In Wellington, the illumination comes from talking to those who’ve come back: the once-young New Zealanders who fled for bigger ponds 20 to 30 years ago; the ones who were reluctant to return from Sydney, London and Los Angeles but are now delighted they did.
Today’s Wellington — an energetic, vibrant and instantly likeable place where something always seems to be on the cusp of happening — is a relatively new beast. It’s seen tremendous changes in the past two decades, partly through smart governance, partly through an infusion of youth from the rest of New Zealand, and partly through geography.
A city once known for its dowdiness and squally weather has now got the unmistakable air of cool about it.
Wellington is almost bereft of parochiality. It’s a city of people who’ve either moved here or expanded their horizons and returned. There’s a distinct willingness to embrace new ideas and improve on whatever’s already here. The disturbingly ferocious desire to accept only the best coffee that can be sourced has seen a highly knowledgeable cafe culture spring up. The same ethos has been applied to wine — the quality-over-quantity Martinborough wine region is just an hour away — food, and, in the past few years, craft beer too.
But having people of the right mindset is no use if they’re spread too far apart. And that’s where geography comes in. Wellington is in a beautiful natural location, hemmed in around the harbour by an amphitheatre of steep hills.
There’s not much room for expansion, but that limitation has been turned into a great strength. Prescient town planning in the early days kept the hills as a green belt that still exists today, while the small bowl the city centre cuddles into is easily walkable. Shops, bars and cafes can thrive on walk-past traffic, giving licence to experiment. This, coupled with clever infrastructure and public art projects, linking the city to the waterfront, has created a centre that people genuinely want to be in.
A befuddled, jet-lagged walk down Cuba Street confirms all this. It’s Friday night and buskers and other street performers are whipping up crowds, small queues are growing outside temporary comedy festival venues, and the night market’s food carts — covering the world, from Chile to Chiang Mai — are doing a brisk trade. It’s immediately invigorating. Wellington may be one of the world’s smallest capital cities, but there are few that make you want to throw yourself in with such relish as this.
Zealandia: This extraordinary 500-year project, to return a valley to the state it was in before humans arrived, is quickly becoming a wildlife refuge for endangered species previously only surviving on offshore island sanctuaries. To see most of the critters — including the nocturnal, little-spotted kiwi — it’s best to go on a guided night walk. visitzealandia.com
Zest Food Tours: Wellington is serious about its food, and Zest Food Tours offers a perfect primer of what’s on offer. The tours take in coffee roasteries, handmade chocolates, manuka honeys and the best foodie hangouts. The extended version includes lunch at top restaurant Logan Brown. zestfoodtours.co.nz
Beer tasting: It’s estimated over half of New Zealand’s craft beer is consumed in Wellington. The best intro to the microbrewing scene can be found at The Malthouse — the city’s first craft beer pub — while Wild About Wellington organises tastings and tours with local beer writer Neil Miller. wildaboutwellington.co.nz
Te Papa: Two of the best sections at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa are Awesome Forces — which explains the country’s earthquake and volcano-riddled landscape — and Tangata o le Moana, all about how the Pacific Islanders came to New Zealand. tepapa.govt.nz
Weta Cave: Weta is the company that made all the props and costumes for the Lord of the Rings films (among many others). The tours around part of its mini-museum, Weta Cave, are riveting — for spotting paraphernalia from films and realising the level of detail, planning and creativity that goes into making them. wetanz.com/cave
Mount Victoria: It’s a steep hike (or a lazy bus ride) up to the top, but the views over the city on one side, plus the Tasman Sea and Miramar Peninsula on the other, are epic.
Kayaking: Alternatively, take a look at the city from out on the water. Fergs Kayaks offers tours around Wellington Harbour, as well as kayak hire for those who prefer to paddle around independently. fergskayaks.co.nz
Carter Observatory: Next to the city’s Botanic Gardens, the Carter Observatory is something of a stargazing relic that’s been spruced up to become a fascinating museum. The most interesting sections focus on how the Maori have traditionally read the Southern skies. carterobservatory.org
Bohemein: For gifts to take back home, look no further than this Czech-run chocolatier. The showy chocolate sculptures include weird and wonderful flavour combinations such as pineapple and black pepper or raspberry and 20-year-aged balsamic vinegar. bohemein.co.nz
Kirkcaldie & Stains: New Zealand’s premier department store has a kitsch Are You Being Served? feel about it, mixed with a sense of indisputable class. kirkcaldies.co.nz
The Old Bank: No prizes for guessing what this arcade used to be. It’s now home to an endearing collection of indie boutiques.
Cuba Street: Wellington’s most engaging shopping strip is about the collective experience rather than any one particular store. Record shops, vintage fashion boutiques, secondhand shops and cutesy stationers rub shoulders.
£ KK Malaysian Restaurant: Wellington has sprouted a large collection of Southeast Asian restaurants in recent years. KK Malaysian Restaurant isn’t the most stylish of these, but the beef rendang and fish sambal are highly tasty bargains. kkmalaysian.co.nz
££ Karaka Café: The two war canoes by the Karaka Café on the waterfront hint at what it does differently — dishes use traditional Maori ingredients, such as flax seeds in the burger buns, and horopito (a native herb), rubbed into seared lamb rump. wharewakaoponeke.co.nz
£££ Logan Brown: This spot combines spectacle — it’s inside a gorgeous former bank — with top-drawer, sustainably sourced food. The paua (abalone) ravioli with coriander, basil and lime beurre blanc is worth fighting over, and the wine-matched menus are excellent. loganbrown.co.nz
Little Beer Quarter: One of the newest, and most laid-back of Wellington’s mushrooming crop of craft beer bars, Little Beer Quarter offers six regular tap beers and an ever-rotating cast of guest efforts to experiment with. littlebeerquarter.co.nz
Hashigo Zake: Offering a mildly-Japanese-cellar-bar take on the craft beer pub, Hashigo Zake has a strict microbrewery-only policy, showcasing Wellington brewers Parrotdog and Garage Project, among others. The crowd leans towards the self-consciously hip. hashigozake.co.nz
The Library: With bookshelves all over the place and the air of a private member’s club, The Library also happens to be the best spot in town for cocktails. They’re inventive, and made with great care — even if some could knock out an elephant. thelibrary.co.nz
Like a local
Moore-ish nibbles: Worshipped by Wellingtonians, Moore Wilson’s is the dream supermarket, stocking the highest-quality goods — be it honeys, cheeses, fruits, juices or meats — from small local suppliers. moorewilson.co.nz
Making waves: The ferry across the Cook Strait to Picton on the South Island is a notorious test of sea legs and stomach steadfastness. Less taxing ferry rides are available to Matiu/Somes Island in the middle of the harbour, a popular picnic spot. interislander.co.nz
Head for the hills: If the fizzing energy of Wellington’s compact centre gets a bit too much, don’t fret — relief is just a short, if admittedly steep and uphill, hike away. That green ring of hills around the city contains walking tracks. Spending half a day up here, aimlessly meandering along, is a blissful way of slowing the pace down.
Wellington’s accommodation tends towards the functional — most hotels and apartments are aimed at business travellers. Location is important here — the whole point is to be at the very heart of the action. The motels and B&Bs in the satellite towns are best avoided if you want to experience the city properly.
£ YHA Wellington City: This is everything an urban hostel should be — boasting excellent communal facilities and surprisingly good-quality private rooms. yha.co.nz
££ Bolton Hotel: Slick, spacious and business-focused, but with enough thoughtful little touches to elevate it above the identikit. boltonhotel.co.nz
£££ Museum Hotel: It’s certainly not dull. The lobby is a hugely flamboyant art gallery, full of motorcycles and installation art, that makes you do a double take. Should you wish to self-cater, the apartments at the back — with well-equipped kitchens — are your best bet. museumhotel.co.nz
Did you know?
Wellington has gold to thank for its status as national capital. When the South Island had its 19th-century gold rush, there was talk of it seceding. The powers that be thought it expedient to move the capital from Auckland to somewhere closer to the trouble-makers. Wellington had a perfect natural harbour, and the rest is history.
You’ll need to stop at least twice, so opt for the airline with the best deals or stopovers you might fancy. Emirates goes via Dubai and Sydney from six UK airports. Other options from Heathrow include Air New Zealand via Los Angeles and Auckland and Singapore Airlines via Singapore and Brisbane. emirates.com airnewzealand.co.uk singaporeair.com
Average flight time: 27h.
In the centre, walk. Don’t drive, due to cost and lack of parking. Metlink buses and ferries cover most other place of interest. metlink.org.nz
Try Wellington Combined Taxis if you prefer to hop in a cab. taxis.co.nz
When to go
Wellington is best in summer (mid-December to mid-March) when it’s warm and less rainy. This is also when most of the city’s annual festivals are held.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens don’t need a visa for stays of less than six months.
Currency: New Zealand dollar (NZ$). £1 = NZ$1.80.
International dial code: 00 64 4.
Time difference: GMT +12.
How to do it
Abercrombie & Kent offers 14 days in New Zealand, with seven nights in Wellington and seven on the North Island, on a B&B basis, from £3,295 per person, including international flights, self-drive car hire. abercrombiekent.co.uk
The Rough Guide to New Zealand. RRP: £16.99.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)