10 November 2017

48 Hours in Wellington, New Zealand

As soon as the plane came over the mountains and landed next to the clear turquoise waters of the Cook Strait at Wellington Airport, I knew two days would not be enough time in New Zealand's capital. I fell hard for Wellington in a way I never really did with Auckland, although the latter has another day to win me over tomorrow. Small but sprawling and surrounded by mountain, forests and water, Wellington seems to have it all. After a first glance, it reminded me of a smaller Vancouver: it has cool restaurants and shops, great coffee, culture and a healthy, outdoor lifestyle that many city-dwellers can only dream of.

Within 45 minutes of landing, I had collected my suitcase, taken the 91 Airport Flyer bus into the city and checked into my hotel, The Cambridge Hotel. I picked the hotel for its central location and was a bit worried about night-time noise, but I thought I'd be OK because I was staying on Monday and Tuesday nights. Unfortunately, the downstairs bar and gaming room played very loud music until half-midnight on both nights making sleep before then impossible (Tuesday, of course, was the blasted Melbourne Cup). Otherwise, my bed was comfy, but it was a very small and dark room, in great need of an update. I wish I'd paid a bit more to stay somewhere quieter and more modern.

Anyway, I didn't spend much time at the hotel, and I was extremely lucky that coffee-loving Wellington local Tim (@coffeelater on Twitter and Instagram) contacted me when he found out I would be visiting his city and offered to show me around. He'd discovered my blog while investigating the Kiwi credentials of Red Lion Coffee Co in New Cross when he was visiting London. Tim was an excellent ambassador for Wellington and its coffee scene — I'll be covering the latter in a separate post — and a wonderful host, driving me all over the city to visit coffee shops and stop at the best viewpoints, and imparting a wide array of local knowledge. I'm so pleased he got in touch and we had a fun couple of days. Thanks, Tim!

Heights and sights
I flew in to Wellington on a clear morning and the views from the window seat were fantastic and also helped me to get my bearings. I think the SimCity 2000 custom map builder must have enjoyed designing the topography and landscape of Wellington because there are many hills and mountains and an almost fractal-like bounty of bays. Tim first drove me up to the Mount Victoria Lookout, which saved me a very steep walk. The lookout offers panoramic views and if you're there on a clear day, it's well worth the walk or ride to the top.

Another place to get a great view of the city and the Cook Strait is by taking the Wellington Cable Car, which runs from Lambton Quay, a central shopping street, to the hilly suburb of Kelburn. The funicular railway, which just celebrated its 115th birthday, runs every 10 minutes and a return ticket costs $7.50 (if you're planning to walk back down, a one-way ticket is $4). There are various activities at the top, including the Botanic Garden.

Closer to sea level, there are dozens of walks, jogs or bike rides you can do. Just east of the CBD is Oriental Bay, which has a small beach and good views back to the city, and if you continue on round, you'll get to Evans Bay, where there are some nice rocky beaches and some seriously fancy houses, some of which have their own cable car, a source of endless delight for me. I was short on time while jogging and so cut back inland through Hataitai (I skipped the Mount Victoria Lookout, but it was still very steep).

Further round is Peter Jackson's film hub, Miramar, which Tim took me past on our drive. I didn't have time to do anything film-related, like the Weta Studio Tour, but I did stop to take a picture of the Wellywood Sign. We continued south to Lyall Bay, stopping to look at the surf club/popular local favourite Maranui Café although it was too late to get a coffee with a spectacular ocean view, and then over to Island Bay (the small, titular island is called Taputeranga), where you can see over to the South Island on a clear day. We could — just about!

There is a good bus network in Wellington, but it's a lot easier to explore more of these places if you have your own vehicle — particularly given all the hills.

Arts and culture
You could spend all day at Te Papa Tongarewa, the excellent New Zealand Museum, but I had less than two hours. I focused my time on the natural history and cultural/anthropological history floors, and the permanent exhibitions were informative, interactive and very well put together; it's also free to visit. There's also a bush walk and a cave walk just outside that you can visit, where I saw my first tui bird of the trip.

I didn't have time to do any more museums, but I did soak up some of the city's public art. It's not quite up there with Melbourne on the street art front, but there were some cool murals. There's also a curious bucket fountain on the mostly pedestrianised Cuba Street, which seems to excite everyone.

I didn't do very much shopping while in town, but I did visit the excellent book shop, Unity Books. You can also pick up a Wellington writers' walk map from Unity or the tourist information centre.

Eating and drinking
Wellington's drinking and dining scene is such that although the annual Wellington on a Plate ('eat, drink and be Welly') food festival takes place in the winter, it's now one of the busiest times of year to visit. I was a little overwhelmed by choice and was also mindful of having already spent a large amount of money on food and coffee on this trip so far. There are a few restaurants and bars in Wellington that have London spin-offs — Noble Rot, for example — but on my first night, I ended up accidentally going to a Kiwi spin-off of one of my favourite London restaurants, Polpo. The Wellington version is called Ombra and both the concept and the décor are very similar. I wanted Italian comfort food and that's what I got, as well as a very fine martini.

The following night, I followed Tim's recommendation and went to Wholesale Boot Company (WBC). This also has a connection to a London favourite of mine, Providores, in my former Marylebone neighbourhood. The menu includes small and large plates that combine modern New Zealand cuisine with various Asian twists. I sat at the bar and there was a wonderful atmosphere and attentive service. I started with a bee's knees cocktail and a quartet of New Zealand oysters, which were delicious (I loved the muffin tin presentation too). I then had spicy kung pao venison and chicken karaage (a Japanese-style fried chicken), which were very tasty. I was too full to order any more food, which was a shame because there were so many other dishes on the menu that I wanted to try.

Had WBC been full, my back-up was to go to Little Penang, another recommendation of Tim's, which does top-notch Malaysian food in a casual setting. I was disappointed not to be able to try the ramen at The Ramen Shop in Newtown, which Tim also suggested — we drove past and it looked great.

Although I'll cover coffee in another post, I did squeeze in brunch at two of the coffee shops I visited. First, I had a great (if rather filling) bacon cheeseburger with duck-fat fries at Acme & Co HQ, Prefab Café, and I also enjoyed the scrambled eggs on sourdough at Mojo's waterfront cafe. You won't struggle to find good brunch in Wellington, though, wherever you are.

Wellington is a very characterful city — reminiscent of Portland, Oregon, in some ways — and so there are plenty of fun things to spot around town. I didn't go out in search of any Lord of the Rings sights, but came across the Hobbit Hideaway, which is just off the Hataitai–town centre walkway, on my run. Although I grew up in Oxford and used to sell Tolkien tours at the tourist information there, I'm not a LOTR fan, and yet I found myself sitting in the hideaway to take a selfie. It's definitely not very hobbity to run 6.5 miles and climb over 50 floors before breakfast!

Tim also pointed out a miniature library in a bus stop and, after I'd had my first "quite windy" day (it was extremely windy), he awarded me with my very own Wellington badge.

Finally, the shells here are awesome. If you go to the beach at the right time, you can collect gorgeous, iridescent paua shells, cleaned-up versions of which are also sold for a princely sum in gift shops. I found this small collection while running — aren't the colours amazing? — but I left them where they were for others to enjoy or the sea to take back.

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