Wellington is notorious for its wind. It was in Wellington, in public, that my skirt was blown up above my head. (Lesson learned: Don’t wear a skirt in Wellington.) That was the first time I went. The second, quite recently, there was hardly any wind at all. I was dressed up all warm, properly prepared, and ended up too hot. Typical.
It takes about nine hours to drive from Auckland to Wellington, but don’t try to do it all in one day. If you hire a campervan in Auckland, you’ll want to take at least two days getting there.
Our first port of call once we got to Wellington was Cuba Street. It’s famous for being Wellington’s premier shopping street, but I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed. There were a few mildly interesting shops and cafes and a few mildly interesting artworks, but if it weren’t for the surprising number of second-hand bookshops I would have been quite bored. The harbour front was different story.
Wellington has the prettiest and most interesting harbour front in New Zealand. Lively with both locals and tourists, it has stunning sculptures and gorgeous views; random pieces of poetry and a fantastic bridge that’s a work of art in itself. As we made our way along, watching people kayaking on the sapphire water, we found a colourful piano and a wonderful underground market. It was here that my boyfriend had the best crepe of his life.
After this, we made our way to the government district. Our Wellington law student friend showed us Government Buildings, built in 1876 out of wood and made to look like stone, because stone was deemed too expensive. (It ended up being really expensive anyway, much to the government’s embarrassment. The building was opened without fanfare.) Until recently, it was the largest wooden building in the world. The funny thing is a smaller building was constructed in its shadow, this one actually built out of stone, but they wanted it to match the original building – so it’s stone made to look like wood made to look like stone!
The next day we visited the Beehive, the architecturally controversial Executive Wing of New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings. From it, you can take a free tour of the Parliament Buildings. I’m not too interested in politics, but the tour was enjoyable. It’s strange to see such opulence in New Zealand: the marble, the gilding, the furniture, the artefacts, the stained-glass windows… There was even an exquisite sculpture of the hobbits hiding from the Black Rider. Yes, The Lord of the Rings is THAT important.
New Zealand takes The Lord of the Rings very seriously, and Wellington is right at the epicentre. Wellington Airport has a giant Lord of the Rings eagle hanging from the ceiling with Gandalf riding upon its back, as well as an enormous model of Sméagol looming over the food court. The city rebranded itself ‘the middle of Middle-earth’ – it is, after all, in the middle of New Zealand as well as being spiritually the centre of the whole Lord of the Rings franchise. Wellington is the cradle of the genius that is Peter Jackson. It is the home of Weta Workshop, which we didn’t visit, and the forest in which the hobbits hide from the Black Rider at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, which was where we went next.
The thing about Wellington is it’s all hilly – and big hills at that. The only flat part is the city centre, and it’s only flat because it’s built on reclaimed land. While this does make Wellington a very pretty city – every time you look up you see you’re surrounded by green hills, the houses merely white patches amongst verdant bush – it’s incredibly tiring to walk around. Also, due to the higgledy-windy-uppy-downy nature of the roads, buses take a lot longer than you think they should. By the time we got to the foot of Mount Victoria, we were already exhausted!
It was a really good walk up it, though. The forest that covers Mount Victoria is made up of pines rather than New Zealand natives. Probably why Peter Jackson chose it. We met an old lady with a pair of hiking poles coming the other way, and she told us how grateful she was to have such a good walk right by her house. It must be really easy to keep fit in Wellington. There were a lot of mountain bikers around as well, although I’d never dare to bike on such terrain.
The place where the hobbits hid from the Black Rider is barely worth taking a photograph of. The tree in the film is fake, so all that’s there is a depression in the slope just below the path, blanketed by brown pine needles. Above the path, however, there’s a rocky outcrop that looks more like it. In fact I remember getting a picture crouching there as a kid, pretending to be scared. I’m sure I shouted, “Get off the road!” at some point too.
The real treat of Mount Victoria is the view from the summit. You can see all of the city, the harbour, the surrounding hill, Cook Strait and, if you squint hard through the haze, the South Island. It was just beautiful. If you only do one thing in Wellington, climb Mount Victoria. It’s not too difficult and doesn’t take that long.
From the top of Mount Victoria, we walked down to Te Papa, renowned as New Zealand’s best museum. Although there weren’t any outstanding exhibitions on this time, there was certainly plenty to look at. The museum has a wonderful look to it, both futuristic and traditional. The displays are a treat for the eyes. One particular exhibition struck a chord with me: the history of New Zealand immigration. I must say, I’m very glad it only took my family twenty-four hours on a plane to reach New Zealand, as opposed to six months on a cramped, pestilential ship with a significant chance that not all of us would survive the journey.
We stayed at Te Papa until closing time. By then we were definitely in need of dinner, and our Wellington law student friend knew exactly where to take us: Inferno. He’d been raving about it all weekend. Newly opened on Courtenay Place, Inferno is an American-style chilli bar. The food is cheap and absolutely delicious. As well as the traditional chilli con carne, you can get a lamb and chocolate chilli and even a pork and spinach chilli. There are five levels of hotness: Mild, Medium, Hot, Extra Hot and Inferno. I was a wuss. I went for Extra Hot. Ooh, it was lovely. I think I could have had the Inferno, as long as I was careful not to get any on my lips. I got some of the Extra Hot on my lips and ended up having to wet them every few seconds to sooth the burning!
Rather fittingly, Inferno is just a few doors away from what our friend described as the best place to get gelato he’d ever been to. All weekend, we’d been promised the best ice-cream – sorry, gelato – of our lives, so, needless to say, our expectations were pretty high. The place was Kaffee Eis. There are a few of them throughout Wellington and, let me tell you now, you MUST visit one when you’re there. Our high expectations were not only met, but surpassed. It genuinely was the best ice-cream – sorry, gelato – we’ve ever had in our lives! Seriously. Oh, my goodness. Amazing.
My boyfriend had amaretto and I had white chocolate and coconut. Now, I’m not usually that keen on ice-cream, but I simply didn’t want to stop licking this stuff. I was blown away. (Figuratively blown away. As I said, Windy Wellington was surprisingly calm this visit.)
So, in conclusion: if you’re going to Wellington, make sure you pack a coat. The wind is usually quite cold. If you’re driving down from Auckland, make stops along the way. Once you’re there, make sure you visit the harbour front, Mount Victoria and Te Papa, and don’t leave without trying a Kaffee Eis gelato. Of course, there are heaps of other things to do, but that was my most recent weekend in Wellington.
Article by Abigail Simpson, author of POMS AWAY! A British Immigrant’s View of New Zealand