I lost count of how many cattle-related jokes I got in the days before my trip to Auckland.
"What are you going to do there?" and "New Zealand has a lot of sheep, right?" were questions I got from all my friends, but unfortunately had no witty retort to.
I could have recited the activities printed on my itinerary to them, but the words felt too foreign to leave my tongue.
After all, not being an expert on the woolly creature nor was I familiar with Tolkien's Middle Earth, the two things people associate with the country most, I had no idea what to expect from the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Little did I know that as I sat in the Business Class cabin on an Air New Zealand flight, a glorious city full of hidden jewels was waiting to be uncovered and explored.
I was hit with a wave of hospitality upon entering the spacious and well-equipped cabin. Fluffy pillows with our names printed on the covers greeted us as we approached our seats while meticulous flight attendants did everything to let passengers feel right at home.
Air New Zealand's latest Hobbit-themed flight safety video is known as 'the most epic safety video ever made'. And boy, it really was. Entertaining and creative, the video is one that will stay with you long after your flight.
Shot all over New Zealand including the set of Hobbiton, the video stars Elijah Wood and director Sir Peter Jackson.
With the many facilities and features on Air New Zealand's 777-200 aircraft, I barely felt the nine-and-a-half hour flight to Auckland. Seated in a luxurious leather armchair, time flitted by as I kept myself occupied with in-seat entertainment on a personal 26-centimetre screen.
The latest blockbuster movies, television shows, music and games made certain that I was never bored.
Besides spoiling myself silly with tempting dishes specially designed by an award-winning consultant chef, I also got to savour a premium selection of New Zealand's finest wine and spirits.
And if I ever felt sleepy, I could simply get some undisturbed rest by transforming my armchair and its ottoman footrest into a lie-flat bed, complete with my very own memory foam mattress and blanket. An amenity kit also ensured utmost comfort for the weary traveller.
The whole flight experience was further enhanced by other perks such as premium check-in and lounge access when departing from airports. Talk about a memorable and hassle-free way to travel indeed!
But with the clock ticking and only 48 hours in Auckland itself, what should you do to make the most out of your time and ensure that the trip will be worthwhile?
Here are the top 6 must-dos when in Auckland:
1. Take a half-day trip to Waiheke Island
Prominent vineyards, swanky restaurants, idyllic beaches, charming art galleries - respite, adventure and pleasure. You can find all of these - and more - on the 92 square kilometres that is Waiheke Island, making it a perfect destination for the short getaway that you so crave.
Hailed the Island of Wines, it is not hard to understand how Waiheke earned its reputation. Rich soils plus dry climates there create ideal growing conditions for grapes that eventually turn into quality chardonnay, merlot, syrah and so on.
Numerous wineries and stretches of vineyards peppering the region make wine-tasting tours a must. Many of these places also operate restaurants that serve top-notch cuisine, making them popular hosts of weddings and corporate events.
Sleek, modern and clean-cut, Cable Bay Vineyards specialises in manufacturing wines known for their elegance, subtlety, as well as individual personalities.
A sheltered outdoor terrace, known as The Verandah, is the model setting to while away some time in cosiness and class. Be sure to saunter down Cable Bay's underground cellar, embellished by rows of wooden barrels and take a tour of its other private dining rooms too.
Gourmet food, superior wines, a wonderful ambience and a view of the ever-so-gorgeous Haruaki Gulf further explain why Cable Bay Vineyards is an impressive restaurant and bar deserving of all the awards it has won to date.
On the other hand, Mudbrick Vineyard and Restaurant takes pride in the rustic charm and timeless quality that it exudes. The quaint yet romantic spot, with a luscious garden to boot, gets its name from the hand-hewn mud bricks that it was constructed with.
Here, all fruit from the vineyards are handpicked and only the very best ones make it into the winery.
Thanks to its impeccable location, dining with flora and fauna while sunset-watching or star-gazing is a norm at Mudbrick, where the food is as sensational as its surroundings. The fact that the restaurant is brimming with guests even on a weekday afternoon speaks volumes about its irresistible menu and hospitality.
Wine-tasting is available at both Cable Bay and Mudbrick, starting from NZ$10 (around S$10) per person.
Waiheke Island is home to a population of over 8,000 residents, many of whom are creative souls dabbling in writing, poetry, music and art. Indeed, it is uplifting to see a community so supportive of its local arts scene.
One stop we made on our tour of Waiheke was at the well-furnished home and studio of Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler, The Artist Goldsmith.
Fuelled by her passion for gemstones and a profound understanding of metals, the talented jewellery maker has been in her trade for 43 years.
What makes Christine's work extraordinary and highly sought after, other than they are all created from scratch by hand, is that she never makes the same piece twice. Using a mix of jewels, stones, beads and even million-year-old fossils, each item is genuinely one-of-a-kind.
Her drive, dedication and attention to detail are all the more evident when demonstrating the use of a mouth-blown soldering torch, a tool that is rarely used these days.
A visit to Christine's studio will require an appointment but her gallery at 106b Oceanview Road of Oneroa, Waiheke Island is open to the public.
Lastly, if there is anything else Waiheke is notable for, it would be its many pristine beaches where crystal clear waters meet fine golden sand. So go sailing or kayaking. Take a dip in the seas and have a picnic. The possibilities are endless on this paradise island.
You haven't truly seen Auckland in all its glory unless you have been to Waiheke Island, a whole new world compared to its metropolitan counterpart despite being only a 35-minute ferry ride away.
The best way to explore Waiheke without all the fuss about how to get around or where to go would be to book a tour.
Our guide from Ananda Tours was there to greet us with a friendly handshake and radiant smile the moment we disembarked the fancy MV Nirvana cruise vessel at Matiatia Wharf. With his comprehensive knowledge of the island and its people, he took us through an enthralling Waiheke experience.
2. Stroll down the Heart of The City
Adventure sits right on your doorstep in downtown Auckland, a thriving brew of vibrant culture, rich heritage, urban sophistication and cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Hence, what better way to completely soak all of that in than to take a leisurely walk along its bustling Central Business District - also known as Heart of the City - and play witness to how the locals go about their day?
The Downtown Fine Art, Food and Fashion Walking Tour hosted by Finding Flavour and Fine Art Tours NZ allowed us to do just that.
Marvel at century-old buildings such as the Auckland Town Hall and Civic Theatre, hard to miss with their intricate designs and fascinating tales of history. Lively performances and intoxicating concerts await those looking for some fine entertainment there.
Shop till you drop at the wide spread of high-end boutiques, international labels, cutting-edge fashion from famed designers and department stores that line the trendy streets. Independent bookstores and quirky gift shops pushing vintage wares also ensure that there is something for everyone. Seeking the ideal souvenir? Queen Street and High Street will fulfil all your needs.
New Zealanders love their coffee and it is not uncommon to see locals seated outside the many cafes sprinkled all over the vicinity, engaged in good conversation over a cuppa.
If you too are craving a bite, there is probably nowhere more inviting than Hotel DeBrett on 19 Shortland Street. Built in 1925, it was rescued from near ruin in 2007 to become the stylish 25-room luxury boutique hotel that it is today.
A soaring glass-roofed atrium, an enchanting fireplace, plush couches and novelty trinkets adorning the walls make the hotel's restaurant, DeBretts Kitchen, one of the loveliest locations to enjoy a cup of freshly-brewed coffee or a hearty meal at any time of the day.
Also in the same building is The Kapiti Store, a dairy lover's heaven. The colourful spectrum of ice cream in a glass display at the shop front is enough to lure anyone in. Tangy flavours such as after dinner mint, spicy apple crumble and the popular blueberry muffin will leave dessert fans spoilt for choice.
Don't stress yourselves out though, as staff will be more than happy to let you sample the many flavours of ice cream, each one equally unique and a flawless indulgence. However, do be careful about getting carried away as the portions are ultra-generous and each scoop huge. Not that anyone is complaining.
The Kapiti Store is also a treasure trove of specialty cheeses, some of which are limited editions while others, award winners. Sitting in chillers are all the Pakari Smoked Cheddar, Kahurangi Creamy Blue and Ramara Cheese that you will want to bring home after the free tasting.
Be it savoury, piquant, ashy or buttery, the scrumptious cheeses will tease your taste buds and leave a zest on your tongue.
Although Kapiti products are sold in supermarkets across New Zealand, the full range of premium cheeses and ice cream can only be exclusively found at its two retail stores. The original Kapiti Store is located in Lindale while the one in the heart of Auckland is its newest outlet.
3. Visit the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
Perched on the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Streets is one of the city's most iconic landmarks: The Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
A significant focal point in Auckland's arts scene, the gallery first opened its doors to the public in February 1888. Today, it is home to more than 15,000 works of both national and international works, dating from as far back as the 11th century to present day.
Outstanding masterpieces line the walls of the award-winning gallery, whose architecture is another sensation all by itself.
Regardless of the artist or time period each artwork originates from, they are bound to set the wheels in your head spinning as well as leave you in a flurry of conflicting emotions with their complexity, innovation and grandeur.
Besides admiring the immense collection of paintings, carvings and more in the lofty building, there are also a wide range of other activities to keep visitors occupied, from talks and performances to exhibitions and film screenings.
The Light Show was open during my time in Auckland, and it was an exhibition that I was lucky to be able to observe with my own eyes.
The acclaimed presentation showcases a medley of the most visually appealing artworks, including impalpable installations, perennial projections, shapeless sculptures and abstract activity, all created with various forms of light.
Photographs are not allowed in the Light Show and with good reason (besides copyright issues). The dazzling exhibition is best experienced in person and with one's own senses. Here, you do not just move around the exhibits. You move through them.
Step into Carlos Cruz-Diez's Chromosaturation, a series of three fluorescent-lit rooms whose intense hues of blue, red and green are both overwhelming as well as perplexing. What you see when leaving might not even be the same as what you remember from when you first entered.
Feel the soothing cold water of Olafur Eliasson's Model for a Timeless Garden run through your fingers as its flashes of light appear to immobilise the falling liquid. The succession of 27 different fountains illuminated by strobe lights creates an effect that is both magical and at times disorientating.
Or simply revel in an inexplicable sense of calm by admiring Jim Campbell's Exploded View (Commuters), which coordinates the flickering of light bulbs to show human silhouettes moving past.
Spellbinding, everlasting and absolutely breath-taking, the Light Show is a multi-sensory experience in a league of its own. General admission to the Auckland Art Gallery is free. Complimentary guided tours are available daily and will help you get the most out of your visit, thanks to amiable staff who have knowledge about the gallery's exhibits right at their fingertips.
4. Go on a helicopter ride and see the volcanoes
If there is one way to get an unparalleled view of Auckland, it would be to ride a helicopter.
Our 20-minute scenic tour led by a pilot from Inflite Charters was a splendid visual feast, right from when we set off from a heliport in Mechanics Bay.
Circling around the region in a sleek black chopper, we got a bird's-eye view of sparkling seas in iridescent shades of turquoise and aquamarine, blanket upon blanket of lush green pastures, a bountiful assortment of residential houses packed into neat rows, towering clusters of skyscrapers, the beautiful Hauraki Gulf and beyond.
What's really hard to miss, though, are the many volcano craters scattered all over, easily distinguishable by deep curves in the landscape.
There are currently 55 volcanoes in Auckland's volcanic field, with the oldest having formed as early as 250,000 years ago. Behind every volcano is a riveting story of how they came to be, some of them originating from Maori folklore that has been passed down generations.
The field is still dormant, which means that new volcanic events might take place anytime. However, no one knows for sure where the next cone will spring up or when an eruption might occur again.
And this uncertainty is exactly what contributes to the allure, beauty and success of Auckland.
The idea of living next to a volcano might be intimidating at first but there are its upsides too. While volcanic soil is fertile, the rocks are put to good use as robust building materials. They also form natural water bodies, such as the heart-shaped Lake Pupuke which actually occupies an explosion crater.
With volcanoes being one of Auckland's biggest attractions, there's nothing quite like appreciating every arch, bend and dip of their craters from sky high.
Inflite Charters offers a variety of flight excursions, each lasting different lengths of time. You can even have a package specifically customised to suit your needs. Besides sightseeing tours, they can also take you on other invigorating escapades such as golf, fishing and a four-wheel bike safari.
5. Take the Skywalk or do the SkyJump
At 328 metres tall, the Sky Tower is tallest man-made structure in New Zealand (the Southern Hemisphere, to be precise) and inarguably Auckland's most prominent feature. After all, it is visible from practically every point of the city.
There, a thrilling array of activities awaits visitors who are looking for the ultimate adrenaline rush, all under one roof and accessible via the tower's three glass-fronted lifts. A section of glass you can peek through in each elevator's flooring also makes one's ascent and descent that much interesting.
Relish a magnificent 360-degree view of Auckland at any of the tower's three observation decks, the highest Sky Deck being on Level 60. Abundant greenery dotted with majestic skyscrapers and flanked by seemingly multitudinous seas form a landscape that looks like it could go on forever and ever. Motorists resembling little specks went about their day as the golden rays of sunlight cast always-changing shadows on the infinite city, in which anything feels possible.
Even then, no visit to Kiwi Land is complete without partaking in at least one of the Sky Tower's two main highlights - the SkyJump and the SkyWalk.
Undoubtedly a must-do if you are ever in Auckland, the SkyJump allows those with nerves of steel to hurl themselves 192 metres off the Sky Tower, at the dizzying speed of 85 kilometres per hour.
Described as base jumping with a wire, the controlled descent of the SkyJump offers a thoroughly different experience from bungee jumping but provides an equally unbeatable surge of euphoria anyway.
Professional staff will be there to guide you every step of the way and ensure that your daredevil quest is also a totally safe one. The trick to conquering the SkyJump is to simply let go of all your fears, take the first spring and just fly. The plummet down might only be about 15 seconds depending on your weight, but the thrill is one that will stick with you for eternity.
I was egged on into doing the SkyWalk, which appeared to be less terrifying… or so I thought. Taking the elevator up to Level 53 where both attractions are located while in my bright orange coverall suit, I wondered what I had just agreed to. I was about to find out.
The SkyWalk allows adrenaline junkies to amble amongst clouds on a narrow 1.2 metre-wide walkway, all at the vertiginous height of 192 metres. There are no handrails - the only thing to grab on is thin air and perhaps the overhead safety ropes attached to your body.
If I'd expected to just take a swift 360 degree orbit on foot around the Sky Tower's pergola, I was sorely disappointed. My pulse raced even harder when the professional guide leading the way in front of me mentioned 'challenges'.
He took us through a series of heart-stopping feats, including leaning out over the busy streets below, walking backwards and letting your body hang freely off the platform's edge (not to worry, you will simply swing back like a pendulum should you lose your footing and fall, thanks to the safety equipment you have on).
As we took in the picturesque scene before us, our affable guide also pointed out Auckland's many landmarks and introduced the captivating stories behind them, along with recommendations of other must-try activities in the effervescent city.
It was undeniably a spectacular sight to behold, despite constant strong winds that made me feel like I was about to topple over or be blown off the tower anytime. Of the many new activities and first experiences I got to indulge in during my trip, the SkyWalk is surely the most ineffaceable.
So is the SkyJump or SkyWalk more daunting? Some say they would opt for the jump as it is brief compared to the hour-long walk, while others prefer the latter as it does not require taking that bold leap of faith.
The Look & Leap package allows you to do both and find out the answer to this ongoing debate, at a great value of NZ$290 (around S$290).
Even if you aren't a great fan of heights, my advice would be to… just do it.
6. Pamper yourselves with dinner at The Sugar Club
The Sky Tower is also home to a few delightful dining spots, where you can replenish your energy after a whirlwind day of exhilaration.
Enjoy a light snack or toast to some drinks at the Sky Lounge, a laid-back cafe by day and fancy cocktail bar by night.
Treat yourself to a lavish meal at Orbit 360° Dining, also known as New Zealand's only rotating restaurant. Like its name suggests, the ornate brasserie has a dining room that makes one revolution every hour, giving guests 360-degree panoramas of the city.
Having a meal goes to new heights on Level 53 of the Sky Tower at The Sugar Club. It stands out with an exquisite menu crafted by critically acclaimed chef Peter Gordon, who has also appeared as a guest judge on MasterChef New Zealand.
Renowned for a culinary style best known as 'Fusion Cuisine', Peter Gordon combines the finest New Zealand produce with exotic ingredients from around the globe, to create delectable dishes bound to galvanise even the fussiest of eaters.
Among The Sugar Club's plethora of mouth-watering cuisine are the coconut tamarind laksa that will stimulate all taste buds, the succulent trice-cooked pork belly and the tender Pekin duck that you won't be able to get enough of.
Definitely go for the spanner crab, served with yuzu remoulade, kina panna cotta and grilled sweetcorn; each an immaculate complement of the other. Heavenly and enticing, it is certainly one dish that is impossible to forget.
In addition, top off your meal with the restaurant's extensive selection of cocktails and wines, meticulously picked out by Peter Gordon.
Watching the vivid colours of the skies change at sunset as city lights twinkled brightly in the distance while we dug heartily into our meals, it was truly a dining experience like no other.
Where to stay?
But where constitutes as good accommodation so that all of these top-rated attractions remain easily accessible? With limited time in Auckland, the last thing you want is to always be travelling on the roads, trying to get someplace.
Well, look no further than the Skycity Grand Hotel, nestled in the heart of Auckland's CBD. With many of the city's leading haunts right outside your doorstep, getting anywhere is a breeze and you never have to look far for entertainment.
Well-facilitated right down to the most miniscule detail so that guests can enjoy a good rest in luxury, comfort and style, the Skycity Grand Hotel is perfect for those seeking a stellar five-star experience.
It doesn't matter whether you pride yourself as a food connoisseur, adrenaline fiend, art fanatic or nature enthusiast. A divine, all-rounded travel destination that has both heart and soul, Auckland is a utopia that will sweep you off your feet.
And to all those who were wondering… nope, I did not see any sheep during an extremely unforgettable 48 hours in the City of Sails.
This trip was sponsored by Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.