Six days in Wellington
Cruising New Zealand’s capital
July 6, 2010
New Zealand is about more than skydiving and bungee jumping, despite what you might have heard.
This is particularly clear when you spend a week or so in the capital city as mid-autumn edges toward late autumn. I booked my trip to Wellington having done little research, I admit, but I couldn't be happier with the outcome.
My sister Morgen and I headed to Wellington in mid-May. Our round-trip tickets from L.A. to Wellington, bought on Qantas Airlines through an e-mail deal from Travel Zoo, came out to $942.71 in U.S. dollars.
Wellington is on the southern tip of the North Island. It has the hilliness and damp feel of San Francisco during the rainy fall season. The city also is incredibly lush, vibrant, friendly and beautiful.
For accommodations, Morgen and I went the hostel route. We stayed at a homey, affordable place called Worldwide Backpackers on a street called The Terrace. Free breakfast and a kitchen were part of the appeal. Although older, well-heeled travelers sometimes shy away from hostels, this one has some two-person rooms with a queen bed — perfect for two travelers on a budget who don't mind communal bathrooms. Book several weeks in advance.
We found that we could walk anywhere in the city from the hostel, and walk we did. The first day took us to the Cuba Mall, a shopping and dining area a few blocks away. We had drinks more than once at J.J. Murphy & Co. on the mall, and we ate at a tasty Indian spot called Tulsi.
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Please don't go to Wellington and skip Te Papa Tongarewa. It's unlikely you'll do so, since the friendly kiwis of the city will recommend the free national museum at any opportunity.
Te Papa is on the waterfront and focuses its collections on art, history, Pacific, Maori and the natural environment. The most talked about highlight while we were there was the giant squid, which we somehow missed seeing. We did watch a pretty incredible 3-D movie about it, however.
In a museum sort of mood, we ambled down the waterfront back toward the city center, coming upon the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, which provides an intimate look at the development of the city and its history. If you plan to take a ferry across the Cook Strait, as we did, it might be advisable to skip the exhibit about a monstrously fatal Cook Strait ferry wreck.
On the top floor, my sister and I found a striking movie about Maori legends. Not being an expert on how holograms work, I have no idea how they managed to create the 3-D film on a tiny stage. It's worth seeing.
Also worth seeing is Parliament and the Beehive, the seat of government in New Zealand. The Beehive is shaped like its namesake and serves as the main office building for workers. Tours of Parliament are free. We learned a lot, and you might also.
If it's pretty out, buy a ticket for the Wellington Cable Car via Cable Car Lane off Lambton Quay downtown. The short ride isn't interesting, but you pop out high on a hillside, where views of the city are staggering. Take a walk through the free Wellington Botanic Garden back down to the city.
We were heartbroken that rain kept us away from Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary Experience, which we'd heard was amazing. The spread of land near downtown provides glimpses of native wildlife, including kiwi birds. It's not to be missed, we were told, but I'm afraid we missed it anyway.
Eating and drinking
In Morgen's research — she planned most of our activities — she encountered a company called Zest food tours. Morgen is a dietitian, and we both enjoy culinary adventures. She booked a "capital taste" tour for $159 per person.
Our delightful guide was a Danish woman who "fell in love with a kiwi boy" years ago and loves Wellington. She started us off with a coffee.
Wellingtonians, we were pleased to learn, care a great deal for their coffee. My sister is a professionally trained barista, and I'm a professionally trained caffeine addict. We ran into culture confusion when the baristas had never heard of "black" or "drip" coffee. We ordered a lot of "flat whites," which is pretty much a latte, which you can also order. A "long black" will get you what we call an Americano. The Zest organizers thought to provide us a list of coffee terminology. Genius.
The Zest tour took us to Mojo Coffee, a company that roasts its beans in a warehouse on the waterfront and has franchises all across town. We tried New Zealand honey at an art gallery; feijoas, golden kiwis, jams and cheese at a great market called Moore Wilson; and affogato — ice cream coated in espresso — at a great restaurant called Floriditas.
A highlight of the tour was Ciocco, where we sampled chocolate and tried to guess its flavor. The dozens of options including rose, lime chili and sea salt made our heads spin in chocolate-y joy.
Perhaps the best part of the tour was that we wound up with coupons. The tastiest meal of the trip was the three-course, fixed-price lunch at Logan Brown, a top restaurant in town. We probably wouldn't have gone without the 25 percent off coupon, and Morgen and I were thrilled with our experience.
Most of the people we met in Wellington asked whether we'd travel to the South Island. It was on our agenda, but only as a one-night stay in the coastal town of Picton.
The Bluebridge ferry took us across Cook Strait and docked at our destination. If the weather's nice, the trip provides gorgeous scenery. The weather was cloudy for our journey, but we had the opportunity to see beautiful New Zealand images all the same: The in-cruise movie was the first installment of "Lord of the Rings."
Once in Picton, we checked into the Atlantis Hostel. It's cheerful and brightly colored and offers a pool (with a fee) and warm dessert at night during the offseason.
After unloading gear, we amused ourselves with a hike along the shoreline. Following the natural curve of the shore past the marina and across the bridge took us to a clearing. Signs mark the Upper and Lower Bob's Bay Tracks, which took us on a moderate hike around part of the Queen Charlotte Sound to Bob's Bay.
Take a picnic and sit in the clearing on the seashore, watching the sailboats, ferries and other seafaring traffic. We didn't picnic, but it would have been awesome. The hike is about an hour round trip. On a sunny fall day, it was unbeatable.
We ambled back and enjoyed a seaside happy hour at 5 Reasons, a little bar attached to the Seabreeze Café at London Quay and High Street. Our friends at the Wellington hostel had suggested an Irish pub, and we stopped by Seumus's for a drink and to check out the menu. We had a cocktail and then ate instead at The Flying Haggis, a Scottish pub on High Street.
The bartender there was an amiable fellow who called himself A.B. and said his son lived in Aspen. We enjoyed fish and chips, jabbering with the welcoming local crowd.
The night ended back at Seumus's, where we had drinks and good conversation with locals, a few other tourists and the sassy bartender who hailed from Northern Ireland. Authentic? Oh, yes. The man could pour a Guinness.
We closed out our night there, heading sleepily back on the ferry early the next morning with pleasant memories of Picton.
The next day took us barreling out of Wellington, already planning our next trip to the islands.