Saturday morning, I flew up to Auckland. With the whole weekend to kill, the largest city in New Zealand seemed to be a likely hunting range. Unfortunately, Auckland in January is kind of like Paris in August. A one-hour walk through town uncovered various flavors of tour groups but no Kiwis.
It was time for guerrilla tourism. I reported to my local Hertz dealer and negotiated a rental. Lacking any knowledge of New Zealand, I flipped a coin and headed North. One hour later, I had successfully managed to stay on the left side of the road and hadn’t run over any of the locals, so I left the motorway and got onto a sometimes-paved road down the Western shore.
I ended up at Muriwai beach, one of the few nesting sites for the gannet. After watching mama gannets regurgitating fish into their offspring it felt like dinner time so I headed back into Auckland.
The pretty attendant at the Quality Inn suggested three restaurants for me. At the first, located right on the water, the maitre d’ sniffed when I admitted to not having reservations and I was grudgingly shown to a table with a view of the wall next to several screaming infants. I declined.
At the second restaurant, I was summarily dismissed for not being a member of a tour group. At the third, I was told I could have a table, but would have to vacate it within the hour for the next booking.
With visions of being tossed onto the street in mid-potato, I hit the streets to go hunting. Ten minutes later, I spied a hip-looking couple dashing into a nondescript door. I followed them into a funky little place that called itself Four Steps to Heaven.
Four Steps to Heaven had a half-dozen tables and menus written on chalk boards. The grizzled cook in a white chef’s hat peered out from behind his counter to see if customers were enjoying themselves. The waiter had a long spiel about the menu prepared and insisted on going through the talk in its entirety (despite the fact that I had heard three other tables receive the identical lecture).
The cuisine was absolutely first rate. I started with smoked salmon from the South Islands, served with a mustard sauce dusted with paprika, nestled in a sea shell. My main course was the most impressive rack of lamb I’ve ever seen served with a piquant mint sauce. My table was so small I kept kicking my laptop in the case at my feet, hoping not to damage my rack of RAM.
Accompanying the lamb was a large platter of vegetables. The cauliflower was steamed and covered with a delicate cheese sauce. The potatoes were gratineed with onions. The piece de resistance, though, was zucchini, doused with ouzo, tomato juice, and hot peppers, and cooked with sesame oil.
The next day, I drove south to the harbors and bays on the eastern coast, cutting through farm land and country homes. Refreshed and ready to work, I dropped my car off and went home to pack for the next day’s trip to Australia.