Shakedown, Wellington

What’s the capital of New Zealand? Auckland! Wrong. It’s Wellington, the country’s third largest city, and the subject of this week’s Shakedown. If you’ve visited the city, consider adding your experience to the conversation via the comments below.

Wellington is located at the south end of New Zealand’s North Island, appearing to be pooled at the foot of a rumpled hill range, with uninhibited views across the Cook Strait to the Kaikoura Range weighing down the South Island.

Wellington is famous for its wind: with mean speeds of 22 km/h, and almost half of days experiencing gusts greater than 60 km/h, earning the city its moniker of Windy Wellington.

That nickname however, is slowly being blown away in ‘favour’ of Wellywood, in honour of the city’s movie industry, especially that of local boy Peter Jackson. The nickname came within a kiwi’s whisker of being immortalised in tall white letters on a prominent hillside in the capital, before locals fought back to force a public vote on a variety of ideas; which was subsequently won by global advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, which, ironically, is an ode to the wind.

Wellington was also the stage to one of the viral thrillers of 2010, when an octopus stole Victor’s camera.

"Octopus steals my video camera and swims off with it (while it's recording!)" | Video by Victor Huang

Why have I taken my time to explain this? Because it is one of the easiest ways to fire up a conversation in the city! Another quickfire conversation starter is dreadlocked local celebrity, Blanket Man (aka Ben Hana) who spends much of his days on one of the city centre’s busiest roads, Courtenay Place, usually wearing nothing more than some dark rags to protect his modesty. “Usually” being the operative word.

Wellington is stretched around Wellington Harbour, a body of water deep in Maori lore. It’s interesting and worthwhile to learn the legends of Ngake and Whataitai, a pair of taniwha (supernatural creatures) who are believed to have created Wellington Harbour.

Wellington City Layout

This is a real life map. Tickle it. It likes it… seeeee.

Downtown Wellington is mostly flat and easily navigable; plant yourself on Courtenay Place, Lambton Quay or Cuba Street and you’ll be a stone’s throw from most of the retail highlights and headline eateries.

Getting Around Wellington

Travelling around Wellington by bus is a cheap thrill in itself; its narrow roads and daredevil bus drivers make for an interesting combination (especially after a few beers!) but overall, they offer good value. Metlink operate the bus service, as well as the local trains and ferry services, too.

If you carry an iPhone or iPod touch, consider downloading some of the apps that help you out when travelling in and around the city.

Walking in the city centre is a breeze, but beyond there, you won’t want to judge distances by a glance at the map, because you’ll soon be marching up hill and down dale on a quest for that ‘nearby’ cafe.

What to See in Wellington

Wellington boasts dozens of fantastic attractions, but the stand out one for us is the Te Papa Museum (or Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to give it its proper name). Featuring six sizeable floors, Te Papa brings to life many aspects of Kiwi culture, including insight into Maori beliefs, geological and historical exhibitions, and interactive displays of the fauna and flora which cloak New Zealand’s countryside, plus so much more. It also homes the body of a squid, not just any squid, but a 495kg colossal squid (the largest invertebrate in the world). The Museum of Wellington City & Sea is also worthy of a visit, with interesting exhibits about the social, cultural and maritime history of the city.

The historic Cable Car that runs from Lambton Quay via Victoria University to the Botanic Gardens, with great views over the city and the harbour. Another popular vantage point is found by schlepping up Mount Victoria at the other end of town.

Wellington From Mt Victoria

The view from Mount Vic at night. | Photo by 111 Emergency

The Botanic Gardens themselves are a colourful treat, and if you do decide to visit via the Cable Car you can take a pleasant stroll downhill and back into the city where you’ll be greeted by the Beehive, the descriptive moniker for the most prominent of New Zealand’s parliament buildings.

The Otari-Wilton’s Bush makes a pleasant alternative to the gardens, look out for their two hour walks (NZ$3) for a good insight into the park’s diverse plant and wildlife; but the king of all urban sanctuaries in Wellington has to be the visionary Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, featuring one square mile of wetland and forests, homing some of New Zealand’s most iconic wildlife such as the tuatara lizard, giant weta, and — what else — the little spotted kiwi.

For some unexpected wildlife, take a stroll from Owhiro Bay round to Red Rock, for an audience with the fur seals who take up residence from May to October.

Seal Rocks

Red Rocks. Snoozing seal. | Photo by me

A great way to explore Wellington Harbour, is by hiring a kayak and quietly paddling your way across the friendly waters. This is possible throughout the day, and often at night. Visit Fergs Kayaks by the sheds to grab your ride.

One of Wellington’s best hidden secrets is the Film Archive on Taranaki Street, a great space for movie lovers and equally good as a place for a brain-escape, as their vast archive of New Zealand-related films from throughout the ages provide excellent insight into the life and times of Kiwis past and present. Look out for their Soup & A Seat offerings throughout the winter months.

The City Gallery is a good art gallery on central Civic Square, and the nearby Wellington Library provides a quiet retreat for a spot of reading. Elsewhere in Wellington, be sure to visit the free Weta Cave in Miramar. It’s an offshoot of the Weta Workshop, the visual effects company responsible for bringing to life some of the most successful movies ever made, including: the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong, Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin and — coming soon to a cinema near you — The Hobbit.

Wellington Events

Wellington makes a real effort with events, and it pays off, with the city hosting some of the most exciting events in the Southern Hemisphere. The annual NZI Sevens is arguably one of the world’s biggest fancy dress parties, with an important rugby tournament at the heart of proceedings. Apparently.

Other notable events are the New Zealand Fringe Festival which brings together talent from across the country, as over 100 venues spring up across the city. The Indian community throw a fantastic Diwali festival each year where you can get your bangra fix, and mouthwatering food halls. The World of Wearable Art is one of the hottest tickets in the city, as people flock to the TSB Bank Arena for a spectacular fashion show featuring — what else — wearable art. It has to be seen to be believed.

Another event to listen out for in 2012, is the possibility of a première for the Hobbit. I could be completely wrong about this, but it’s an educated guess based on the past few Lord of the Rings movies being afforded the same.

Food & Accommodation in Wellington

It’s said that Wellingtonians enjoy more bars, cafes and restaurants per capita than New York, and the city delivers on every level. Stand out cafes include: the Maranui overlooking Lyall Bay near the airport is a great spot for lunch; while College Street’s beautiful Caffe L’affare serves up excellent breakfasts and free wifi.

Sweet Mother’s Kitchen at 5 Courtenay Place continues to garner a good rep, but don’t expect to rock up and get a seat without a wait. Head over there on Taco Tuesday for a taco-fest, and sink them down with a chilli beer or two.

Mojo Coffee have 17 branches across the city, with local rivals Peoples Coffee [sic] raising one of many Fairtrade flags, while Havana Coffee attract a decent amount of love too. Put simple, if you ask ten Wellingtonians which is their favourite cafe, you’ll be sent in twenty different directions.

San Francisco Bath House and the Matterhorn team up on Cuba Street to stage some of the city’s best gigs, while @thatsnotabear rightfully tweeted in to say: “The Malthouse is a must-visit craft beer bar. The best in the whole country. Tuatara & Epic are must tastes #WGTN.” Also check out the Japanese bar, Arashi Kushiyaki, MAC’s Brewery and one of the city’s most social pubs, The Southern Cross.

Head to the Westpac Stadium for your sports fix; the local football team Wellington Phoenix play in the Australian A-League and attract a good following; as do the Wellington Lions for rugby union; meanwhile cricket fans can get their six-fix down at the historic Basin Reserve, also home to the riveting Cricket Museum.

There are plenty of great accommodation options in Wellington. Prices start at around £11 a night for a dorm, with the stand out picks being the Base Wellington and Nomads Capital.

Heading in and out of Wellington

Wellington is practically unavoidable as part of an overlander in New Zealand, as it’s the hopping off point to the South Island. One of our most fulfilling tours, Grand Explorer journeys between Auckland and Christchurch, and spends time in the city. Another popular way to get around, is by hiring a campervan in New Zealand and going indie, as the country is really easy country to navigate and there are plenty of stop-offs.

If the idea of a road trip appeals, but the thought of driving all the way does not, then consider the Kiwi Experience. It’s a carefully considered series of stops, that you reach by a dedicated bus full of other travellers and led by your Driver Guide, who will bring the country to life in spectacular style.

Wellington is instantly loveable, and if you dip beneath the surface, into the legends and lore that underpin the spirit of the city then you’ll learn a little about the energy that drives much of the way of life in New Zealand. There’s a reason behind almost everything, and a whole heap of interest in discovering it.

If you’ve got any tips or advice for people visiting Wellington, or New Zealand, then whack it in the comment thread below. The Shakedown merely skims the surface, it’s over to you to fill in the gaps!