Travel News

Welcome to Wellington, New Zealand

Forget what you know about capital cities. This New Zealand hub is gaining a reputation as a city of great style, and great fun. Plus, it’s only four hours away. Go on, ‘jump the ditch’ as the locals say.

With few exceptions capital cities tend to get a bad rap. I know. I live in Canberra. And so it was that when I went to Wellington I took not one but two winter coats, my thermal undies and a head full of the type of clichéd preconceptions about New Zealand's capital that I've spent the past 14 years trying to dispel about Canberra.

I imagined it would be cold and lifeless, filled with bureaucrats rushing, drone-like, through grey, wet and windy streets lined with stationery stores and shops selling sensible suits and footwear.

I was, to say the least, profoundly surprised. For Wellington is not the sort of city where you need to peel back the layers to discover the fine restaurants and bars, the boutiques and cafés, the edgy street life and the buzz. You'll be seduced by the sheer natural physical beauty of Wellington's harbour, her terrace upon terrace of Victorian, San Francisco-style wooden and glass homes and, not least, the town planning synergies that have so seamlessly blended the old with the new.

A few days in Wellington can also be a rich cultural experience; the city's Greek and Italian influences are apparent everywhere and, as with so much of New Zealand, the Maori footprint is also ever-prevalent. It's often said that 'jumping the ditch' - as the locals call it - to New Zealand doesn't really count as going overseas. But in Wellington you know you're in a foreign land. The good news, of course, is that at around four flying hours from Australia's east coast you can hit this city for a leisurely long winter weekend or mid-week jaunt without wasting time on jet-lag. The strength of the Australian dollar against its Kiwi counterpart also makes Wellington a pleasantly affordable option; by all means order that second bottle of Marlborough sauvignon blanc or Martinborough pinot noir.

But first, a severe weather warning: generations of Wellingtonians - especially those who've made their living from the seas - will warn you that no city in the world is more climatically fickle (have they never been to Melbourne?) than theirs. But even the meanest of southerlies isn't enough to send the locals scurrying. So do as they do when Wellington gets nasty - rug up, put your head down and continue on foot to the next café, museum, restaurant, gallery or cinema.

Wellington, of course, is something of a Cinderella to Auckland. Indeed, ask most Australians to name New Zealand's capital and they'll probably say the latter. But Wellington is quickly gaining speed as a leisure destination of style and great fun, a city where mountain meets water and where the fruits of the land - and especially the sea - are fabulously presented.

But Wellington can be moody alright. One day she'll put on a T-shirt day for you - windless and balmy, her azure harbour reflecting pristine sky. The next day the southerly will belt the waters into white caps and deliver sideways rain. This adds to the charm, of course, and highlights the one constant - the friendliness and warmth of the locals you'll meet in the pub or who'll wait on your table.

Wellington is on a fault line, so earthquakes and tremors are no stranger. Neither are hurricanes, which belt up this city by the sea every decade or so.

Shoes hold the key to an enjoyable stay in Wellington. Yes, shoes. Make sure they're comfortable, because the best way to get around this compact city is on foot and if, like me, you end up sampling vast amounts of Wellington's fabulous fare, you'll want to run by the harbour each morning.

In fact, start your weekend with a jog along the redeveloped waterfront. I always take my runners when travelling, and this amble - about four kilometres round - from the Lynx ferry terminal along the path that winds around Oriental Bay past the yacht club and back - is flat and scenic. Watch out, though; you're likely to be embarrassed by someone younger and fitter. (Wellingtonians, it seems, are very serious runners - like the mums pushing prams who overtook me a couple of times.) After that, once you cool down, you'll be ready for breakfast and a coffee.

Wellington, locals will tell you, has a livelier informal and fine-dining scene than just about any city, with (it seems) more cafés per head of population than even New York.

So choose well. You can't go past the Nikau Gallery Café, at the City Gallery Wellington in City Square. Nikau's bacon and eggs are unbeatable. It's a tough - and highly contestable - call to say their coffee is the best, though. For Wellington is a city, thanks to the plethora of Greeks and Italians who migrated early last century, that prides itself on coffee. People such as 65-year-old Lambros Gianoutsos keep the fabulous tradition alive. Lambros migrated from Greece in 1958 and began working for an uncle at a milk bar in Lambton Quay. Next year, he'll clock up 50 years in the coffee business.

In fact, if you drop by the flagship Mojo Coffee Cartel in Kent Terrace, you're likely to find Lambros out the back roasting the Brazilian, Guatemalan, Indonesian or Columbian beans while his son, Steve, cruises through the front of the house, chatting to devoted customers and overseeing the production of a steady line of espresso and machiatti. (Try Mojo's specialty - the piccolo - a scoop of vanilla ice-cream suspended in coffee syrup.)

After breakfast, walk out the back of Nikau and into the gallery. It's a cutting-edge place, filled with the most contemporary - not to mention intellectually and visually challenging - work from artists in New Zealand and elsewhere.

A long weekend in Wellington really should start with a visit to New Zealand's premier museum, Te Papa. Don't be put off by the extremely ugly building. Te Papa tells New Zealand's story, from its relatively recent settlement, through to its rich and multicultural development into one of the world's most politically and culturally progressive countries.

If you're after more Wellington-specific history, take a short walk further along Waterloo Quay to the Museum of Wellington City & Sea, which traces the city's beginnings and charts its long and often tempestuous relationship with nature. It's worth a visit alone to see the remarkable 1968 footage of the sinking, during a vicious storm in Wellington Harbour, of the passenger ferry Wahine that claimed 51 lives. There, you'll also be reminded that the Cook Strait, which separates the North and South Islands, has swallowed more than 250 vessels in the last century.

By now you'll be ready for lunch. The problem, you'll find - especially if you've only got a few days - an over-abundance of choice. Wellington is a city where fine dining is now part of the fabric. If you want the starched linen and attentive service experience, it's pretty hard to go past Logan Brown in edgy Cuba Street or down on the water at Martin Bosley's Yacht Club Restaurant. Seafood and wine matching are a specialty at both.

If you're after somewhere more casual and bustling, try Pravda in Lambton Quay. A favoured hang-out for Wellington's media crowd, including, thanks to local Peter 'Lord of the Rings' Jackson, movie and ad types, Pravda is friendly and very, very busy. Not too busy, however, for the front-of-house to dwell over the menu with me and explain that today's mini arancini are made with a touch of provolone, and then to match a wine.

Jackson's fantastic success has brought more than a touch of Hollywood to Wellington in recent years. So much so, it seems, that the locals refer to their home, these days, as 'Welly-wood'.

This is complemented by a fabulous live theatre scene. Meanwhile, an array of old cinemas have been lovingly refurbished, replete with their Deco façades. The most famous, perhaps, is the Embassy Theatre at the top of the city, which was restored in time to host the world premiere ofLord of The Rings: The Return of the King in 2003.

For a real indulgence, take a bus or taxi around to the boutique Empire Cinema at Island Bay. The iconic Empire has recently undergone a loving refurbishment and now houses three cinemas, each seating 50 to 70 guests in lounge room-style comfort. Take a glass of wine or a coffee in with you.

After it gets dark, wander down to Cuba Street, the city's underbelly. Cuba Street is best described as a cross between Sydney's Darlinghurst Road and Melbourne's Brunswick Street. In the evenings it's a magnet for bar-hopping tourists and locals. There's an array of great restaurants including Floriditas and Logan Brown. You'll definitely want to stop in at Matterhorn - a dark and bustling Wellington institution that offers reliable bistro fare and great cocktails. There's coffee and more coffee, of course; Fidel's Café is an absolute must if you're after a simple snack (fish pie or a toastie, perhaps) or a caffeine fix.

Ernesto - which shares an owner with Fidel's - is yet another Cuba Street institution serving excellent coffee and food, albeit in slightly less grungy and beautiful Deco surronds.

If you're still feeling restless after a visit to Cuba Street, wander back down to the waterfront for a nightcap at St Johns Heineken Hotel, Wellington's newest waterfront bar. Once again - as is Wellington's way - this is a fabulously Deco establishment, transformed from an old ambulance station (thus St Johns in the name).

Regardless of the weather, no visit to Wellington is complete without a trip to the city's stunning Botanic Garden. You can reach the garden, which looks down on the city and harbour, on foot or by a cable car that runs up the mountain. If you want a bit more structure to your weekend away, try a Zest Food Tour. Guides Catherine Cordwell and Susan McLeary will introduce you to a range of people in the food business as you wander from café to provedore and, finally, to one of Wellington's finer restaurants for a tasting lunch.

At some point you'll want some time out. Wellington has a large range of affordable, world-class hotels, including the boutique The Wellesley, an authentically restored ladies' and gentlemen's club that still boasts animal trophies and the rarefied ambience of old, conservative Wellington. But there's nothing remotely stuffy about The Wellesley; the staff are immensely helpful and friendly.

In the end, any preconceptions I had about Wellington stayed in my suitcase with my overcoats and thermals. Wellington is doing great things for capital cities.