The drive in to Wellington is fascinating. When coming in from the north, you hit a multi-lane road (one of very, very few, all over NZ – hurrah!) and then weave through a series of cavernous hills, dipping down into a harbour which comes suddenly and spectacularly into view. The city proper is accessed very easily from the freeway which runs along the western side of the city, super close to buildings – almost like an Asian city.
This is a teensy but world-class city. With a huge and beautiful harbour surrounded by boats and wharfs and buildings, and stunning houses dotting the tree-caked hills, Wellington certainly has a really hip, almost Euro-vibe. The city itself is small, easily walked through and experienced on foot, with steep hills running along its western backbone.
For such a hill-sheltered place, the windy city is indeed a wind-swept place – with its famous southerly lashing the harbour front, busy with people enjoying the array of sites on offer. Even on a hot day, the wind is refreshing and cool.
Frank Kitts Park right near Customhouse Quay has a playground for kids (right near the helipad where kids will oggle the bright red sightseeing copters) and there’s a perennial band of brothers jumping from the walkway bridge into the harbour below, even during that frequently goose-bumping gale.
This same bridge takes pedestrians over the small inlet to the glorious Te Papa Tongawera (NZ Museum) and Civic Centre which houses the City Gallery (closed), Library and Capital E entertainment centre which has a play area and fabulous activities for kids.
The main shopping and eating areas include the streets around Lambton Street, Cuba (a mall with great bars and eateries), Dixon and Tory Street which is near Courtney Place – a shopping centre and Reading cinema. It seems Wellington hosts every and any store you can imagine, including a typical line up of stores selling touristy paraphernalia. Whitcoulls is NZ’s answer to Borders, and has everything one could need books- or mags-wise (except Martha Stewart Living’s February issue, much to my chagrin).
Wellington has enough gorgeous and historical buildings and streets to be stylish and urban, but enough grunge and time-worn streets and facilities to give the place an edge (but of course, take away the polish that could make it really super beautiful).
Once checked in to our ‘delightful’ apartment (more soon), we walked down to the waterfront and Frank Kitts Park then along to Te Papa museum, stopping at the nearby >Mac’s Brewbar for fish and chips and a stunning glass of rosé, a superb draught beer and Mac’s lemon crush for the kids.
We loved this über chic wharf-side pub and went back every night for a drink and/or a nibble of something delicious. With upside down lamps hanging from the ceiling a là Philip Stark’s Lan in Beijing, comfy booths and large windows, we particularly loved the friendly service and the kitsch retro board games on each table. We even ordered a fabulous round of local fish and chips. Scrumptious.
On day two of our Wellington stay, we woke to a lovely sunny day and headed out early to catch the Wellington cable car up the hill to the absolutely magnificent Botanical Gardens where we admired the view over the harbour.
We then wandered the hilly landscape between gorgeous themed gardens – begonia, ferns, roses, camellia, and the most magical, fairylike hydrangea valley nestled amongst the trees. I have honestly never seen anything like it; I was totally smitten and the kids loved it too – truly one of the finest gardens ever.
The Lady Norton Rose Garden is worth a look for its luscious collection of floral bliss – full to bursting with divine blooms. 10-year-old Ella took advantage of honing her photographic skills. You can even sit outside in the sunshine with your dog and his silver bowl, have a cup of tea and soak in the blooms.
The kids enjoyed the fabulous children’s play equipment then we went to the Carter Observatory to see a 40 minute film presented on the domed ceiling of the theatre. This brilliant film was not only totally fascinating, its content is truly mind-boggling – the graphics and animation were quite extraordinary and the kids were also mesmerised.
At the end of the film, the guide (herself an astronomer) took us through a look at the Wellington night sky and explained how to find certain stars and constellations. We then wandered around the really impressive observatory displays. A visit here is really great value for money – about NZ$46 for a family.
Afterwards we checked out the little Cable Car Museum (free!) right at the top of the cable car run back into town.
Back in the city, we wandered through the Wellington Museum City and Sea (free!) which has an interactive exhibition of art to attract the young, and some really superb historical accounts of life on the sea and the formation of Wellington, with astonishing and very beautiful displays of ships and interactive displays. One thing the New Zealanders do extraordinarily well is create stunning museums.
I adored this museum and children would also love it – there is so much for them to do and see and enjoy. It’s truly one of the most amazing museums and art galleries I’ve seen and… it’s free!
On day three, we headed to Zealandia, an ecological wonderland of nature just south east of the city centre (about a 20 minute walk from the Botanical Gardens).
Essentially, it’s a nature sanctuary that has eradicated all introduced species and contains only native New Zealand wildlife, including endangered species. The wildlife is kept in check (or rather, introduced species are kept OUT) by a quite incredible mesh fence that runs for something like 8km around the parkland.
Zealandia’s new state-of-the-art exhibition, over two floors, hosts large screen films and beautifully presented visual and interactive information on New Zealand’s unique plant and wildlife species. The building itself – made of steel and wood – is stunning architecturally and there’s a touchingly beautiful line-up of wooden cut-outs featuring extinct animals lining the walls of the stairs between floors (above right).
Inside, there is some absolutely fascinating reading, short videos and interactive touch screens for adults and older children, and even a faux moa that can raise its head and bellow on command, but children under 7 or 8 will be lost and/or quickly bored.
Like most NZ attractions, entry to Zealandia is costly and I’m sorry to say not great value for money unless you’re a die-hard nature nut. Although quite beautiful, the sanctuary area is probably not much different to a walk amongst the trees in any of NZ’s myriad nature reserves (which, incidentally, are free) and you’ll need to be awfully patient and stationary and quiet to hear or see much wildlife (unless you’re keen to sight a moth, a duck or common minor bird).
After an ice cream, we continued on driving around the entire winding peninsula. At the very southern point, it was a joy to glimpse the arching mountains of the South Island, hazy in the distance (left, if you look carefully). Such stunning coastal land – strewn with a collection of volcanic rocks, like crumbled chocolate.
Back in town, a 15 minute walk took us downtown to Reading cinemas where we ate sushi, drooled over books at Whitcoulls and bought tickets to Yogi Bear. Then it was back to our main haunt, the Brew House, down on the waterfront, where we played cards in a booth, nibbled nachos and downed some more of that incomparable NZ vino, beer and lemon crush.
Coming next – South Island!