It’s true. There is no denial. New Zealand’s capital Wellington does deserve its reputation as one of the world’s most windy cities!
I lived there for two years and its been a battle many times to keep my feet as I’ve fought my way against massive winds from the central train station to the CBD. As for keeping hold of an umbrella, good luck. You need a very good one, or resign yourself that by trying to hang onto one, you might be swept away to the South island!
For entertainment, I often could be found tucked warmly in my car watching the amazing skills of pilots tackling extreme landings in 50 knot plus gusts at Wellington airport. I am not talking little planes – big ones, very big ones! But don’t worry if you are a passenger flying into Wellington. They say only the very best of pilots are employed to handle Wellington! Helicopter landings too could be tricky.
Wellington is windy and very often wet – but it’s also a wonderful city, well worth taking some time to explore and ensuring you have clothes for every type of weather – even if its the middle of summer!
I gave Wellington virtually no time on my first visit on holiday there. There was so much to see in the Land of the Long White Cloud, and Wellington was merely an overnight stop en route to the ferry that would take me from the North to the South Island. I’d been told Wellington was boring.
So, like many tourists, I did the obligatory shuffle up Willis Street in the heart of the central business district, and took a five minute ride up a hill on the Wellington cable car for city view snapshots. The Cable Car is a funicular railway rising 120 m over around 612 metres.
And that was it really. I’d seen the bright lights of Auckland, enjoyed a Maori Hangi at steamy Rotorua, checked out glow worms at Waitomo. Wellington was just a pit stop on my journey en route across Cook Strait to Picton and the gloriously beautiful South Island.
It was a mistake. BIG mistake. Having lived there since and made return visits, I can assure you that Wellington is one of the coolest little cities in the world – Lonely Planet says so and so do I.
Thankfully, Wellington is a lot at better at promoting itself these days, especially since the city’s most famous Director Peter Jackson thrust the spotlight on his home town with his Lord of the Rings movies.
Many of Wellington’s top attractions are now detailed in tourist promotions – the fabulous foreshore, shopping, the thriving CBD, the dining scene, night life, coffee shops, arts and crafts – and what is probably one of the very best and most interesting museums in the world – Te Papa, visited by more than 1.5 million people a year. I can’t recall how many times I’ve been to Te Papa – a lot! And it never disappoints.
So I won’t delve into these attractions here. Rather I’ll draw from my own experiences as both a resident and tourist, and point out a few places the tourist gurus probably might forget to tell you about. My best advice: Think of Wellington as a region – not just a city. Hire a car and explore!
There were many areas in the Wellington region that I’d never heard of until I went to live there. Like the beautiful HUTT VALLEY, where we ended residing and PORIRUA, where I worked, made friends and some wonderful times!
Let me start with the Hutt and the neighbouring Wairarapa region – both full of world class delights already enjoyed by locals, but sadly missed by many tourists.
The Hutt is divided into Lower and Upper Hutt. The Lower side will introduce you to Petone, a charming old seaside town that was one of the first European settlements in the Wellington region. Today it features an historic shopping precinct along its main street with a few hundred interesting businesses, including some good pubs, taverns and eateries.
One place I love is Petone’s Light House cinema that shows independent and blockbuster movies in a converted 1926 building. It’s upmarket – you can buy freshly prepared food, boutique wines and beers here and take them into the theatre to enjoy as you watch your film. Did I mention the comfy 2 seater couches where you can snuggle up with your partner. Very civilised!
Continue around the Bay from Petone on a very narrow winding road and you’ll come across Days Bay and Eastbourne. Very well to do areas and very interesting to explore. If you dare take your eyes off the road as you wind your way along the bays, look up to see elevators that access homes in the hills leading down to the foreshore. A few nice jetties in this area too if you love walking on jetties. Some quality arts/crafts galleries too.
Make sure you stop off at the Chocolate Days Cafe en route. If they have got their freshly baked homemade Walnut Baklava on the menu, you’ve lucked in!
You can access some of these Eastern bayside suburbs by a 20 minute Ferry ride from Central Wellington, but personally, I like the drive.
Further up in the Hutt Valley, less than an hour from the Wellington CBD, is the beautiful Kaitoke Regional Park. You might recognise this as the site where ‘Rivendell, home of the Elves’ was filmed for the Lord of the Rings films. The movies were set in various locations on the North and South Islands, but this is one you can easily reach from central Wellington. Kaitoke Park has a magical feel, and it’s easy to believe you are in Middle Earth. Take a picnic – take a walk – enjoy!
Still further along the Valley, you can access the Akatarawa Valley and the Staglands Wildlife Reserve. Another great picnic spot and plenty to do here. A European friend of mine, well versed in wildlife parks around the world, rated Staglands as one of the best he’s seen.
OVER THE MOUNTAINS TO THE WAIRARAPA
If you’ve reached upper Hutt, you’ll have the impressive Remutakas Mountains ahead of you where the road climbs to a 555-metre summit. I haven’t spelt that wrong. The name changed from Rimutaka to Remutaka in 2017. I don’t know why. But I can tell you that the Remutakas are a gateway to the Wairarapa region – only about an hour’s drive from Wellington CBD. You’ve probably heard of NZ’s famous Marlborough wines? This is where you’ll find them!
Excellent for a day trip from Wellington or an overnight stay.
You’ll follow a Highway across the mountains. I’ve often wondered if ‘highway’ is the right word for this challenging narrow road. It’s a mountain road where you can’t let your attention wander! I was invited to work at a newspaper across the Remutakas, but declined because I was daunted at the idea of doing the mountain drive every day from my home in the Hutt Valley. My NZ boss couldn’t understand why I was frightened of driving over the mountains. I don’t have much of a head for heights, and I wasn’t confident about the route which is often cut by snow and landslips. So he sent me to the other side of Wellington to work in Porirua – more on Porirua later.
Luckily, my hubby didn’t mind the Remutaka drive, so we regularly visited the Wairarapa – visiting the famous Martinborough wineries and cafes, fishing at Lake Ferry (famous for its whitebait, red cod, and kahawai) or going to the rugged northern most tip of the North Island at Cape Palliser where you can climb up to the lighthouse. It’s a magnificient coastal drive to Cape Palliser and a sleepy seal colony en route seems well versed in posing for tourist photos.
A word of warning. NZ is disaster prone – earthquakes, landslips and wild weather that can result in flooded rivers. So they have siren warning systems in place which may give you a fright if they are testing them!
I was once staying at a little motel in Martinborough, when the Emergency Siren went off in the middle of the night. Now I hadn’t previously heard one of these sirens, and this particular one was quite close to our back of our bedroom. Think loud. Louder than loud. Heart piercing loud. Turned out it was alerting local fireman about a minor fire somewhere near the town. But it sent me tumbling out of bed onto the floor in fright, my mind numbed with shock. I’m sure it was the closest I’ve come to a heart attack. Luckily, Martinborough is a terrific little town to visit with a lot of attractions and I did return many times.
I must mention another boutique cinema here – Martinborough’s Circus cinema, upmarket restaurant and bar just off the main square. Love NZ. They really know how to package up their entertainment venues. This is a very tiny cinema with very comfy seats. Going to boutique movie theatres in NZ is an absolute treat. I think the Kiwis do it better than anywhere else in the world.
Martinborough and the Wairarapa have got websites you can check out. Before you leave the Wairarapa, be sure to visit Schoc Chocolates in Greytown. It’s a handmade award winning chocolate maker with about 60 different flavours. It’s been making chocolates since 2002, and is housed in a tiny old weatherboard cottage which was the town’s original confectioners shop. Seriously good chocolate.
The other area in the Wellington region that I am besotted with is Porirua. People lived in this area as far back as 1450AD, with Polynesian explorers settling here. It’s rich in Maori history and is a stunningly beautiful area of New Zealand with breathtaking coastal scenery, great wetlands and superb walking areas.
Porirua to me is quintessential New Zealand with a vibrant and diverse multicultural population including Pacific Islanders, Maori and Pākehā (European descent). It has a very different feel to other parts of the Wellington region and is much underrated. It is a community with a lot of heart, warmth and character, and should not be missed.
When I lived in Wellington, I always took my Aussie visitors to visit Porirua. When I would suggest the visit, I was usually met with ‘Where?’ They hadn’t heard of it. They would be overwhelmed after they’d explored it, acclaiming Porirua a highlight of their trip.
You will get a good feel of the Porirua community if you visit the PATAKA Art and Museum Centre in central Porirua. Locals see it as an artistic and cultural powerhouse and the jewel in Porirua’s cultural crown. I agree.
Pataka features a leading contemporary art gallery and museum dedicated to Māori, Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand culture. It actually has several galleries, and regularly holds international-standard exhibitions and events featuring acclaimed artists and performers from Porirua, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Rim.
I also love visiting Pataka’s Toi Store, where you can buy anything from unique cards to NZ artwork, ceramics, glass, art and jewellery. The centre’s Cafe Kaizen is a good casual place to eat. It overlooks a Japanese garden developed in honour of Porirua’s sister city Nishio City in Japan.
Porirua also has some outstanding markets. Check out the Porirua City Council’s website for up to date details.
Up for some exercise? Porirua has about 100 kilometres of walking tracks traversing the coastline, bush, city, farmland, wetlands and historic sites. The BATTLE HILL Regional Park is one I particularly recommend. It is the site of one of the last clashes between British troops and Maori in the Wellington region. A dark history, but today an interesting place to walk, explore and reflect.
I also really love TITAHI BAY, with its rows of colourful beach huts. The locals are friendly, and I’ve been fortunate to have been invited to check out the inside of some of the huts. Very cosy! I’d love one! I’ve watched kids surf here too in bitterly cold winter conditions. If I had won lotto, I would have shouted them a trip to warmer climates as a reward!
If you like some good stair master action, then try the Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki Escarpment Track. It’s part of the Te Araroa Trail that goes the length of NZ. Not for the fainthearted. I didn’t try it. I’m never going to try it. Good to look, and if you are up for a challenge – then give it a go.
The Camborne Walkway along the shores of the Pauatahanui Inlet is much more sedate, very enjoyable and relaxing.
One of my favourite places for a walk is the Te Are Piko Pathway and the Pauatahanui Wildlife Management Reserve. I was once guided through here by a big burley ex Policeman who was managing a program in the Reserve employing gaol prisoners on day release to clear weeds. He told me to bring my welly boots, and I needed them as we traipsed through the native salt marshes and wetland habitat. Keep to the paths, and regular walking shoes will be fine! It has a visitor centre, and here are viewing hides along the way for birders.
Whitireia Park is another must in Porirua. It is a spectacular headland with great views across Porirua Harbour and nearby Mana Island. If you think you’ve seen it before, you might be right. It’s popular for filming commercials. One of the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies was also filmed here. You can drive part of the way here, but to really appreciate the park, you need to leave the car and get out the walking shoes.
Back in central Wellington, there are a few places I must mention.
Wellington is the country’s political capital, and a visit to its Parliament is a quite a treat. Locally, it’s called the ‘BEEHIVE’ because of its architecture. There’s actually three buildings there, and there’s a range of free tours available, even special ones for kids!
Parliament was in session when I went, so I was able to sit on on some heated and entertaining parliamentary debate which happened to be aimed at Australia in a way that I keep my mouth and Aussie accent shut! My tour also took me into the bowels of Parliament to see special isolators that hopefully will protect the building in the event of a big earthquake.
Check out the Parliament site for tour details
Te Papa Museum, of course, which I mentioned earlier, is a must see. It’s on the central foreshore and has six floors. You should allow a few hours to see it all. The Te Papa Museum shop, by the way, features excellent NZ Arts and Crafts – a great place to buy genuine NZ gifts or something special for yourself. Somehow, I hauled a massive NZ pottery bowl back to my Aussie home from here. It sits on my coffee table, a reminder of great times in Kiwi land.
Also search out the Old Bank Arcade on Lambton Quay. It’s a prominent wedge shaped beautiful building and is one of Wellington’s most famous landmarks. It’s full of interesting shops, but the big attraction is the ship that’s underneath it!
This area was once part of the harbour, and the remains of an old three masted sailing vessel, Plimmers Ark, were unearthed during building renovations in the 1990’s. The vessel had been there since an earthquake in 1855.
A cut out in the floor of the Old Bank Arcade reveals the bow section underneath! There’s also a beautiful old animated musical clock suspended from the ceiling of the old bank building. So don’t just look down, look up!
I’m very partial to one of the arcade’s coffee shops – Smith the Grocer. They do great breakfasts and lunches. Rickety old chairs add to its charm.
High on a ridge above Tarakena Bay on the south coast of Wellington is a memorial to a man you might not expect to hear about here.
It’s a memorial for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey and New Zealand’s enemy in World War 1. The memorial looks out over Cook Strait and the site was chosen because it’s landscape is a lot like the Gallipoli peninsula, where nearly 3,000 New Zealanders died.
Apparently the memorial came about after Turkey agreed to name the site with Kiwis and Aussies first landed at Gallipoli as ANZAC COVE.
I’ve been to Gallipoli, and it’s true this looks a bit like the Peninsula. It seems to have the same special feeling I experienced there, and I like the idea that former enemies can come together in mutual respect to put the past behind them to forge new peaceful futures.
I’ll leave my Wellington blog there, even though there’s much more to say – it’s a great place to visit.
Discovering the Wellington region is a bit when you delight in an unexpected present under a Christmas tree – look what we’ve found!