Auckland's maritime tradition still exerts a profound influence on the soul of the city.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)You've seen "The Lord of the Rings" and you want to experience the majestic landscape of New Zealand.
So what do you do?
You arrive in Auckland and head out into the country, right?
This cosmopolitan city of over 1.5 million is much more than a transit hub.
Not only does it have stunning scenery of its own, it also has great dining and nightlife, as well as world-class museums that reflect New Zealand's bicultural heritage.
Auckland may be New Zealand's largest city, but with many visitors bypassing it for more "Middle Earth" type scenery it's still one of its best-kept secrets.
That all ends here.
Read on for the best of Auckland in the one guide to rule them all.
Hilton Auckland Hotel
The Hilton's pool features Auckland's only underwater viewing window.
It's hard to beat the Hilton for location.
Top of the line luxury jutting 300 meters out to sea at the end of Princes Wharf, the views of the harbor are spectacular.
Be aware that international cruise liners sometimes moor at the wharf beside the hotel -- especially in summer -- temporarily affecting views.
It's only a 10-minute walk to the central business district, but the immediate surroundings are worth checking out.
Viaduct Harbour, packed with bars and restaurants, is a lovely place to while away an afternoon.
Hilton Auckland, 147 Quay Street Princes Wharf, Auckland 1010 New Zealand; +64 9 978 2000
Rendezvous Grand Hotel
Rooms are modern and clean and the bathrooms are huge compared with standard hotels.
A highlight of any stay is the hotel's excellent Katsura Japanese restaurant.
On Fridays, the delicious and extensive seafood dishes provided at the executive buffet lunch is worth a long meal.
A great option for "flashpackers," city Lodge is the only five-star Qualmark-accredited backpackers stay in Auckland, giving you the chance to mix with travelers without having to rough it too much.
Rooms are quite small and plain, but each -- ranging from single to quadruple -- comes with its own bathroom, TV, small fridge, heater and tea and coffee facilities, enabling the kind of privacy that's commonplace in a hotel, but unusual in backpacker accommodations.
There's also a spacious and well-equipped shared kitchen.
Two blocks off Auckland's Queen Street, the location is handy to the city center.
City Lodge, 150 Vincent Street Auckland Cbd, Auckland 1010 New Zealand; +64 9 379 6183
The Grove is fine dining in a relaxed, intimate atmosphere.
You won't find any stuffy waiters wearing suits; the service is warm and attentive, but not in an overbearing way.
Decor is modern, with New York-style loft windows overlooking Albert Street.
The wonderful tasting menu with wine pairing uses a great selection of seasonal local produce.
It's easy to see why The Grove has earned the Auckland's Metro Restaurant of the Year Award two years in a row.
The Grove, Wyndham St, Auckland 1001 New Zealand; +64 9 368 4129
The lines are as legendary as the steak and chips at Coco's.
Coco's Cantina is always bustling, and for good reason: the generous portions are a great value.
The cuisine is rustic Italian with a dash of Mediterranean, but Coco's also cooks one of the best steaks in Auckland.
The interesting decor enhances the ambience with an eclectic mix of black and white floors, gingham tablecloths and vintage bric-a-brac.
Coco's is located on Karangahape Road (or K Road, as it's known), one of central Auckland's most diverse thoroughfares.
You can get a table outside if you enjoy people-watching.
While the Viaduct Harbour area was once the focal point of Auckland nightlife, the recently established Britomart Precinct is now the place to be.
One of its best of Auckland bars is 1885 Britomart, due in part, no doubt, to its frequently promoted theme nights and excellent cocktails.
Next door, Britomart Country Club (owned by the same group) boasts New Zealand's largest garden bar. It's a good place for an early drink before late night dancing at 1885.
In the downstairs 1885 Basement, VIPs tend to hang out and the odd international guest star is hosted.
It offers a more laid-back scene, comfy couches and slightly older crowd.
1885 Britomart, 27 Galway St.; +64 9 551 3100
Fort Street Union
Happy hour revelers tear the roof off at Fort Street Union.
A couple of blocks from Britomart, this best of Auckland bar is another great place for precursory drinks or as a venue to watch rugby or whatever sport you're into (the friendly bar staff will change the channel for you).
Beside a backpackers lodge and popular with the after-work crowd, the spacious FSU has a delicious bar menu and a party atmosphere after dark.
Perched atop the lush Auckland Domain, this is where you can see the largest collection of Māori taonga (treasures) in the country, and learn about New Zealand history from colonial times to the present day.
It's worth booking for the twice-daily Māori Cultural Performance, which includes traditional waiata (songs) and culminates in a demonstration of the haka, the war dance made internationally famous by the All Blacks rugby team.
Auckland Museum, Domain Dr The Auckland Domain, Parnell, Auckland New Zealand; +64 9 309 0443
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
If you only go to one art gallery in New Zealand, this should be it.
It's the city's largest art institution, housing more than 15,000 works by Māori and Pacific Island artists, as well as Pākeha (European New Zealanders) and international artists.
The collections range in date from 1376 to the present, and the gallery often holds events such as artist talks, children's events, workshops and performances.
Aucklanders recently had to do without their center for art appreciation during a three-year redevelopment and extension project.
It was worth it.
The beautiful historic facade blends effortlessly with the museum's new modern extension.
Vandalism having left it without a tree for more than a decade, many have taken to calling it "None Tree Hill."
About eight kilometers south of the city center, the expansive Cornwall Park is where Aucklanders go to play sports, jog, have picnics or enjoy that most quintessential of Kiwi activities, the humble barbecue.
There are four gas and six wood-fired barbecues, with wood and gas provided free of charge.
The landscaped park is centered on a volcanic cone, One Tree Hill, which is one of the largest Māori pā (fortifications) in New Zealand.
At 182 meters above sea level, it offers panoramic views over Auckland and the nearby islands.
With parts of the land still functioning as a farm, you'll find cows and sheep grazing on its grassy hills.
This island is a bit more off the beaten path, even for many Aucklanders.
The big draw is the incredible native bird life.
Seventy-eight species have been observed on or near this bird sanctuary.
The ferry trip from downtown takes about 75 minutes and once you arrive you can join a tour led by a volunteer guide for a bargain NZ$5.
They can give you the lowdown on the history of the island, help you distinguish between different bird songs and spot the many endangered native bird species, including the little spotted kiwi, the takahē, the kōkako, the stitchbird and the brown teal.