, celebration ensued and all was right with the world. The Kiwis are a crazy bunch after a rugby victory.
Day 4 – A Little Culture at the Museum
For Shannon’s last day in Auckland, the weather had taken a turn for the worse so we decided to take in a little culture at the Auckland Museum. Known for its world-class collection of Maori and Pacific treasures, a visit to the Auckland museum is fascinating. Not only does it offer an in-depth look at New Zealand’s history, it also has a number of displays featuring other Pacific Islands I’ve visited and plan to visit. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy winter morning.
That afternoon we did some souvenir shopping before heading back to Princes’ Wharf for Shannon’s final dinner before heading home the next day.
Day 5 – Bye, Shannon!
After 9 days of having a travel buddy, it was time for Shannon to head home and back to work. The weather had improved since the day before so we had one last lunch at Viaduct Quay with a view of the harbor before she headed to the airport.
Thanks, Shannon, for joining me for the first two stops on this trip, it’s always fun to have a friend along to share the experience with!
Days 6, 7 and most of 8 – Rain, Rain and even more Rain
So, for the next few days things around the old Altitude pad got pretty dull (Shannon obviously knows how to time an exit). I had some work to do on my first two games for college football, as well as 2 consecutive days of middle of the night (my time) marathon conference calls for ESPN. Since it was windy, rainy and cold outside anyway, I figured I wasn’t missing much. Though, admittedly it was a struggle to keep up the evening hot tub ritual in the rain (I persevered).
Day 9 – Last day and the sun returns!
Just as I was finally adjusting to the 16-hour time difference over here, those middle of the night conference calls really screwed me up again. Up all night, I napped from 6am-9am before deciding I had to get out and make the most of my last full day in Auckland.
I was grateful to finally see the sun again and it was shaping up to be a spectacular day. So, I headed down to the marina hoping to be able to use my voucher for another afternoon whale-watching tour. Unfortunately, the boat had been out for service all week so there wasn’t a group going out today. What to do, what to do?
Returning to the apartment, I decided to spend the day enjoying the view from the deck. Since the weather had been terrible for the past few days, there were lots of people doing the SkyWalk and the SkyJump today. It was fun to sit on the deck and just watch them all fly screaming by. Lots of good pictures and video!
Can you tell I’m in the middle of a serious video initiative? I’ve had a flipcam on my past two trips but I have a hard time remembering to use it as my camera is my go-to and I can’t take photo and video at the same time. Of course this is where a travel buddy comes in handy as Shannon was quick to capture video on her camera while I snapped away. She gets copies of my pictures, I get copies of her video – it’s the perfect plan. Of course, now that she’s back home, I guess I need a “Plan B.”
It’s been an amazing 9 days in Auckland, I really do love this city. It’s gorgeous and the people are so friendly…not to mention the wine is fantastic. Tomorrow it’s off to Tonga for the start of my 11-day, 3-island, South Pacific tour. Can’t wait to get to the beach and some warmer weather!