A guide to Karangahape Road, Auckland’s center of queer nightlife

by Сашка

Go thrift shopping, head to pasta happy hour and see a drag show on New Zealand’s coolest street

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Karangahape Road might be the most infamous street in this country.

Over the past century, “K Road” has been a de facto red-light district, one of Auckland’s busiest shopping streets and the center of queer nightlife. Its checkered history makes it one of the most interesting places to visit in Auckland.

Photographer Fiona Clark lived close to Karangahape Road from 1972 to 1975, when she was studying at the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland. Clark remembers the liveliness of Karangahape Road at that time, with its bakeries, greengrocers and car boot sales — where people would hawk goods from the backs of their cars — every Saturday. Today you can see a small bronze sculpture on the road depicting a boy and a piglet tussling over a turnip, an homage to a time when fruit and vegetable stores lined the street.

By the 1970s, the outward sprawl of the growing city meant people started shopping in suburban malls instead of central Auckland streets. Many Karangahape Road businesses shuttered or moved. The road developed a salacious reputation for its sex shops and strip clubs. New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003, but sex workers were already around.

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Over the years, the area has become better recognized for the safety and freedom of expression it has offered to marginalized communities and independent thinkers. Clark was a common presence at parties around the time the road started to evolve into a home for the queer community. In New Zealand, sex between men was illegal until 1986.

“It started in the first clubs, the Windmill Follies and then Las Vegas Club, with the first drag performer,” she said. “They were a safe place to perform and for the community and ‘like minds’ to gather.”

Decades later, the legacy of the Las Vegas Club still stands. One of the surest signs you’ve landed on Karangahape Road is the “Vegas Girl,” a larger-than-life painting of a showgirl clad only in thigh-high stockings. She’s lounging above the entry of the club, which now serves as an event space rather than a strip club.

That’s a common theme along the road, where gay bars sit shoulder-to-shoulder with trendy wine and cocktail bars.

For the flood of visitors who were drawn to Auckland by the FIFA Women’s World Cup, particularly the LGBTQ-friendly crowd making the trek to support their women’s soccer team, stepping into owner-operated boutiques and businesses was a fun way to get familiar with the eclectic community.

Crushes

Vintage and thrift shopping is a primary pastime on Karangahape Road, and Crushes is where socially and environmentally conscious thrifters scout statement pieces.

An ethical concept store, Crushes is stocked with racks of handpicked vintage items and shelves replete with goods and gifts from around New Zealand. “It’s a positive and safe space for our community to shop,” said co-founder Rose Hope. Offerings in the store are categorized by values; shoppers can browse sections for female-owned, Indigenous-owned, handmade, socially conscious or recycled materials.

Crushes has been in businesses since 2011 — or, as Hope notes, “before ‘conscious consumerism’ was a part of the zeitgeist.” The store’s enduring success has been built on the loyalty of a community supporting the concept of mindful shopping. “Karangahape Road is the alternative go-to for Auckland city,” Hope said. “This is where you find all creatives, students, people looking for something different.” She’s proud that this attracts “people who like small business and big ideas.”

Address: 225 Karangahape Rd.; crushes.co.nz

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Tautai Gallery

In the 1960s, Karangahape Road was a lively place to shop and congregate for migrants from Pacific islands such as Samoa and Tonga. Gentrification eventually pushed Pacific people out of Auckland’s central neighborhoods, but Karangahape Road still holds a lot of historical significance to the community.

This connection made Karangahape Road the ideal location for Tautai Gallery, which opened in 2020. The gallery is part of the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust, a charitable trust dedicated to championing Pacific artists, and showcases work from the prolific Pacific arts community in Auckland.

The gallery’s location is close to some of the Pacific community’s architecture; Samoa House, the first maota or formal Samoan building to be constructed outside of Samoa, now houses the artist-run Samoa House Library. The mid-century modernist building that was once the community hall to the Samoan church is now the trendy bar and pizza restaurant East St. Hall.

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Address: 300 Karangahape Rd.; tautai.org/exhibitions

Coco’s Cantina

Aucklanders looking for unpretentious dining know they can find it on Karangahape Road.

One such stalwart is Coco’s Cantina. The Italian restaurant has been brightening up the pavement with signature red-and-white-checked tablecloths since 2009. The cheerfully mismatched decor and warm staff make going for dinner at Coco’s feel like dropping by a friend’s place.

The no-fuss, rustic cuisine is made from seasonal and locally sourced produce. The restaurant further builds on its neighborhood vibe by offering affordable comfort food in the form of happy-hour pasta, which includes simple and hearty pasta pomodoro with parmesan and pangrattato, from 4 to 6 p.m. daily.

Coco’s Cantina was founded by sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter. Renee still leads the long-serving Coco’s team; Damaris now focuses on operating the Realness, an online directory of independent, owner-operated and unique businesses around the world.

Address: 374 Karangahape Rd.; cocoscantina.co.nz

Caluzzi Drag Cabaret

Caluzzi Drag Cabaret has been a fixture on Karangahape Road since 1996. Walk past Caluzzi — it’s hard to miss, announced by a fuchsia neon sign and a giant pink stiletto on the roof — and you might see fabulous drag queens trailing glitter and feathers as they dazzle guests with megawatt smiles. The queens are both servers and entertainers during Caluzzi’s theater, an interactive, ebullient experience for dinner and a show.

The club started as a humble cafe, said Nick Kennedy-Hall, who holds dual roles as co-owner of Caluzzi and drag queen Anita Wigl’it. The cafe had two extraordinary staff members, chef “Felicia Porget” and server “Courtney Cartier.” “After a long shift, they would disappear upstairs and come down dressed to the nines and ready for a night on the town,” Kennedy-Hall said.

Cafe regulars asked the girls to do a show for them, and “on one fabulous night in 1996,” they finally capitulated. The cabaret has helped forge connections between drag performers and largely straight audiences. Things have come a long way since 1976, when an exhibition of Fiona Clark’s photographs of Karangahape Road drag queens at the Auckland City Gallery caused public protests.

Nowadays, Caluzzi unabashedly celebrates Karangahape Road’s individuality. “I love that Karangahape Road is a place where people can have a fun night out and just enjoy life,” Kennedy-Hall said. “It’s total escapism.”

Address: 461 Karangahape Rd.; caluzzi.co.nz

Club Burlesque at the Las Vegas Club

Verity Johnson, co-founder and producer of Club Burlesque, said the idea for a burlesque show was born out of a frustration that she couldn’t find the kind of sexy entertainment she wanted to see. So she started her own show in 2020.

Johnson says people frequently leave the show saying it’s the best thing they’ve been to in Auckland. She believes the night taps into a collective need for catharsis, freedom and sensual rebellion.

The show takes place in the former Las Vegas strip club. It’s a fitting venue. Every Aucklander recognizes the painted “Vegas Girl,” Johnson says. “Plus, we knew the spiritual home of sparkly emancipation had to be on Karangahape Road. Every [neighborhood], and often every street, in Auckland has a subtly different personality, and Karangahape Road had the right combination of magic, grit, seduction and subversiveness that we needed.”

Club Burlesque is a Friday-night show with summer and winter seasons. Keep an eye on its website for dates.

Address: 339 Karangahape Rd.; theclubburlesque.com

Petrina Darrah is a travel writer based in New Zealand.

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