The city of Auckland sits at the center of the largest metropolitan area in New Zealand. The nation is probably best known for its tradition of shepherding, its sports — namely sailing and rugby — and as the shooting location of the "Lord of the Rings" films. New Zealand's national rugby team recently won the World Cup trophy, deeming them the kings of one of the world's roughest sports. The country is also a trophy-worthy destination for nature tourism and adventure travel, with hugely diverse landscapes ranging from fjords and mountains to forests, dunes and grasslands.


Even in Auckland, a decidedly urban space compared to the wilds that dominate other parts of New Zealand, nature is never far away. Parks and nature-themed attractions abound in the city and in the greater Auckland area. The ocean is an ever-present aspect of Auckland and one of the defining features of New Zealand's geography and identity. Eco-tourists can think of Auckland as a good introduction to the country: a place with the conveniences of a big city, but easy access to nature — on land and in the water — and plenty of green features.


Go green

Despite its laid-back vibe and user-friendliness, Auckland is not easy to explore using public transportation. Several private bus companies serve the city, and while they are not integrated, some companies are beginning to adopt a similar payment scheme and the same frequent-rider cards. Auckland's MAXX public transit site is the best source for information about bus routes and schedules. It includes prices and schedules for all major bus companies and also for the city's ferry and three-line train system. Cycling is possible in Auckland, and the Auckland Transport website has a good selection of maps of cycle routes.


Eat green

Like any other major, cosmopolitan city, Auckland has its share of vegetarian and organic eateries. These range from Indian to Thai to raw foods restaurants (with plenty of choices in between). Venues like Basilicum offer healthy, meatless food and also dishes that boast locally sourced ingredients. Revive, a popular and successful health-centered eatery, has two locations in the city and a menu that changes daily.


Huckleberry Farms and Wise Cicada are two eco-friendly grocers with locations in the Auckland area. Huckleberry sells organic foods as well as naturally made household products. Wise Cicada is a health-food emporium with organic products, a bookstore and a natural healing center. Cicada's Whole Foods Cafe serves organic, gluten-free options.


Sleep green

The greater Auckland area's eco-friendly sleeping spots range from luxurious resorts in natural surroundings to funky green hotels and small inns and bed-and-breakfasts with an eye on sustainability. Waipiata, a small boutique property about 30 miles outside central Auckland on a stretch of rugged coastline, earned an Enviro-Gold Award from tourism quality research firm Qualmark for its environmental practices. The Great Ponsonby Art Hotel is a similarly green but more centrally located sleeping option within walking distance of the harbor and downtown. The building itself has extensive green features, and the hotel utilizes organic products in its daily operations.


The Jucy Hotel is a hostel-like venue with a solid set of eco-friendly practices. The hotel's green features include Earth-friendly cleaning products, energy efficient key-card controlled electricity in each room, and a recycling program. Jucy also gives its guests access to the city's car-share program. A more mainstream option is the Auckland City Hotel on Hobson Street. It carries Qualmark's Enviro-Silver label and is a leader in the green hospitality movement.


See green

The Auckland Zoo has New Zealand's largest collection of animals. More than a mere tourist attraction, the zoo has been recognized for its conservation and environmental achievements, which include a conservation fund and on-site breeding projects that seek to protect both native and exotic species. The zoo is also spearheading a project called Urban Ark, which focuses on reducing invasive species in New Zealand so that native plants and animals can thrive. The zoo itself is one of the more Earth-friendly attractions of its type. Its water and energy management systems have earned it an ISO 14001 designation (for businesses and organizations that have exceptional environmental management systems).


Another natural attraction to visit is Butterfly Creek, which features hundreds of free-flying butterflies in its garden, along with other bugs, crocodiles, and an aquarium. The bugs exhibit includes rare species, such as the endangered Little Barrier Island Giant Weta, one of the world's largest insects.


Of course, it would be a shame to visit New Zealand and not spend time outdoors. The 40,000-acre Waitakere Ranges, just outside Auckland, has coastline, hills, forests and over 150 miles of hiking trails, as well as beaches and good surfing conditions. One of the most impressive of Waitakere's features, from an eco-tourism perspective, is the native forests, which are accessible from central Auckland in less than an hour. The Arataki Visitor Center, the gateway to Waitakere, features information on attractions around the park and is staffed by rangers who can give up-to-date info including trail considerations. The center is also the starting point for the Hillary Trail, which leads trekkers on a hike around the range that lasts for several days.


This area is just one part of the large nature scene in the Auckland region. The Auckland Council lists 36 regional parks on its website. Many of these have extensive trails and camping facilities (or at the very least, pitching a tent is allowed inside the park).


The Waitakere area is also home to the Kiwi Valley Farm Park. This family-centered venue is popular with young travelers, though the glimpse offered into New Zealand's agriculture industry is interesting for visitors of any age. The park also has an equestrian center, which offers riding lessons.


The Otara Flea Market, held each Saturday, is a good place to introduce yourself to the native Pacific Island cultures that are such a part of Auckland (Auckland has the largest population of Pacific Islanders of any city in the world). The market features Maori arts and crafts, as well as traditional arts and crafts from Samoa, Tonga and other island nations. When the weather is good, the market can have more than 250 stalls.


North Shore City, part of the greater Auckland area, is home to the Harborside Art Trail, a collection of galleries that feature the works of some of New Zealand's best known artists. These galleries are within easy walking distance of one another and there are also theaters and arts and crafts studios in the area. North Shore City also has a map that takes visitors on a “literary walk” to visit sites and residences of authors past and present.


With so much going on on land, it is easy to forget that water is a large part of life for many people in Auckland, which is known as the City of Sails. The Waikato River Delta, the terminus of New Zealand's longest river, sits about an hour from Auckland. This delta is a maze of waterways that eventually flow into the Tasman Sea. Tour companies offer days-long kayaking and canoeing adventures. Sea kayak excursions are also available, with Auckland Sea Kayaks offering tours for people of all skill levels.


And what would a trip to the City of Sails be without a wind-powered cruise? Sailing schools and cruise options abound, with experiences ranging from full participation aboard a race-style yacht, like the ones used in the America's Cup, to relaxing cruises around the calm waters of Auckland Harbor. One company that facilitates cruises is Explore NZ, which focuses on creating a greener business model and also makes an effort to support conservation and natural restoration projects around the country.


Auckland may not be the wildest, most natural place in New Zealand. But it is hard to find fault with a city that offers both modern conveniences and easy access to natural areas and eco-tourism attractions. Unlike many metro areas, where urban sprawl has all but eliminated nature, Auckland is virtually surrounded by eco-attractions both on land and in the water.


MNN homepage photo: Jeff Pang/Flickr