Jonathan Higbee's picture

Risen From The Ashes

The streets of Auckland hadn’t seen such a sight in over a decade. Glitter, fake lashes, free prophylactics and other exciting ephemera once again clogged the gutters of Ponsonby Road. Auckland’s Pride parade, existing for years only as a memory in the minds of older Kiwis, had fought an uphill battle (literally, at a few points along the route) to return in all its festive glory.

It was February 2013, a few months after my first footsteps in the magical volcanic terrain of the country’s North Island. During my visit, Auckland was buzzing with electric anticipation of the long-awaited parade’s reawakening. Gasps of relief were audible and excitement over the upcoming parade was palpable, but it was readily apparent that LGBT pride hadn’t ceased to exist in Middle-earth during the absence of floats; it had simply been absorbed by the larger New Zealand culture. The parade was just Pride’s return to a centralized location, a cathartic release of years of pent-up fabulous frenzy.

Four months prior to Pride’s return, my partner and I broke through the bottom layer of clouds, welcomed by an Auckland metro area that sprawled below and across volcanic islands in the distance. The turbulence we had just escaped was common, claimed our Air New Zealand pilot, caused by the typical presence of white clouds that hug the sky above the country. No wonder, he added, that the indigenous New Zealand people, the Maori, named the country Aotearoa, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud.” Thankfully, Air New Zealand’s Hobbit-themed cabin, videos and flight crew were whimsical enough to take my mind off the rough air. It was our earliest introduction to the beaming pride that permeates the Kiwi personality, and it wouldn’t be forgotten. We grabbed our luggage, practiced the customary right-sided steering of our rental car and embarked on the half-hour journey to the Auckland city center. Moments out of the airport maze, we witnessed firsthand what New Zealanders have to be so proud of: cinema-quality natural beauty. Even in the middle of Auckland’s bustling central business district, the country’s natural beauty remains striking. A crowd of skyscrapers huddle together to reflect the volcanic wonders of the South Pacific. Auckland never lets its inhabitants forget where they are.

But it was seismic activity of another kind that we felt rumble under our feet the moment we stepped onto the pavement of the country’s fashion epicenter, High Street. Our Auckland home base was Hotel DeBrett, an award-winning boutique entry that captures the essence of the fashion-forward capital surrounding it without overlooking its history as the city’s first hotel/bar. First impressions are everything, and Hotel DeBrett didn’t let the opportunity go to waste.

We were immediately greeted inside the entrance by a colorful, vibrant décor that marries multiple decades of style into one blissful polyandrous relationship. (It deserves its own TLC reality show—that’s how attention-grabbing and addictive it is!) A downtown luxury hotel through and through, the recently renovated building bridges two very different areas: the business district and the trendy High Street neighborhood. You have as good a chance of running into an impeccably dressed businessman in the lobby of Hotel DeBrett as you have of running into one of the country’s leading tastemakers. The convergence of style and suits spills over into the playful but tasteful design of the hotel’s 25 rooms, each uniquely decorated with painstaking detail. Our room practically unhinged our jaws, its spiral staircase leading to a lofted bedroom that wouldn’t look out of place in any of the world’s leading décor magazines. Our windows overlooked an adjacent building that housed design studios, giving us an intimate peek at the buzzing heart of the Kiwi fashion industry.

Allowing us to take the pulse of another New Zealand industry was the nearby Grassy Knoll, a café we visited in search of an IV drip of the good stuff to kick-start our Aotearoa tour. We knew ahead of our visit that New Zealand’s coffee and wines are world-renowned, but this was the first opportunity for us to volunteer our palates for quality assurance. As far as our café experience, my boyfriend put it best by saying New Zealand is to espresso as Seattle is to coffee. At the time, I thought it may have been the coffee talking, but further testing would support the statement.

As soon as the velvety long blacks (double espressos with water, for those who haven’t visited Australia or NZ) carved smiles upon our faces, we were ready to dive headfirst into Auckland’s Pride-ready gay scene. We arranged reservations for dinner and a show at Caluzzi Bar & Cabaret on Karangahape Road (which locals affectionately shorten to K Road), the city’s strip of gay nightlife.

We were the first table to walk in the door, beating out every other reservation in an unfashionably early arrival that benefited us more than we could imagine at the time. Campbell, the venue’s owner, eagerly became our gay ambassador to Auckland by giving us the lowdown on the larger-than-expected gay scene. Having finished describing the masculine appeal of Urge Bar across the street, he called on his girls to come down for introductions. After a few Euro-style double-kisses, it was clear the girls of Caluzzi are Rosetta Stone-fluent in the universal drag language of sass. They took loving care of us as the tables began to fill, even recommending the oven-roasted chicken breast with a spinach and cream stuffing that ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip. By the time the final number saw the fabulous foursome twirling umbrellas on the street as wide-eyed pedestrians stumbled by, our bellies were sore from the hysterical laughing we had put them through.

The hospitality of the bar owner, manager and showgirls (Miss Taro, Miss Ling Ling, Miss Zoe and Miss Kola) was bountiful. They insisted we let them show us around town and, when our time in Auckland was up, allow them to connect us with friends around the country for similar geniality. They were our drag Sherpas. Our confidence in the Caluzzi family’s hospitality runs so high that we recommend anyone looking for a local LGBT experience and warm reception make the cabaret their first Auckland stop.

We returned to Caluzzi the following evening to pick up the girls for a night of exploring the rest of K Road’s revelry. Miss Ribena, perhaps New Zealand’s most famous (infamous?) drag queen and a part-time Caluzzi performer, took us under her orange-polka-dot-feathered wing for an evening stroll that ended at the city’s biggest gay club, Family. There, the packed dance floor was so large it easily accommodated the Amazonian Ribena and all the young, stylish, handsome gays (and their girls). Ribena, who personally had a lot to do with the upcoming return of the parade, took to the mic to remind the teens and twentysomethings on the dance floor—many of whom had never experienced Auckland Pride—about the importance of the event. “Pride is coming back in February! Are you excited?” Ribena screamed, frenzying the crowd.

In between shout-outs, the Queen of K Road opened up to us privately about a gay New Zealand in transition. Because the country’s LGBT community has been assimilated by the mainstream youth culture, the young gays are just as interested in going to straight and mixed clubs as they are in a night out at Family or the few other LGBT clubs and bars that have survived. Add Grindr and Manhunt, both of which are hugely popular among the under-30 crowd, and the result is a decade of a dissipated gay scene all across New Zealand. But a reunion was on the horizon, and, judging by the crowd’s reaction to Ribena’s hourly Pride announcements, the event would be a harmonious success.

Knowing we wouldn’t have the chance to return in February for the celebration, the following day we made our way to the future site of Pride, Ponsonby Road, to gauge its capabilities. Our Caluzzi friends had referred to it as the “Gay Mile” for reasons that were readily obvious. Clothing boutiques abound, rivaling downtown’s High Street with their credit-card-damaging temptations. Zambesi and Masons Menswear are both standouts that nearly forced me to buy an extra suitcase to take home the unexpected bounty. Unique storefronts, including must-see international magazine store Mag Nation, aptly named lesbian bar Snatch and dozens of the city’s best restaurants, also call the strip home.

With a demanding appetite spurred by a Ponsonby shopping workout, we took the advice of our new Kiwi friends and grabbed a late lunch at the strip’s tried and tested hot spot, SPQR

Our sidewalk seating provided ample views of boys strutting their style, competing with SPQR’s gorgeous waiters for our attention. The eye candy is immensely satisfying, the food even more so. SPQR’s nouveau Mediterranean menu offers plenty of options that have earned the restaurant its rank at the top of the city’s food scene.

Our bellies and our shopping bags stuffed, we returned to Hotel DeBrett, ascended the grand spiral staircase to our boudoir and fell asleep to the country’s Maori television station—one of the largest indigenous television networks in the world.

Images: Wes McClure

Read more about New Zealand in the June/July issue of Instinct—out now!