Wellington proudly wears the title given it by Lonely Planet—“the coolest little capital in the world”—and I’d say it has good claim to it. It’s a small city on the southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand. Although most of the city is curled around the harbor and seems like it ought to be protected, the city is relentlessly buffeted by winds that rival Chicago’s. Or possibly outdo Chicago’s. Four months later, I’m still combing the tangles out of my hair, so I haven’t had time to consider the question.
I spent a few hours in Wellington with my friends after Christmas, as we waited for the ferry to take me across the Cook Strait. They drove me up to Mount Victoria, which stands guard over town. It contains a monument to Antarctic exploration, made up of stones from a glacier on the seventh continent; and a cannon that was fired at noon every day for years, to tell time by. We stood at the lookout and watched planes brave the gusts of wind on their descent into town. On the way down the hill, my friends pointed out a stand of pine trees that had been used for scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies.
My second time in Wellington, I lucked out yet again in my Couchsurfing host. Woo was an accommodating host, and the other surfers at his place were super friendly. We had a nice dinner out and cakes in a frilly tea shop. Also, Woo’s place was right downtown, so for probably the first time since I set foot in New Zealand, I didn’t have to hike up and down hills just to get to the corner store.
I’m not sure what the economic situation is in New Zealand right now, or in the greater Wellington area, but I can say with confidence that the government has put a lot of money into the downtown area, because it looked great. City Hall and its square; Te Papa, the national museum; Waitangi Park and the waterfront; the Embassy movie theater, home of Lord of the Rings premieres: they were all pleasant places to spend time in, without seeming too whitewashed.
I grabbed a couple free brochures from the visitor’s center and went on a self-guided tour along a path that followed the Art Deco trail and the Te Ara O Nga Tupuna trail through downtown. The Art Deco tour was less historically interesting than the Maori sites tour, but I sure do like that sleek, clean style of the interwar period.
The Te Ara trail covers a broader area than can be walked, but there are a few sites in town important to Maori history that the brochure points out. Waitangi Lagoon was a major source of food in pre-Pakeha times, and is now a major intersection. Waitangi Park is up the road, a carefully maintained patch of marsh grasses facing both the harbor and Te Papa, with a climbing wall at the end.
The most surprising site was Whare Ponga, a storefront that contains an archaeological dig showing the original Te Aro Pa—a pa being a fortified Maori village. The site, which was unearthed, like so many interesting sites around the world, during construction work, is from the 1840s.
I met up with Jose, a traveler friend from Chicago, at the botanic gardens for a summer concert in the park. It was quite chilly for a summer concert, but that didn’t stop everyone from coming out. The band played upbeat reggae, and at least one overtly political song, and Jose took me ‘round the gardens as the sun set to show me the colors.
When the sun goes down, the lights come up: pink globes on the duck pond, red spotlights on the palm trees, even a blacklight area by the ferns. Bubble machines were mounted on some of the lampposts, and when they started up, all the kids in the area leaped into the path—some to dance, some to swat at the bubbles with their sweatshirts in a battle that they all won.
Jose showed me a willow tree that seemed to sparkle; when we pushed aside the leaves and stepped under the tree’s broad branches, we saw a half dozen disco balls rotating in the air, reflecting hidden lights and creating a dance hall for fairies. The whole place was magical.
I took the cable car up to and down from the gardens. It’s a quaint little car, with small wooden seats and brass poles. It makes a few stops along the way, so if you live on the hill, you could use the cable car to get around. That’s the only form of transit I took the whole time I was there. Woo picked me up from the ferry station and took me to the airport (an excellent host, as I said), but otherwise it’s a super walkable city, and it was nice to wander around. I passed the Bucket Fountain on Cuba Street, and plenty of other public art installations around town. I walked by a guitarist busking on the sidewalk and a girl who sat nearby and quietly harmonized on a recorder.
I left the visitor’s center on my last day in town and cut through Civic Square, where a drag queen and her assistants cheered on audience participants in a delightfully clumsy dance contest, and then two police officers on duty were cajoled on stage, where one cheerfully did her own little dance and put on the tighty whiteys flung at her before continuing on her beat. That was easily one of the simplest, most fun moments of Everyone Getting Along I’ve ever witnessed.
Te Papa is a huge museum five floors tall, and its permanent exhibits include a Maori meeting house built specially for the museum, a hokey display about geothermal activity, and an interactive hall about the sea and forest especially aimed at kids. It was a great museum, too big to explore in one day, so it would be easy to revisit again and again, which is fitting for a museum built as a tribute to a country’s citizens, who might return over a number of years.
The Maori exhibits struck a tricky balance between anger and indignation at Pakeha treatment of Maori throughout history, and relaying information about Maori traditions still maintained today. One plaque carefully explained how disrespectful it is to wear images of carvings, which are considered something close to sacred, which I hope informs visitors’ souvenir choices.
I had an epic night out with Jez, who I’d met at Theresa’s in Melbourne. We drank delicious local craft beers during Wellington Weekend at Hashigo Zake, caught the end of a queer rock show on a hoedown theme night at Bar Medusa, danced to the sometimes questionable choices of the DJ at Mighty Mighty Bar, and ended the evening at an overpriced Irish pub playing bad Top 40–a somewhat ignominious end to an amazing night.
I know a lot of people who want to immigrate to New Zealand, and after days exploring downtown and a night of fun and music, I was half convinced to myself.