Wellington, New Zealand: The Capital City Comes Into Its Own
By Sarika Chawla
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.
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.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
A taxi from the airport to the Central Business District costs about $NZ30, but Super Shuttle costs $NZ15-20 per person.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
wellingtonnz.com – General Wellington information
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