Wellington: a weekender's guide

Just about recovered from Rugby World Cup triumph, Wellington is getting back to what it does best: art, culture and a civilised disregard for sport

Wellington: a weekender's guide Oriental Bay, Wellington - © Time Out
By Chris Bourn

Imagine Brighton was Britain’s capital city. Aside from bringing the UK stag-do industry under strict government regulation, forcing our parliamentarians to bunk up at the seaside with a bunch of artists, students and artisanal bohos could only be good for the national psyche. This is basically the set-up in New Zealand: few Kiwis south of Auckland show much love for their sprawling business metropolis, its multitude of yacht clubs and its 1.3 million ‘Jafas’ (‘Just Another Fucking Aucklander’). But NZ’s bayside capital, a city with a third of the people and about 4 per cent of the skyscrapers, enjoys universal thumbs-ups. Wellington is an undeniably pleasant crescent of civility, sensitively sited on the North Island’s nearest peninsula to its southern neighbour, extending a humanising influence over both.

It has a similar effect on visitors – once they’ve recovered from the landing. The final approach into Wellington International is like touching down on an aircraft carrier that’s been shipwrecked – in a full gale. Like the rest of the city, the airport’s single runway is ultra-compact, wedged up against the sea wall by the encroaching hills and the Wellington Fault, which shears through the north-west of the city. In fact, much of Wellington’s central residential district is built on a 45-degree angle, the rows of wooden houses stacked like wonky bookshelves. It’s precarious, blustery and earthquake-prone, and the locals have calf muscles of granite; that the world’s most southerly capital is also one of its most charismatic is a borderline miracle. 

Around Town

It only takes an hour to circumnavigate downtown Wellington on foot. One compulsory orientation exercise is to see the city from the high outlook of the Botanic Gardens to the west of the CBD; not because of the views of the harbour – which are magnificent – but because of the rickety funicular that hoists you up there. Wellington’s crimson cable cars ($6 return from the secret station behind the storefronts of Lambton Quay) have been creaking up the hill since 1902 and, like much of the city, are stuck in a cosy colonial timewarp. 

To understand what that means in New Zealand, visit Te Papa (55 Cable St; +64 4 381 7000), the national museum that squats at the southern end of Wellington’s inventively sculpted waterfront. Since it opened in 1997 Te Papa has performed a monumental balancing act, in more ways than one: housing the nation’s most precious artefacts on a major fault line, it is one of the most rigorously earthquake-proofed structures on the planet; it’s also a feat of biculturalism. Before the museum could be granted national status, elders from every Maori tribe had to sign off on its permanent exhibits. From the ornate, fully functioning marae (meeting house) to the thousands of taonga (cultural treasures) on display, the collection tells a remarkable story of conquest, conflict and cohabitation. Te Papa is also beautifully set up for kids, with eye-wideners such as an earthquake simulator and a real, dead colossal squid – the world’s largest pickled calamari.

Heritage on an even more epic scale is on display on the western edge of the city, at Zealandia (931 Waiapu Rd, Kelburn; +64 4 920 9200). This ambitious civic conservation project aims over the next 500 years to restore a tract of forest surrounding Wellington’s former reservoir to its native, prehistoric glory. Zealandia claims to be ‘a living ark’, but it’s essentially Jurassic Park with rare bellbirds, kaka (a grey New Zealand parrot) and kiwi standing in for velociraptors. Pests and predators have all been eradicated inside the sanctuary’s 8.5-kilometre perimeter fence, and here Wellington’s urbanites can enjoy unmatched encounters with indigenous birdlife, thanks to a high-spec, cinematic visitor centre and an army of volunteer guides. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a tuatara or two – rat-sized reptilian relics of the Mesozoic era that are endemic to these islands.

Food & Drink

An old Maori name for Wellington is Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui, meaning ‘The head of Maui’s fish’ (Maui being a navigator of legend; the fish being one he pulled from the sea to become the North Island). It’s an image that lives on in the peninsula’s cuisine. Among the harbour’s regular patrons are pods of orca – and you couldn’t get a much better recommendation for the fresh red snapper, blue cod and gurnard found in these waters.

If the killer whales had the table manners, and modest disposable incomes, they’d probably dine at the Ortega Fish Shack & Bar (16 Majoribanks St; +64 4 382 9559), a down-to-earth bistro awash with chequered-cloth atmos and marine life expertise. Make friends with owner Davey and he may produce his limoncello-like home brew as a complimentary end-of-evening gum-tightener. Floriditas on Cuba Street (161 Cuba St; +64 4 381 2212), meanwhile, is where the slightly less down-to-earth go for candles-in-wine-bottles flânerie, with a Parisian edge in the kitchen and a comprehensive wine list.

A bit further up Cuba Street you’ll find Fidel’s (234 Cuba St; +64 4 801 6868), an institution among bean heads who like a bit of light Leninist rebellion with their flat white. For coffee-as-a-new-scientific-paradigm, though, true pioneers head to Customs Brew Bar (39 Ghuznee St; +64 4 385 2129) round the corner on Ghuznee Street. Here they can experiment with a range of beans (displayed in giant wall-mounted test tubes), bespoke brewing methods and New Zealand’s only Slayer espresso machine (and if you have to ask, you’re probably better off not crossing the threshold).

Nightlife

Larks after dark in Wellington centre on Cuba Street and Courtenay Place. Mighty Mighty (104 Cuba St; +64 4 385 2890), full of lurid knickknacks and Antipodean club-kid bonkersness, is where the fashion-attuned young crowd hangs out; on weekend evenings it pulses with DJs and avant-garde bands (usually $5 on the door), and on the first Saturday of every month it hosts a resolutely kitsch market from 2pm to 6pm. For a stronger live music roster, Bodega (101 Ghuznee St; +64 4 384 8212) is Wellington’s answer to Camden’s Barfly (upcoming bills range from Tim Finn to Deerhoof).

The best after-hours haunt, though, is the new-ish Library bar, hidden above Courtenay Place (53 Courtenay Place; +64 4 382 8593). Access is via a courteous nod to the prop forward guarding the door, then up a discreet council-flat stairwell into twin darkened lounges dedicated to books and booze. With attentive table service, great Marlborough wines and a Jilly Cooper always within arm’s reach, it manages to feel decadent and nerdy at the same time.

Shopping & Style

Black is the stylish default for Wellingtonians, sometimes with a splash of grey for let’s-go-mad variation. Whether a subliminal homage to the national rugby team or in conscious counterpoint to the Day-Glo Aussies, it makes for a nicely co-ordinated cityful of people.

Cuba Street bucks against this, though. Hunters and Collectors (134 Cuba St; +64 4 384 8948) is undisputed as the capital’s best vintage store – from the other side of the road it looks like Barbarella’s space-age TV tuned in to ‘The Avengers’. Further along, in Cuba Mall, one-off fop-stop Mandatory (108 Cuba Mall; +64 4 3846107) stocks its own unique lines of well-honed menswear – specialising in crafted suits and exuberant knitwear that veers between intrepid and midlife-crisis, but, crucially, can’t be got anywhere else.

Cuba Street’s real independent retail institution, meanwhile, is Slow Boat Records (183 Cuba St; +64 4 385 1330), a vinyl flipper’s nirvana that’s been circulating rarities and eclectica around the harbour for more than two decades.

Film

Decisive evidence for Wellington as a creative nursery is supplied, of course, by Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop and its associated studios. The localised production and special-effects industry he presides over has, much like San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, expanded to take over an entire suburb. Miramar, the foreland to the east of the CBD, cut off from the rest of the city by the airport, is where all the industrial light and magic happened for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘King Kong’, earning it the nickname ‘Wellywood’ from glamour-sceptical locals.

While Jackson and crew have recently decamped to Matamata at the other end of the North Island to film the Shire scenes for ‘The Hobbit’, the lush countryside around Wellington has served as scenery for much of Middle Earth. For keen orcophiles, tour company Wellington Rover (+64 4 471 0044) offers day (NZ$175) and half-day (NZ$95) quests around the key locations. Or for a free immersion into all things ‘Rings’, there’s the Weta Cave (Corner of Camperdown Rd and Weka St, Miramar; +64 4 380 9361), Jackson’s official micro-museum and geek boutique adjacent to the workshop itself. 

What’s that? You were hoping for a weekend in Wellington avoiding all mention of hobbits, elves or wizards? You shall not pass.

Stay

The Bolton Hotel (Corner of Bolton St and Mowbray St; +64 4 472 9966) is a well-run and amenable independent hotel just around the corner from ‘The Beehive’, New Zealand’s rotund parliament building, and handy for the waterfront. Doubles from NZ$179.

For a cultural overload, Te Papa operates its own hotel next-door: the Museum Hotel (90 Cable St; +64 4 802 8900). Doubles from around NZ$200.

Go

Air New Zealand flies daily from Heathrow to Wellington (via Hong Kong or LA and Auckland) from £953 return including taxes. On London-Auckland legs via LA (both ways) the airline offers its innovative Skycouch in ‘cuddle class’ economy seats: for an extra £359 couples get the whole row to share – and the seats fold out into a couch. Two can lie flat in relative comfort and, if they like (though it doesn’t quite get you into the Mile High Club), spoon. Call 0800 028 4149 for more info.