Story and photos by Rich Grant
Lonely Planet called Wellington the “coolest capital city in the world,” an accolade the town loved so much they made it their official slogan. And why not? New Zealand’s capital city is a pretty cool place, and the 300,000 people who live here know it. More than a quarter of them walk or bike to work, many along a spectacular two-mile-long waterfront walkway lined with pubs offering views of boats, mountains and the skyline.
Come 5 p.m., it’s almost dangerous strolling here – the walkway is packed with hundreds of bikers, joggers, roller skaters and commuters heading home – and the harbor is filled with sailboats and rowing crews. On a sunny day, it's standing room only at the outdoor pubs.
“Welly” (as the locals call their city) offers some other world-class urban tramps – what New Zealanders call walks – on the two flanking mountains that overlook the harbor. A bright red cable car takes you to the top of one of the hills for a sweeping view of the harbor, then you take a long, meandering walk back to the city through the free and very pretty Wellington Botanic Gardens. There are well marked trails that go through a combination of rainforest jungle and English gardens.
The other tramp is up steep Mount Victoria, which has even more rewarding views of the harbor and the surrounding hills and skyline. Trails branch off at the summit and lead through a forest of unusual trees that doubled as a fantasy set for hobbits in the film Lord of the Rings.
Welly is New Zealand’s cultural capital and as such has great restaurants and a slew of outdoor brewpubs. Mac’s Brewbar and St. Johns Heineken Hotel on the waterfront at Taranaki Street Wharf are fun and have outdoor decks and a great selection of local brewpub beers. New Zealand beers are mostly very similar lagers, ales, golden ales and reds, with an occasional stout. It’s the local wines that are stellar and memorable, but the beer is certainly drinkable, if not outstanding.
There are a number of Irish pubs in town. Molly Malone’s has a fireplace and nice outdoor deck on the pedestrian and bar-lined Cuba Street; Kitty O’Shea’s has live traditional Irish music on Courtenay Place, another street of pubs. The Green Parrot, they say, is where you might spot visiting movie celebrities.
Throughout the downtown, there are art galleries, bookstores and local coffeehouses galore and every vacant wall is covered with posters for theatres and a symphony, all of which give the city a cultural look. Nothing in New Zealand is very old, but what old architecture you’ll find is here – though overall, the city has a modern feel, especially in the truly bizarre national capitol building (called the “Beehive” because it looks like one).
There’s plenty of downtown shopping and about every third store is selling sportswear or outdoor gear. The shop “Simply New Zealand” in Civic Center Plaza has everything the country makes and is connected to a superb information center with tons of free maps and brochures. The must buy is something with Merino wool (the finest, thinnest, warmest wool in which New Zealand specializes) or anything from the national rugby team, the All Blacks.
Welly's top attraction is the Te Papa Tongarewa. In native Maori that means “container of treasures” – and that’s exactly what the national Museum of New Zealand is. Called Te Papa for short, it’s free, huge and fun…and centrally located right on the waterfront. There’s a cannon from Captain Cook’s ship, The Endeavor, a house that shakes in an earthquake, a walk over a swing bridge through the bush, and more about the Maori culture than you’ll ever want to know (about one in 10 New Zealanders are Maoris).
Welly's second big attraction is its most famous resident, Sir Peter Jackson. He was a virtually unknown director when he started filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Jackson is now an Oscar-winning, international director, movie producer and innovator, who has moved much of his film business to Welly and the neighboring town of Miramar, known as “Wellywood.”
Jackson’s films have done for New Zealand what John Ford’s films did for the American West. His iconic fantasy images of the country's stark landscape have transformed it into one of the world’s hottest film locations, which will only get bigger with the release of the Hobbit in December 2012.
There are several Lord of the Rings tours during which you can visit nearby filming sites, such as the place where the hobbits hid from the Nazgul on Mt. Victoria. The tour guides worked as extras on the films and have lots of inside knowledge and anecdotes about Sir Peter.
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