I've grown up hearing, "The sky's the limit." In Auckland, New Zealand, on a four-day visit, the 328-metre Sky Tower, taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Sydney's AMP Tower, is the focal point of my orbit. Especially since I am staying next door at Sky City Grand Hotel. It takes 30 minutes or 1,267 steps to the Sky Deck, but an elevator zips me up in 40 seconds flat. Phew, I'm out of breath!
I'm prodded to take the Sky Jump. "It's exhilarating!" promises actor Sikander Kher, who is here for the shoot of the Bollywood movie Players. "I can't wait to do it again."
I pass, opting for a 360-degree view of the picturesque city from the 'safer' Sky Lounge at the Tower. On a clear day, you can see as far north as Leigh Peninsula, as far east as the Great Barrier Island, as far west as the Waitakere Ranges, and as far south as the Bombay Hills. Bombay Hills...They make me feel close to home even though I'm a 17-hour plane ride away.
"We can't build outwards anymore since that would take us into the sea, so we are building upwards," laughs my guide Dawn, who came to Auckland from London for a visit 23 years ago and stayed on. "The High Court, a replica of the Warwick Castle, is a Gothic reminder to the world I've left behind."
She drives me to the top of Mount Eden that, at 196 metres, is the highest and oldest of 50 volcanoes in Auckland, and has a 'I love you' Valentine message among the rocks in a crater below. The sea stretches out below me, filled with bobbing boats and majestic ships, including the luxury ocean liner RMS Queen Elizabeth that has just docked. "Auckland is the City of Sails. One out of every four families here owns a boat and those who don't, have friends who do," smiles Dawn.
I get a crash course in a racing boat the next day from Jason, a sailor who looks like a Hollywood poster boy. Then, I take a ferry ride to Waitakeri Island to see up close how New Zealand's millionaires live it rough. The waterfront is sprinkled with bistros serving everything from local seafood delicacies to Italian pasta. I settle for spaghetti and red wine. I barely finish a quarter of the generous portion served. As the waitress clears away the plates, the owner comes bristling by to enquire why I didn't care for his dinner. I assure him it was sumptuous, only my appetite is not what it used be. Pardon seÃ±or!
Dawn's boss is a Maori, with a flower in her hair and stories to tell. Her ancestors arrived in New Zealand or Aotearao (The Long White Cloud) from Polynesia around the 13th century.
In the 18th century, the Europeans disembarked, and 40 years later, with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the two cultures co-existed as part of a new British colony.
However, rising tensions over disputed land sales sparked off conflicts that, along with social upheaval and epidemics, have decimated the Maori population from 6,60,000, according to a 2010 survey, to roughly 15 per cent of the national population.
A Maori revival is now underway, along with a movement to banish all alien invasion from the country, and this includes 'foreign' birds, animals and even horticulture. That explains why at immigration, my suitcases were scrutinised minutely for 'banned' food items and plants. Even my footwear was inspected to ensure that I wasn't carrying any seeds or grass on the soles of my feet while entering the country. I wasn't. But on my way back, I carry back a bag load of memories of a country whose future lies in a perfect past.
I didn't have the guts to try it, but a dive off the 192-feet tower, the 12th tallest in the world, is quite a high. If not the Sky Jump, try the Sky Walk around the pergola... Even Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan and VVS Laxman have tried it. Take a 15-minute tram ride around the Wynyard Quarter, alongside the Jellicoe and Viaduct Harbours. Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World takes you up close to sharks, giant stingrays, penguins, a rescued turtle and other Southern Ocean marine life. Bungee jump 40 feet down from the world's first harbour bridge. 'Water touch' is the local favourite. Host a wedding at the Summer House in the Wrights Watergardens, built around the historic Mauku Waterfall and Stream. Waterlilies, lotus and iris, along with the traditional New Zealand silver fern, provide a perfect setting. Check out the graveyard at St Henry Church... You will find the spot where Edmund Hillary, the mountaineer who conquered Mt Everest, lies. Take a half or full-day food and wine tasting tour to the Matakana Coast, the Kumeu Wine Country or the Waitakera Island, and get a taste of the arts and culture too. Kids would love the Auckland Zoo, home to 117 different species and over 700 animals, including the native Kiwi and Tuatara. Eco-tourism tours to the Waitakera Ranges, the coastal rainforests or the Great Barrier Island offer a glimpse of paradise that was lost to us. Shopaholics hit Nuffield New Market, with its designer stores, and Parnell's Russel Street, with its boutique cafÃ©s.