In Auckland, Sam Vincent finds fan zones, pop-up exhibitions and the best coffee in the competition hub.
Three weeks from hosting the Rugby World Cup opener, Auckland is about as colourful as an Italian widow. All Blacks flags hang from its balconies; All Blacks jerseys adorn its residents. Throughout the city, buses, billboards and buildings are covered with All Blacks players flogging everything from deodorant to breakfast cereals.
Auckland is the site of 15 of the 48 fixtures (including the semi-finals and final) and as the tournament's - and New Zealand's - hub, there is plenty to keep fans and the footy-disinterested occupied before, during and after games. Whatever you do, don't forget to pack some green and gold - this place needs brightening up.
Laws of the game
First, the fundamentals. The tournament begins on September 9 with the hosts facing Tonga at Auckland's "house of pain", Eden Park. The stadium is three kilometres south-west of the city centre and will be linked to various locations around town by buses and trains on game days.
Auckland's second venue, North Harbour Stadium, hosts four matches, including Australia versus Italy on September 11. The Northern Busway connects the stadium to downtown (20 minutes). Free public transport to both stadiums for ticket holders will start three hours before kick-off and end one hour after the final whistle (auckland2011.com).
Haven't got a ticket? Don't fret. Four "fan zones" will operate at strategic locations around Auckland. Big screens showing matches will be serviced by food and drink stalls, DJs, stage shows and cultural events. The Queens Wharf fan zone will be open for the duration while the other three - in Albany, Mangere and Henderson - will operate from the quarter-finals onwards. Access is free.
The REAL New Zealand Festival is a nationwide celebration of arts, food and wine, heritage, culture and entertainment running throughout the tournament. Events in Auckland include a boat show on September 15-18 and Black in Fashion, a pop-up exhibition exploring how and why the colour black has become synonymous with Kiwi identity, from September 9 to October 24 (auckland2011.com; realnzfestival.com).
Keep the fluids up
I'd been told (incorrectly) that New Zealand's coffee is about as good as its weather, so groovy Ponsonby Road's outlets are a welcome surprise. Two of Ponsonby's best cafes are minimalist Dizengoff (No.256) and Bambina (No.268), though the latter runs a fine line between cosy and cramped.
For something stronger, Villa Maria Estate, New Zealand's sixth-biggest winery and close to Auckland airport, has pre-game wine and food "experiences" for every match at Eden Park, with dinner from 4pm and pre-arranged taxis leaving for the stadium at 6.30pm. The winery will stage a wine, food and music festival on September 25.
Villa Maria Estate's pre-game food and wine packages cost $NZ175 a person; festival entry $NZ30 ($24); villamaria.co.nz.
With an Australian dollar buying 1.3 Kiwi dollars, there's motivation to peruse some of Auckland's coolest stores. In the city, Kiwi menswear label Zambesi has a great selection of shoes and suits. Unity Books is that rare thing in this age of online consumption: a well-priced, well-stocked and thriving independent bookstore. On Ponsonby Road, Tatty's is a second-hand haunt with quirky dresses and accessories, and Conch's selection of music is unashamedly focused on New Zealand hip-hop, roots and reggae.
Zambesi, corner of Vulcan Lane and O'Connell Street; see www.zambesi.co.nz. Unity Books, 19 High Street; see unitybooks.co.nz. Tatty's, 159 Ponsonby Road; see tattys.co.nz. Conch, 115a Ponsonby Road; conch.co.nz.
For those with children in tow, a fun option between matches is Butterfly Creek, a hands-on animal centre and adventure playground beside the airport. Big kids will enjoy the giant swing and high ropes and everyone will love the 700-strong butterfly house. And if you thought French lock Sebastien Chabal was a hairy beast, wait until you see Butterfly Creek's tarantulas. Butterfly Creek, 12 Tom Pearce Drive;butterflycreek.co.nz. Entry from $NZ8.
A decent drop goal away from Eden Park, Squid Row is a popular pre-game lunch destination, with legendary salt-and-pepper squid and two-for-one mussels every Sunday ($NZ22).
For high-end dining, O'Connell Street Bistro calls itself a "modern European back-street bistro", with rustic favourites such as pork-and-hare terrine and chunky cassoulet
Squid Row, 224 Symonds Street; squidrow.co.nz. O'Connell Street Bistro, 3 O'Connell Street, mains from $NZ34; oconnellstbistro.com.
Hit the sheds
The five-star Pullman Auckland overlooks the rolling lawns of Albert Park and is just a short walk from downtown. The rooms are spacious if a little businesslike and there's a health complex downstairs if you feel like a pre-game massage.
If you still haven't found a bed for the cup, another good option is the recently opened Auckland Airport Novotel. It's only 20 minutes' drive from the CBD and the hotel's exceptional restaurant and noise-reducing double glazing will make you forget you're only a hundred metres from the terminal.
Pullman Auckland has doubles from $NZ177, corner of Waterloo Quadrant and Princes Street; phone +64 (0)9 353 1000, pullmanauckland.co.nz. Novotel Auckland Airport has doubles from $NZ130, Ray Emery Drive; phone +64 (0)9 257 7200, novotel.com/auckland-airport.
Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Accor Hotels and Qantas.
Qantas flies to Auckland from Sydney (3hr) and Melbourne (3hr 40min) for about $300. Emirates flies to Auckland from both cities for about $270 and to Christchurch from Sydney (3hr) for about $250. Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly to Auckland from Sydney and Melbourne. Air New Zealand, Qantas and Virgin Australia fly to Wellington. All fares are one way including tax.
The opening match of the Rugby World Cup is New Zealand v Tonga on September 9 at Eden Park, Auckland. Also at Eden Park will be the final on October 23.
Buy tickets at rugbyworldcup.com.