The sign says it all. Ten tall letters perched high on a hillside above the airport. The original plan was for them to read ‘Welly wood’, a reference to the city’s recent contribution to world cinema. But the locals deemed this too predictable. So instead, the sign says ‘Wellington’, with the last three letters apparently blown off course by two swirly, blustery lines.
By most indices, New Zealand’s capital is the world’s windiest city — a fact with which it seems entirely comfortable. Down on the waterfront you’ll find a bronze statue of a naked man, leaning into the breeze. It’s a pose every Wellingtonian knows all too well. It doesn’t help matters that it’s a particularly hilly metropolis, so much so that many houses have their own private funiculars. But these challenges seem to have helped forge the city’s sense of identity; I’ve even heard some locals admit the icy blast of the dreaded Antarctic ‘southerly’ wind makes them feel strangely at home.
For all its dubious weather, Wellington is an impressive place, a mini San Francisco with a bohemian streak and idyllic bayside location. The seat of government it may be, but there’s a palpable coolness here that takes you by surprise. Yet that central tenet of the hipster revolution — the stripping away of bland distractions, so as to focus on what’s really of value — has been the Wellington way for the best part of two decades, ever since it first emerged as one of the world’s coffee capitals.
Nowhere is this enlightened approach more evident than in the Laneways, a series of narrow thoroughfares in the CBD (Central Business District), currently being spruced up by the city council. The pick of these is the little alley between Leeds and Eva street, home to a micro chocolate factory, bottled soda shop, cocktail bar, craft brewer, boutique coffeehouse and a tiny basement outlet (Fix and Fogg) selling intriguing varieties of peanut butter out of a small, ankle-level window. As alleyways go, it certainly packs a punch, and it’s a great starting point for any newcomer.
But, in reality, it doesn’t require much planning to catch Wellington at its sparkling best. Within my first 48 hours here, I’d watched an Iranian documentary at an arthouse cinema; dined three tables away from Peter Jackson; drank craft beer in a converted garage; watched chocolate being made from scratch; sipped nitrogen-enriched iced-coffee dispensed from a pump; and eaten oysters by the waterside. Compact, cosmopolitan and full of character, Wellington really is a first-timer’s dream. Just remember to pack a few layers.
SEE & DO
WELLINGTON CABLE CAR: It’s hard not to fell for Wellington’s elderly yet distinguished 114-year-old cable car. Having trundled gracefully up its tracks, it delivers passengers to the city’s hillside Botanic Gardens, where alongside fitting views, they’ll also find Carter Observatory, home to the Space Place planetarium.
ROXY CINEMA: A 1920s theatre that was turned into a shopping mall in the 1960s, the Roxy was restored to its former glory and given a new purpose in 2011, having been bought by Weta Digital founder Sir Richard Taylor. Located in Miramar — Wellington’s movie-making district — it hosts film and documentary festivals, and even has its own restaurant and cocktail bar.
WETA CAVE: The starting point for the Weta Studio Tours, where enthusiasts can marvel at fake guns, custom-made vehicles, latex heads and remote-controlled battle helmets — in short, many of the eye-catching props Weta crafted for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, plus other films such as King Kong and District 9. The Cave is also a retail store and an exclusive documentary is shown at regular intervals.
CUBA STREET: Wellington’s ‘spunkiest’ thoroughfare is worth more than a cursory glance, filled as it is with many of the city’s best and most bohemian restaurants, bars and cafes, not to mention the obligatory vintage clothes shops, street art and laudable busking. A great spot to meander if you’re feeling lazy or a little weather-beaten.
FIELD & GREEN: Having relocated from London with her business partner, chef Laura Greenfield drew upon her Jewish roots to produce a menu of ‘European soul food’ — essentially, high-quality comfort dishes. While lunches and dinners are reasonably elaborate and pricey, it’s the small yet filling simpler dishes on the all-day menu — Welsh rarebit, homemade crumpets, sardines on sourdough — that make this restaurant both affordable and special.
SHEDS: Housed in a Victorian woolshed in Lambton Harbour, Shed 5 really plays to Wellington’s strengths: stunning seafood dishes accompanied by fantastic Kiwi wine. The seafood risotto changes daily, ‘depending on what the tide brings in’, while anyone who can resist the oysters must be tired of life.
HIPPOPOTAMUS RESTAURANT & BAR: If you came to Wellington hoping fora hipster dining experience, then French fine-dining might seem a stuffy option. But stuffy it ain’t, and, besides the food, the impressive third-floor harbour views and fancy decor make this a smart choice. Located within the Museum Art Hotel.
GOURMET STAY: A 13-room boutique hotel wit h a strong European design ethos near Cuba Street, offering varying levels of affordability, from smart-yet-basic hostel-style rooms with shared bathrooms to apartment-style family suites, all the way up to a rooftop studio with a terrace and outdoor hot tub.
COMFORT HOTEL WELLINGTON: A good mid-range option, not least because it puts you right in the heart of Cuba Street. The location means you probably won’t need to frequent its cafe, restaurant and bar, but they’re t here should you wish to do so, as is a lofty, and rat her welcome, swimming pool.
MUSEUM ART HOTEL: This aptly named silk purse of a hotel positively bulges with art, be it painted, sculpted, daubed onto its outside walls or grafted onto the upholstery of a well-placed bedroom chair. Similarly ornate views of the harbour accompany breakfast, during which guests can ponder how, in 1993, the entire five-storey hotel was shifted wholesale 120 metres across the road to its current site.