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The view from the Botanical Gardens in Wellington - photos by Sarika Chawla
The view from the Botanical Gardens in Wellington -
photos by Sarika Chawla
GoNOMAD DESTINATION GUIDE

Wellington, New Zealand: The Capital City Comes Into Its Own


By Sarika Chawla

WHY GO?

Despite its status as the nation’s capital, North Island travelers tend to overlook Wellington as a destination point. For years, the hilly harbor city has catered to visiting dignitaries and business travelers, but for leisure-seekers, it’s merely been the place to catch the ferry to the South Island.

But lately, Wellington has positioned itself as a prime destination on its own: it is a dichotomy of a bustling little city with the feel of a waterfront village. It has extensive cultural activities and a thriving café and pub culture in a busy pedestrian hub, but also boasts miles of nature reserves and stunning scenery.

Wellington’s position on the southerly tip of the North Island also makes it an ideal home base to explore the central and coastal regions of the island.

WHEN TO GO

Wellington’s location at the bottom tip of the North Island tends to make it susceptible to gusty winds blowing through the Cook Strait. Winter months (May-August) are regularly doused with cold, rainy and windy weather.

Summertime is the best bet for benign weather, starting in mid-November and often lasting into early March. Budget-minded travelers can take their chances in the spring or fall — just don’t travel with a high-maintenance hairdo.

The Parliament Building
The Parliament Building

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

Getting There

Air New Zealand and Qantas have daily flights to Auckland — there are several hour-long flights daily from Auckland to Wellington, or you can tour the North Island starting from Auckland and ending in Wellington.

Currently, Air New Zealand is offering flights to Auckland starting at $1,550 departing from Los Angeles, and $1,660 from San Francisco, for flights departing December 1-January 31.

Stopovers are available to Honolulu and Fiji. Qantas is currently offering flights to Auckland from multiple departure points, including $1,458 from New York and Boston, $1,408 from Chicago and $1,058 from Los Angeles.

Getting Around

A taxi from the airport to the Central Business District costs about $NZ30, but Super Shuttle costs $NZ15-20 per person.

The cable car to the Botanical Gardens
The cable car to the Botanical Gardens

Wellington is a walkable city, with the main buzz happening around the commercial zones of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place. City buses are ubiquitous, and good for cutting down your walking times or traveling to nearby suburbs. Figuring out which bus goes where can be difficult for newbies, but you can call 0800 801-700 or visit metlink.org.nz to get your bearings.

The Intercity bus is an inexpensive way to get outside the city, especially for short-term getaways like the Kapiti Coast and the wine region of Martinborough. Keep in mind that New Zealand’s mountainous terrain can mean unexpectedly long travel times — a one-hour flight to Auckland translates into a 12-hour bus ride.

Wellington is also the port for the Interislander ferry to the South Island town of Picton. The ferry departs three times daily, and takes about three hours to reach the South Island, but rough weather can result in a longer trip.

Virgin Blue, Air New Zealand and Qantas offer low-cost flights within the North and South Islands.

BEST ATTRACTION

Te Papa, a museum of history, science and culture
Te Papa, a museum of history, science and culture

Wellington’s cultural crowning jewel is Te Papa, a donation-only museum that celebrates Australasian natural history, science and culture. Highlights include Maori artifacts, interactive science exhibits and collections by New Zealand artists.

The Museum of Wellington City & Sea is another free museum, though a bit dry. A must-see is a 12-minute film presentation of the 1968 Wahine disaster — the most lingering tragedy in modern-day Wellington in which 51 lives were lost on an interisland ferry.

A ride up the Cable Car is an easy way to get the best view of the city. For $NZ1.60 each way, the cable car departs from the city center (Cable Car Lane) to the Botanic Garden. You return to the city by meandering down the garden along marked pathways, passing through the lush Lady Norwood’s Rose Garden and other stunning flora. Or you can take a look at the surprisingly informative Cable Car Museum for a glimpse into Wellington’s early days and then ride back down the hill.

BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION

At Reverse Bungy offers to catapult you 160 feet into the air.
Reverse Bungy offers to catapult you 160 feet
into the air.

The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is a predator-free haven for endangered native birds. A 2-hour nighttime guided tour ($40) allows you to see nocturnal birds as they awaken, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the rare (and shy) little spotted kiwi. During the day, you can pay $NZ10 for a self-guided hike along trails of varying difficulty, where spectacular surroundings will make you feel as if you’re miles from civilization.

While adrenaline junkies can get their fix in Queenstown, Wellington offers a sample hit with its Reverse Bungee (Taranaki Street and Courtenay Place). For $NZ40, you can get catapulted 160 feet in the air in less than three seconds.

BEST ACTIVITY AND GUIDE

For an insider glimpse into the city, Wild About Wellington offers a selection of boutique tours that incorporate walking and public transportation, including a ride up the cable car and stops at various historical and commercial sites. The Boutique Beer Tasting Tour visits breweries and pubs for tastings led by a local beer expert.

The more extravagant City of Style tour features a tour of the renowned Village Goldsmith (you even get to try on expensive jewelry), merino wool shopping and a champagne toast. Along the way, tour guides offer historical information on the city and personal anecdotes. Tours range from $75-$170 per person, with custom outings available.

The view from Mt. Victoria
The view from Mt. Victoria

For a low-cost exploration of the region, Wellington Rover offers a hop on-hop off van tour through the city and into the suburbs and coasts, including a photo op at the famous 360-degree city view on top of Mount Victoria, an optional stop at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, and a quick drive-by of director Peter Jackson’s home. If you’re lucky, he’s placed an Oscar on the window sill. Ninety-minute tours are $20 per person.  

BEST ALTERNATIVE

New Zealand is a hotspot for the WWOOF program, in which travelers can work on a farm in exchange for meals and lodgings. Koromiko Homestay, located in a secluded hillside location overlooking the city, is open to WWOOFers as well as functioning as a B&B.

In exchange for four hours per day of home maintenance (painting, repairs, etc.) and work on their extensive garden, owners Chris, Kris and Andy offer cooked meals and accommodations for extended periods.

Wellywood Backpackers, formerly known as Wildlife House
Wellywood Backpackers, formerly known as
Wildlife House

BEST LODGINGS

The Bolton Hotel (Bolton and Mowbray Streets) is Wellington’s only boutique hotel with a five-star Qualmark rating (New Zealand tourism's official mark of quality).  Located near Parliament (about a ten-minute walk to Cuba Street and Courtenay Place), this 18-month old hotel offers 142 apartment-style for medium-to-high range rates.

Because this is a business-oriented town, prices drop dramatically over the weekend. In less than two years, the hotel was honored with the Hospitality Association of New Zealand Award for Excellence in Customer Service, and was named the runner up for the Best Accommodation Hotel in New Zealand.

For budget travelers, Wellywood Backpackers (58 Tory Street), formerly known as the Wildlife House, is known for its distinctive zebra-striped exterior. The family-owned and operated hostel offers 230 beds, ranging from dormitory-style beds to double rooms with en suite bathrooms. An expansive communal room includes a shared kitchen, TV, pool table and plenty of seating. Its central location means plenty of bars and cafes nearby.

YHA Wellington City (292 Wakefield Street) is a massive 317-bed hostel with large rooms, clean facilities and two good-sized communal kitchens. The hostel recently won the Trailblazer Award from the Sustainable Business Network for its impressive environmental efforts, including energy and water conservation, recycling and re-use initiatives.

The Dockside Restaurant
The Dockside Restaurant

BEST EATS

Named Bar of the Year and Bar Team of the Year in New Zealand, Matterhorn (106 Cuba Street) has been around since 1963 but has enjoyed growing fame as the gathering for the Lord of the Rings cast when they were in town. Gourmet dishes like free-range chicken and grain-fed beef, an extensive wine list, and an outdoor patio make this a popular spot for locals and out-of-towners.

Though not exactly intimate, Dockside Restaurant (Queens Wharf) is all about ambiance, with outdoor seating and a lovely view of the harbor. Fresh seafood take center stage on the extensive menu.

There’s no shortage of cafes scattered all over Wellington, many serving locally roasted coffees, Euro-style paninis and British-inspired pasties and pies. One notable shop of simple foods with a gourmet touch is The Roxy (Cuba and Vivian Streets), which serves breakfast until four.

Chocoholics shouldn’t miss Schoc Chocolates (11 Tory Street) which offers the best hot chocolate in town (try it with chili spice) and unusual confections like boysenberry and whiskey chocolates and rose-flavored dark chocolate. This is also where you can pick up the handy guide “Chocolate Therapy,” written by one of the owners.

Schoc Chocolates is a must for chocoholics.
Schoc Chocolates is a must for chocoholics.

BEST CULTURAL ENTERTAINMENT

Wellington’s cultural claim to fame is its multitude of staged productions. Bats Theatre (1 Kent Terrace produces several original works per season, and hosts annual events like Fringe NZ, The NZ International Comedy Festival and The Young and Hungry Festival of Plays.

Downstage Theatre (12 Cambridge Terrace) is the longest running professional company in the country, producing original New Zealand shows and revivals throughout the season.

BEST LOCAL HAUNT

With bars of all types lining the streets, it’s easy to find a spot that you can visit repeatedly. The Malthouse (47 Willlis Street) has the biggest selection of beers on tap in all of New Zealand, with comfort food to soak up the drinks.  

A hidden gem is Good Luck bar (126 Cuba Street), with opium den atmosphere highlighted by tasty Cambodian food and live DJs.  

Tupelo (6 Edward Street) is Wellington’s oldest cocktail lounge, located just off-the-beaten path from the more crowded sections of town.
 
BEST SHOPPING

Cuba Street
Cuba Street

The main shopping zones are within the city center of Courtney Place, Cuba Street, Manners Street and Lambton Quay. The streets are lined with clothing and shoe shops, ranging from trendy chains like Supre and Valleygirl, to luxury merino wool at Aquamerino, and exclusive New Zealand designers like Robyn Mathieson and Andrea Moore.

The Old Bank Shopping Arcade (Lambton Quay and Hunter Street) offers several boutique stores, plus body shops like Nature Unplugged, where you can find the famed New Zealand skin care line, Hema.

MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS

Though New Zealand’s dollar is gaining strength, there is still a favorable exchange rate. As of November 14, 2006, the New Zealand dollar pays $0.66 on the US dollar, $0.51 on the Euro and $0.35 on the British pound.  ATMs are available and credit cards are accepted — just remember that if you sign with your check card, you will be charged an international processing fee.

There are several internet cafes around the city, and the information center at Victoria and Wakefield Streets has internet terminals. Phone cards are available and pay phones are plentiful in the city.

The Beehive, as it is known, is the executive wing of Wellington's Parliamentary complex.
The Beehive, as it is known, is the
executive wing of Wellington's
Parliamentary Complex.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

Overall, Wellington is considered a safe city for both visitors and locals. It’s okay to drink tap water and eat from food stands. Within the city center there are very few unsavory zones.

Use common sense and keep in mind that this is a drinking culture, so bouts of aggression can take place late at night, particularly after major sporting events.

The weather is unpredictable and often windy, so bring layers and an umbrella. If you have any questions, the city’s two i-Sites are staffed with extremely helpful locals (Cable Car Lane and at the corner of Victoria and Wakefield).

BEST RESOURCES

wellingtonnz.com – General Wellington information

wotif.co.nz - Discounted hotel rates on the North and South Islands

wgtn.wotzon.com – Events, activities and shows around Wellington

blog.feestpaleis.net – Fun blog by two Netherland transplants on their experiences living in Wellington

wellurban.blogspot.com - A local resident’s reflections on the city and its architecture, businesses and urban design

wellingtonista.com – “Random stuff about New Zealand’s capital city,” including best eats and a feature on the recent Golden Oldies rugby tournament.

 

Sarika Chawla




Sarika Chawla
is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles.



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