Other suburbs have their appeal, but one rises above them all. Hayden Donnell argues Mt Albert is the best place to live in Auckland.
First, a terrible confession: I grew up on Auckland’s North Shore. For most of my life, all I knew were Planet 8 board shorts and bowl lattes; golden sand beaches clogged with upper-middle-class dog walkers. Most property sections were the size of a rugby field. Most houses had 14 unnecessary rooms. Density was a curse word. Diversity was seeing a South African south of Rothesay Bay.
At age 26, I went to a flat viewing at Springleigh Ave in Mt Albert. The house was a 1970s A-frame with a courtyard out front just big enough for a small garden and a table. We managed to convince the landlords to rent it out to us with some big talk about our gardening ambitions. It had taken more than a quarter of a century, but I was heading south of the Harbour Bridge.
Living in Mt Albert was a revelation. Many of Auckland’s suburbs are specialists. Mt Eden has its austere villas and weird circus restaurant; Grey Lynn its gardens and coffee. Sandringham is the home to the city’s best Indian food. Titirangi is governed by a horde of huge, pack-hunting rats.
Mt Albert is more of an all-rounder. On one of my first weeks there, I followed the walkway through Oakley Creek reserve to Auckland’s only urban waterfall. Teenagers were jumping off the rocks into the pool at the base of the falls, backflipping and screaming as they went. From there it was a 30 minute stroll to Ōwairaka/Mt Albert, the maunga that gives the suburb its name.
The route to the mountain doubles as a tour of the things that set Mt Albert apart. It takes you past the former Whau Lunatic Asylum where they once administered electroconvulsive therapy to Janet Frame. These days the huge, historic red brick building is occupied by Unitec students. The adjacent grounds are green and expansive. I walked through them, past the fields where Blues players gather to train for their horrific Super Rugby seasons, and up to the town centre.
The food in Mt Albert’s centre can foot it with any other suburb in Auckland. It’s also testament to the area’s diversity. The BBQ Noodle House near the intersection of Carrington and New North Rds is an institution. It’s packed from 5pm every day, serving up gigantic helpings of roast duck on rice. If it’s full, you can head next door to… The BBQ Noodle House. The owners of the two establishments are engaged in a long and acrimonious dispute over who owns the BBQ Noodle House IP and each refuse to change their identities.
Nearby, Taste In Memory serves some of best xiao long bao in Auckland, Lemongrass offers a mean laksa, and Boston Bakery serves award-winning pies. Muzza’s Pies would too, if Muzza didn’t have an ethical objection to entering pie awards. A bit further down the road, Chill Out Thai offers proper “thai hot” curries. The restaurants staff will ask Pākehā-sounding customers if they know what they’re getting into when they call in asking for medium heat. There’s croissants and coffee a little further east at Pyrénées, desserts at Eggloo and tacos at Taco Loco.
The walk from the centre up to the mountain is littered with the kind of old villas you’d see in a place like Mt Eden or Grey Lynn. Mt Albert has the history and architecture of those suburbs, but it’s better anchored around public transport. A train station sits in the centre of town, and New North Rd is an arterial busway. It has the more peaceful feel of a city fringe suburb without the sense of disconnection – close to town without being flash, overbearing, or Kingsland.
But like the rest of Auckland, Mt Albert is changing and growing, fast. And it’s trying to hold on to what makes it special at the same time. At 6pm on June 26, The Spinoff is running the first event in a new series called In My Backyard at Ferndale House in Mt Albert (email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in coming along). It’s a celebration of the area: what’s good about it now. But it’s also a chance to look at the town’s potential. When the City Rail Link arrives in 2024, the suburb will be 15 minutes from downtown Auckland.
It will also be home to a huge amount of new development. One of Auckland’s prime council-owned sites sits on a section abutting the station, and is currently tenanted by a one-storey real-estate agency. A chunk of Unitec will soon be replaced with 4000 new houses. Much of the area is zoned for three-storey apartments, and more places like Ockham’s Tuatahi are surely on the horizon. It may never have Titirangi’s rat lords, but Mt Albert already has everything you could want from a place – now it just needs to hold on to it as it grows.
At the end of my walk, I climbed some steps to the trig at the mountain’s summit. Ōwairaka/Mt Albert has some of the most underrated views in Auckland. While busloads of tourists clamber up Mt Eden to take in the Sky Tower, this peak looks out to the Manukau Harbour and beyond. I took my takeaways a little way down the hill and watched the sun set below the Waitākere Ranges. For the first time in Auckland, I felt like I’d found a place I could stay in for good. I felt at home.